Service Compost

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I played Division I basketball at the University of San Francisco from 1995-2000 and lived a dream, making it all the way to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen in 1996. Easter Sunday of my senior year, when all the games were over and the crowds of fans were gone, I decided to venture off campus in order to find a familiar place of worship. Just south of the Haight-Ashbury district I found a church, which on the outside seemed familiar enough: a sign read "United Methodist," the church I grew up in. However, on the inside, in the people, I found something completely unexpected. The church was alive with vibrant flowers, baskets of fruit, bamboo mats on the altar, bamboo skirts on the men and women, and brightly dressed children. I soon learned that ninety-five percent of this church's congregation had immigrated to San Francisco from the small South Pacific island of Tonga. I was a complete stranger, yet they welcomed me with warm hugs, and their Polynesian songs washed over me like a tidal wave. With compassionate tears streaming down her face, Pastor Anna read scripture in both Tongan and English. Music, language, and passion combined to help me understand that Christ lived a passionate life of justice. In one swift heartbeat, I let go of basketball and knew I wanted to live that kind of life.

After college, I became a young adult volunteer for the United Methodist Church and served as a youth minister in Adderbury, England. In the course of that year, I learned to pray, to let go of my pride, and to be vulnerable with disinterested teenagers. I returned to the States and to inner-city Seattle, where I lived with five other young adults in an intentional community program sponsored by University Presbyterian Church. To earn a living, I joined Americorps and ran after-school programs in a low-income neighborhood in the Rainier Valley. In the evenings, I volunteered at a drop-in center for street kids in downtown Seattle. I went full steam like it was pre-season training, only this time I told myself I was "getting in shape for God." My goal was to be a superstar servant, a 110% volunteer, like an athlete that wanted to start on God's winning team. Impressing others through competition was the only solid framework I had to build on. It distracted me from the emptiness and uncertainty I felt, threw my life into imbalance, and led to an eating disorder.

Because of my health, I stopped volunteering and found a family to live with in a new part of Seattle. In return for a place to live, I provided respite care for their developmentally disabled daughter. While there, I volunteered at the S&S Service Compost Homestead Farm and Educational Center on Lopez Island, a tiny island north of Seattle in the San Juans. Eventually, I served as their intern for six months and brought a high school student with a developmental disability to help with work on the farm. I had gone from five years of Division I basketball in San Francisco to a year in rural England, to inner city Seattle for two years, and then to a farm on Lopez Island. When my season of service came to an end, I had a lot of leftovers.


My service leftovers sat stacked on every available counter space, waiting to be changed from a polluting presence into a rich, life-altering, and nourishing resource. At times, I wanted to throw my leftovers away, to forget the experiences that were difficult and hard to explain. The quick fix would be to stuff them in a bag and let the garbage man haul them to the landfill. The problem with the "throwaway" option is that leftovers never leave. No matter how lined and lidded I think I am, eventually experiences leak out to cause soul and soil pollution.

I needed a transformation, and that required two things. The first was to create time and space to consider a different option. The second, when I stopped serving, was the time I now had to be still and ask, "What is missing?"

Part of my answer came during a volunteer week in El Salvador. Each day we rode to the work site in the back of a truck. One evening, when asked what the most joyful part of the day was, I spoke about the dust-filled, bump-ridden, noisy pick-up ride and tears began to flow and then to gush. I had rediscovered an old joy. Growing up in a rural town, I helped to change irrigation lines for my Uncle Jim. Riding in the back of the truck was my favorite part of the day. With the wind blowing in my face and the sky wide open above my head, I could sing at the top of my lungs and no one but the dog, her ears and lips flapping in the wind, could hear me. That was freedom. Then I went to San Francisco to pursue basketball, England and inner-city Seattle to pursue God, and forgot that I came from five generations of farmers. Tending the soil is woven into my design. The rhythms of digging, releasing, placing, firming, watering, and tending give my hands and mind a peaceful occupation. Mohandas K. Gandhi wrote that, "To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves."

Transformation began during my year-long pause between Seattle and Lopez when I signed up to take Master Composter/Soil Builder courses at Seattle Tilth. After forty hours of instruction, I was equipped with more knowledge on composting than I thought possible. The more I learned, the more I wanted to tell others about compost. I volunteered to teach composting at Seattle's farmers' markets, and was heavily involved in compost during my time of service on the S&S Homestead farm. Every week I gathered the organic manifestations of farm life-dairy cow manure, old lettuce, straw, chicken feathers, egg shells, coffee grounds, stale bread-all smelling awful and looking rotten, and piled them on a giant concrete slab. Amazingly and delightfully, it only took one week for moldy, rotten garbage to become deep brown and sweet smelling. As I witnessed the cleansing transformation of a compost pile, I began to do the same with my leftover service experience. Instead of holding my leftovers inside where they polluted my body and spirit, I allowed them to surface. I uncovered the leftovers that paralyzed me-the overwhelming future, the youth program in England that I had left unfinished, the fading faces and forgotten names, the hopelessness I felt while walking the streets of Seattle at night, the frustrations of running an after-school program, my eating disorder, questions about my images of God-and threw them into the accepting, forgiving, hungry compost pile with reckless glee. In the act of composting, there is no right or wrong; there is only every person's unique combination of service experience and future hope. As with all composting, the more diverse and smellier the material, the better. All of it goes on the compost pile to heat up, stew, and be digested by the tiniest forms of life as they work their miraculous, earthy transformations.


In order for compost to come alive, it needs water. I can pile up all the organic material I can find, but without moisture it will dry out, shrivel up, and do nothing. Watering plants on the farm, providing the animals with plenty of fresh water, and staying hydrated myself helped me to see that God never desires for us to suffer, for our mouths to be parched, or for our hearts to be like a dry well that no one can draw from. Water has the ability to carry guilt, old habits, and pride down into the earth where instead of staining life, they are washed into the beginnings of new life.

One example of water's ability to wash and rejuvenate me came while helping to supervise a youth group on a farm in Wapato, Washington. Our last night there, the youth minister led us in a foot washing ceremony. My whole body rejected the idea. I was only with this group of young people for one week to "help out" and did not want to become vulnerable with anyone. Although I did not realize it at the time, this week was a microcosm of my longer time of service. I was convinced that the only way to please God was to serve others until it hurt. "No pain, no gain," as my coaches always said. This approach prevented me from being truly present with the people I lived with and places I lived. But on this farm in Wapato, I was caught off guard with my feet in a tub of cool water. Teenagers I had only just met offered graceful words of encouragement and thanks that flowed from their hands to my feet, broke down my "helper only" barrier, and left me feeling clean, centered, and, most of all, loved. Water reminds me to nourish myself and to receive gifts of grace. It carries away guilt and pride so that I can look people in the eye and be present with them.


The simple act of making compost and giving it water brings immediate and enormous change to incongruous layers of "garbage." Overnight, what was once dead organic matter comes alive. Millions of microorganisms (there are more living things in one teaspoon of healthy compost than there are people on the earth!) metabolize the organic material and exhale carbon dioxide. They breathe. While on the farm, I would go out early in the morning and watch the compost pile steam into the chilly morning air. Organic matter passes through microscopic intestines millions upon millions of times, like a giant stomach, becoming more elemental with every pass of life and death. This is hot work, and in the first week of a compost pile's life, it can reach temperatures of up to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

This sudden burst of heat parallels the way I felt immediately after my time of service. I had a burning desire to continue to serve God with all that I had. Like the disciples who were with Jesus on the road to Damascus, I had walked some distance doing my best to listen to Jesus' teachings and had returned with a fire in my belly. Fire is a great cleanser that reduces compost piles, nature, and people to elemental truths, clearing out what inhibits life from moving forward and making room for abundant growth. We are left standing in the ashes of our old skin and asking elemental questions that, like nitrogen in a compost pile, flame experiences to life. Here are some of the questions with which I was left: How and with whom can I share what I have done, seen, and learned? How can I continue to show extravagant love in my ordinary life? How can I live in a way that brings good food, good work, health, and social justice to myself and to others? How can I prevent the cultural, social, and religious experiences that hummed on a sensitive edge for so long, hot and moldable, from turning into a cold lump?

Burning can be good, but if a compost pile burns too hot for too long, it can destroy itself. Anything above 165 degrees will not only kill weed seeds and harmful bacteria, but all of the good, life-supporting bacteria as well. In order to temper the heat, compost must be turned. Turning has the opposite effect on a cold pile. Together with water, it brings the material buried in the heart of the pile to the outside, and puts any dry, inactive material into the middle where it can heat up and decompose. Turning sustains the balance between complacency and burning out.

Two years after completing my internship on the farm, I thought that my experiences had gone cold. Then I attended a debriefing workshop at the Hearth, the physical gathering place for Krista Colleagues in Spokane, Washington, that gave me an opportunity to turn my pile of service compost. I found embers waiting to be stoked into life again through conversation and reflection. Ideas and beliefs I had forgotten resurfaced, and I sent convictions and stale dreams back into the heart of my experiences to re-ignite. Returning to the Krista conference each year has become my annual pilgrimage, a way to reconsider, clarify, and recharge my life.


All the work involved in creating a compost pile-gathering material, making a pile, watering, burning, and fermenting-are steps that lead to the creation of humus. Humus is the most renewable, stable form of plant food in the world. Scientists are baffled by its formation, but they know that it acts like a plant buffet. In exchange for hydrogen atoms, root hairs can take away vital nutrients from nearby humus whenever they need it. The key to good humus is time. Like good wine and good bread, compost needs time to be with bacteria and fungus and to cure. If drawn from too soon, humus development will be incomplete and its richness will be lost to soil and plants. Compost needs at least a year of curing before humus appears. This may seem like a long time, but it can take hundreds of years for humus to form naturally on a forest floor. During this stage, compost shows no visible signs of activity, but the pile is far from dormant. In fact, this is the most vital and mysterious part of a compost pile's life. This is a quiet time, and it takes patience. As I passed a well-turned pile on my way to my family's garden, I said a patient prayer, put my hand on top of the blue tarp that protected it from rain, snow, and wind, and felt the ripe stillness there, like a womb with hidden life growing inside.

After my seasons of service ended, everyday routines reduced that initial fire in my belly to embers. The monthly stipend was replaced by job hunts, rent, grocery bills, and searching for a place to live. I took substitute teaching jobs and coached high school girls' basketball. I worked as a barista at a coffee shop in Lincoln, Nebraska. One Krista Foundation speaker described this phase as living on a Saturday. When service ends, whether it has been a week or three years, Saturdays begin. After the overwhelming emotions of Good Friday and before being surprised by joy on Sunday, days stretch out into many Saturdays of confusion, restless normalcy, loneliness, and even fear. It was tempting for me to dig back into service without waiting for my experiences to cure. When I volunteered at the drop-in shelter for homeless teens in Seattle, I dug into my compost too soon. The fire in my heart was hot, but I had no humus to sustain me. Without a reliable source of nourishment, I wilted on the vine.

I returned home after three years of service and gave myself time to cool from the initial burn of service. Like compost, I did not cure overnight. My experiences fermented around me, and I came to realize that my passions were planted by God. God wove into my heart all of the things that made it skip, swell, ache, and beat. Following my innermost desires is not a betrayal of faith, but rather a germinating expression of the person God designed me to be. The Krista Foundation offers me a time, place, and community that encourages me to write, speak, sing, and pray about my experiences, turning leftovers into rich insights and self-wisdom. Service is humus for life.


To me, composting is a way of life. It is a process of gracefully considering all the parts of ourselves, in light of the deep and life-changing experiences of service, and letting them change us over time. Humus, the invaluable result of composting, is the miracle of each person's leftovers piled, watered, turned, and cured. This is a way of life, and a way to love. I believe that soil, water, people, flowers, animals, vegetables, and compost were created to teach us about the nature of love.

I hope to live justly and with love where my roots are deepest. I have come home to enter joyfully into the seasons of life in Goldendale, Washington, and to a life of marriage with my fiancé, Adam. I hope to grow and compost food in a sustainable, thankful, and joyful way, without waste. I have learned that when people break bread together in a Tongan church in San Francisco, during an Anglican service in a medieval cathedral, at night on the streets in Seattle, in the back of a pickup truck in El Salvador, at a table in the barn kitchen, or at home surrounded by family, they recognize their common need for nourishment and companionship and are doing their part to fulfill that need. When I dig into the rich, earthy pile of humus that used to be only leftovers, I come to the core of my values and can live into the next part of my life with the deep greens and rich, dark browns of humus to color my decisions and direct how I live. In this way of life, nothing is left over, and my part is to hold the miraculous cycle intact with a loving act of composting.


Curriculum Questions

1. Sarah identifies three elements necessary to create a healthy compost pile: water, heat, and time to cure. What analogy or analogies to service does she draw to each component?

2. Think back to your own season of service: as you process your service experiences, which stage do you think you are in? Are you thirsty for encouragement? Fired up and excited to serve? Waiting to figure out what's next?

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Last year Sarah Wanless Zwickle, Krista Colleague class of 2003, moved to Columbus, OH with her husband Adam and found plenty of people eager to learn about the healing act of composting. She taught “Compost 101” for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association and worked as a farmhand at Shepherd’s Corner, an organic farm and ecological center owned by the Dominican Sisters of Peace. Sarah and her husband are now both enrolled as graduate students in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University where she is studying the values, knowledge, and sustainable practices of organic farmers.

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