Monday, July 25, 2022

Jonathan McCurley: FoodLife - Life and Food at the Asian Rural Institute in Japan, Part I

Today's post is by Rev. Jonathan McCurley. Rev. McCurley is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church serving through Global Ministries as a missionary in the community life of the Asian Rural Institute in Nasushiobara, Japan. This post is part of an occasional series on food and mission.

“Kids, it`s time to eat! Get dried off and come in here!”

Those were words I fondly remember my nana saying when my siblings and I would stay with her and my grandfather in the summer as children. Coming in from the backyard pool, a table spread with her wonderful cooking would be prepared there on the back porch.

I also remember that behind the pool, there was always a small garden that my nana kept up and would even ask for help in weeding or harvesting. I remember picking the tomatoes or cucumbers together with my nana and felt such pride at the harvest.

Little did I know as a child that my nana was teaching me about much more than delicious tomatoes or the importance of eating together. As an adult I have come to know that actually, in her own way, she was teaching my siblings and I about the importance of food to our lives.

Food is something that brings people together and creates a time for us to share with one another. We do not only share the fruit of the harvest though, sharing food also often becomes the means for us to share about our life with one another.

Fast forward twenty some years to Japan and a young couple getting married and moving to Nasushiobara, a small city found right outside of the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo. Here I found myself at the Asian Rural Institute.

The Asian Rural Institute (ARI) is legally a technical school located in Eastern Japan, about 100 miles outside of Tokyo in Tochigi prefecture, but in reality, it is much more than that. It is a vision, it is a process, it is a work of repentance and reconciliation, and it is a community. Founded in response to requests from Christians in Asia, ARI brings people from around the world together to live and work together, seeking to build a world where all may live together.[1]

At the center of the life of ARI is God, the giver of life, and the creation that He so graciously gives. People at ARI learn that living together is not human centered, but at the core living together is about relationships. It is about our relationship with God, our relationship with other humans and our relationship with all created things.

At ARI, this is called the three loves and is the focus of all that happens.[2] Much of the process of ARI is learning how to share love. In a practical sense, it is how to create food that will give life and how to live within and with the creation that God has put all around us.

To understand the process of creating food that sustains life, ARI has a unique understanding, that is a term coined as “foodlife.” The process of foodlife then is not called agriculture or farming, but foodlife work.

“Foodlife is a special word used at ARI to express the reality that food and life cannot be separated; both depend upon each other. God has given us the gift of creation so that we can sustain our lives by making food. Human beings cannot survive without food, so we work to sustain life through a healthy relationship with nature. At ARI people make an effort to create foodlife in which the soil becomes richer as food is produced and human relationships become more beautiful.

“In fact, it is a joyful experience for community members when they can produce food through their labor in the morning and evening. They also gather to receive the food, giving thanks to God and to the people who labor to produce and prepare the food. Foodlife believes that when we enjoy a meal together of the food we produced and prepared, then we can experience the blessings of God and the heart of the community.”[3]

What does this look like? At ARI, the food we eat is the food we grow on the farm. Over 90% of the food we eat together, we grow together, meaning that we value a high rate of food self-sufficiency. To do this, over 60 varieties of crops and vegetables are planted, and the community keeps livestock - primarily pigs, chickens and goats.

Our foodlife is about cooking, processing and preparing meals as much as it is about growing crops or raising livestock. In fact, members of the ARI community spend one hour of foodlife work every morning and evening, dividing themselves into several groups.

Daily morning and evening foodlife work is managed by all members of ARI including participants, staff, volunteers and even visitors on a rotational basis. Waking up at 6:30 every morning, foodlife work happens before breakfast, facilitated by the leadership of the Participants of the Rural Leaders Training Program. Some go to the farm to cultivate land, some harvest vegetables, some feed livestock, while some cook breakfast.

All of this work is hard, but it is spiritually rewarding because it is all for the sake of the entire community to live healthily and peacefully.

The basic philosophy of foodlife at ARI is the full utilization of space and resources that we have. It also involves the integration of all parts of foodlife. For example, we utilize pig manure as an energy source and fertilizer, dry leaves for nursery beds and leaf compost, kitchen garbage for animal feed and compost.

We regard the forest as an important part of foodlife as well. While the forest protects land from landslides, soil erosion, typhoons and earthquakes, it provides us with fuel, dry leaves, natural pesticides, microorganisms, wild vegetables, and timber as well as increasing the biodiversity in nature. This is essential to create a balanced eco-system. This is the philosophy behind foodlife.

Actively participating in foodlife, the whole cycle of food production and consumption, helps to understand the philosophy, practical skills, and knowledge of what many would call organic farming, as well as the importance of food and food self-sufficiency, and the dignity of labor.

But more, it gives the community of ARI a sense of wholeness. The cycle of preparing soil, sowing seeds, saving seeds, caring for, harvesting, eating, sharing, and recycling clearly shows us where we are from, how life is sustained and where it will end. This gives a sense of security and a meaningful existence on this earth.

As I think back to my childhood, I realize that helping in the garden and eating together the food we harvested was not just a job to do or a habit that was important. Actually, I can now see how my nana was teaching me and my siblings about foodlife and what it means to be part of God’s creation and in relationship with others. I am thankful now more than ever for those experiences and the meaning found in them.

[1] More information about the founding of ARI can be found on page 2 and 3 of 40 Years of Walking with Grassroots Leaders

[2] The three love movement is said to have originated with Kristen Kold (1816-1870) of Denmark and spread throughout Japan through the Ainokai (love farming group). An explanation in English of one version of the three loves and be found here:

[3] This is the explanation offered in section B, Curriculum, of the Training Handbook of the Asian Rural Institute, which is used to orient members of the community as they arrive and begin their stay. A copy can be requested from the Asian Rural Institute by contacting

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