Compost: The Story of the Heap at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church

Collaboratively written as the Heap completed its first year, by PA IPL members, Barbara Granger of Tikkun Olam Chavurah , Northeast Philadelphia, and Greg Williams, PA IPL board member, formerly of St. Martin’s, now finding a new church home in Central PA.
VIDEO at the end of this post!

While one parishioner was the spark at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, located in the Chestnut Hill NW section of Philadelphia; there was significant tinder within the church community to help composting become an everyday part of church life. After exploration and planning for a compost heap, the combined efforts of the Wednesday Community Supper volunteers, the enthusiastic support of the Treble Choir and their choirmaster, the Church’s Climate Action Team, and the Rector, who was already composting for his garden, initiated an experience of direct action building a compost pile as one part of the church’s efforts to “go green.”

composter-3-bin-2The first step was to make use of the Wednesday night Community Supper (open to the community) near Earth Day (2015) where attendees learned of a new plan — to use the materials and left overs of the evening supper for composting as a celebration of Earth Day. The compost materials from that night would be brought to a local farm used to educate school students. Children from the “Treble Choir” sang at an Evensong before this dinner calling for donations which they determined would go to help an environmental concern about elephants in Africa. Attendees wondered why Supper was using paper plates. Learning that the dishwasher was out of commission, a volunteer from the parish stepped forward to fix it so that dishes could be used (less trash), thus more “green.” It was a great start.

composter-finished composter-finished-2Over the next several months there was planning among the parties of interest considering the many ways that ongoing composting could work at St. Martins and how to put it into action. A machinist from the community volunteered to design and build a compost container  made up of 3 bins. That is, composting materials are collected, then turned every 3 months – bin 1-1st collection; bin 2 first turnover; bin 3 second turnover; next 3 months take compost from bin 3 and make use in gardens and all that grows around your area.

compost-heap-blessingIn October at the equinox, the first bin was initiated. A celebration, playfully called The Blessing of the Heap,  took place. It included the Treble Choir, special prayers, and incense and holy water. This celebration was videotaped and can be viewed here. The initiation of these compost bins on church grounds began to have an effect on other aspects of the church’s everyday life. For example, the church staff collected their lunch scraps the valuable coffee grounds, and the sextant, who was initially skeptical, contributed grass cuttings and leaves providing critical nitrogen sources. 

People had to learn the practicalities of maintaining the “heap” which meant learning what was in and what was out.  The Wednesday night community supper attendees had to learn how to scrape their plates – that is, left over veggies yes, left over chicken no. There was greater interest in the community suppers where initially there were more women involved in “cooking for the community,” now there were some men stepping up after experiencing the larger mission of these community events. 

In March, there was the next turning, and then this past summer (2016)  the first batch of fully matured compost materials went into the rector’s corn and pumpkin garden outside the rectory. Some found their way to the street trees planted the previous Spring as part of Earth Day Fortnight 2016 celebrations. The practical implications of this one decision to have a compost heap has generated creative spiritual and broad educational experiences concerning “going green” and the personal responsibility we can do to take care of our Earth.

Postscript – Fall of 2016 – As happens in churches, time has passed, the leader who provided the spark that began the composting program has moved, but the heap remains. Composting is still a part of the staff’s every day life. Composting still happens at Supper. New leadership will hopefully emerge to keep the composting fire going and vibrant while they also move on to considering solar panels, weatherizing the church, etc. 

Part 1: Intro to the wonders of composting and the Decomposition Hymn (found at 1:45)

Blessing of the Heap by the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, using texts from the Book of Common Prayer