At a training institute for Christian missionaries in central Alabama, students spend the morning in classroom study, then go outdoors after lunch to practice what they’ve learned. But what they do doesn’t look like missionary work or Gospel preaching in the conventional sense. They work in the dirt, using hoes they’ve made for themselves in the institute workshop from worn-out harrow disks, building deep-mulched vegetable planting beds on what was formerly a weedy and eroding red-clay hillside.
This segment of their training is a two-week intensive Permaculture course, and the transformation of this damaged and abandoned quarter-acre into a model of community-scale sustainable agriculture is typical of the kind of service these Christians believe the Gospel calls them to undertake.
Servants in Faith and Technology, SIFAT (or, alternatively, Southern Institute for Appropriate Technology), was founded in 1979 as a non-profit, ecumenical training and research institute by Methodist missioners Ken and Sarah Corson, who had had extensive experience in working with the poor in Cuba, Haiti and Bolivia. Early in their careers, the Corsons chose to live among and at the same level as the people they were ministering to, adopting a holistic, "incarnation evangelism." Says Ken, "As God’s love took physical form in Christ, so must we, as followers, incarnate the Gospel, put love into physical action and practice, not merely preach it."
For the Corsons, the realization grew that the most appropriate form their practical love could take was appropriate technology – simple self-help skills and tools the suffering and oppressed poor of the Third World could use to shake off dependency and regain for themselves the dignity and wholeness of healthy lives. An important aspect of this choice was recognition that high technology, and the kind of "development" usually envisioned for Third World peoples by what Sarah calls "Americanized Christianity," were too often powered by greed and resulted in the pollution and destruction of the Earth.
The Corsons believed that following the Gospel had to include being responsible stewards of God’s creation. In Sarah’s view, "The abundant life we seek and are promised begins with the healing of our relationships – between us and God, between us and other people, and between us and nature."
Finding that resources and training opportunities for such a ministry were very limited, the Corsons gathered support from friends and church workers at home, and launched SIFAT to fill the need. From small beginnings, the facility has grown to include a 105-acre farm used as a research, training and demonstration center, and a staff of about 20, many with Ph.D.s in technical fields and all with Third World experience.
In addition to sustainable agriculture techniques, appropriate technologies developed and demonstrated at SIFAT include solar, wind, biomass and pedal power; rammed-earth and ferrocement construction; water lifting and purification; and improved latrine construction. Emphasis is on low-cost methods using available materials, and students get extensive hands-on experience. The Permaculture garden, for example, is irrigated from a student- and staff-built ferrocement tank filled with water pumped from the nearby creek by a student-and staff-built hydroram pump.
All training and research at SIFAT stress individual, community and global interrelationships, and the ethical and ecological consequences of technologies and lifestyles, so that students acquire both appropriate technical expertise and sensitivity to larger issues. Committed to practicing what they preach, SIFAT staff adopt a voluntarily simple lifestyle, though many could command well-paid positions in mainstream institutions. The extensive cross-cultural training they provide moves students in the same direction. Students spend one weekend, for example, living in a typical Third World jungle village constructed at SIFAT, learning both the ways life can be maintained and the ways social and economic injustice are typically structured into such a village.
Hundreds of graduates have taken SIFAT’s idea of incarnation evangelism – the spirituality of appropriate technology – into over 30 Third World countries. As an institution, SIFAT certainly isn’t yet perfected: the SIFAT garden hasn’t entirely driven supermarket food from the dining hall, for example. And at times, discussion of both theological and technological issues takes on an aroma more of doctrinal than spiritual concern. Still, SIFAT serves as a remarkable demonstration of an encompassing Christian spirituality in action, a doing of love directed toward the healing of our hurting Earth.
For more information, contact SIFAT, Rt 1 Box D-14, Lineville, AL 36266, (205) 396-2017. Writer Jim Allen resigned his university faculty position on April Fool’s Day, 1985, in order to pursue more rewarding work. He is a member of Vine & Fig Tree, a land-based peace/justice activism community in southeast Alabama.