Protecting God’s creation in karst country

March 11, 2020

By Isaiah Friesen and Rev. Pam Seebach

Rev. Pam Seebach has been serving as a licensed local pastor in Fillmore County since 2018. She recently played a key role in a successful community organizing effort that took place between May 2018 and December 2019, to prevent the construction of a large factory hog farm that would have been located near one of her congregations. She offers a powerful witness to the Hopeful EarthKeepers network and the broader church, as an example of a United Methodist leader advocating for environmental justice on congregational, community, regional and state levels. All but the bolded sections are Pam's words.

This was helping God’s land and God’s people. One of my churches, the small (33-member) Newburg UMC, is located less than a mile from where the hog operation was proposed to be built. Newburg UMC gets its water from a well that already had been declared high in nitrates. The hog operation would have spread liquid manure on fields on all sides of the church and suspended a nine-million gallon pit of liquid manure above the thin soil and fragile karst geology, further endangering the church’s well, polluting the air of the church and its cemetery, and basically making church life unsustainable. God’s people, when they are burying their loved ones, do not need the stench of the pit to be infiltrating their moment to bury their dead. If you ruin the air and the water, that will endanger the church.

I felt outrage on behalf of the church and also on a personal, spiritual level. My response was to join in with a core group of neighbors to stand up against this faceless corporation that had applied for the permit to build the hog operation. I first heard about it about three days before Memorial Day weekend in 2018. A neighbor called me to ask me about it and what we should do. A couple of Lutheran neighbors were also concerned. I called the people I knew, and they called the people they knew, and we had 60 people at our first meeting, held at the Lutheran church. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) public comment period was supposed to run out the day after Memorial Day—terrible timing. We got enough people to write letters demanding that the period be extended, then we demanded a public meeting in our community to learn and to voice objections.
Our core group of about 10 got together and incorporated as a nonprofit group—Responsible Ag in Karst Country (RAKC). We made T-shirts for our public meeting in Newburg Township and gave them away. We had the Pioneer Press and KTTC from Rochester come down. We started doing everything we could, and the community responded. Neighbors who farm and neighbors who don’t were worried about how the community would change and especially about groundwater—we all depend on clean water.
We had more than 500 people in this little town show up for a public meeting in opposition of the hog farm. I announced these public meetings in the church bulletin. About 10 people from Newburg UMC, or about half the weekly worship attendance, came out to this meeting. 

Rev. Pam Seebach said speaking out against the hog farm was a matter of stewardship, not only of God’s whole creation, but of her own God-given abilities.
In July 2018, RAKC organized a bus full of Newburg Township community members to go to St. Paul to speak with then-Governor Mark Dayton and meet with the MPCA regarding their concerns about the factory farm.
We went from our public meeting in Newburg Township to the MPCA. We met with the governor. We had a press conference right outside the MPCA offices. We even took some Amish neighbors along. They chose not to speak directly with reporters but gave us a hand-written statement offering their concerns. Their kids play outside, usually barefoot, so polluted groundwater is a direct health risk for them. They also see the irony in the county requiring septic systems for every human home while the state allows millions of gallons of liquid manure from industrial animal confinements to be spread six or seven inches deep across this fragile landscape.
Speaking out was a matter of stewardship, not only of God’s whole creation, but of Pam’s own God-given abilities.

Together with RAKC, I spoke out by giving a statement to the press at the state capitol, writing letters to the editor, and speaking at the public meetings we organized. Frankly, I wasn’t totally comfortable doing it, but I felt like I had to—like God had put me there. I didn’t want to be a star or a media personality. But since very few others felt comfortable giving interviews, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” 

I didn’t choose to get involved in environmental justice, but it’s something that I could do. My mother always said that if you have a talent, that comes from God, and with it you either serve God or you serve God’s people. Many other people in RAKC were great with computers, social media, etc. Speaking in front of people was one thing that I could do. I had experience in this as a pastor and social worker. My husband Bart had the talent of looking up the law. And because I do have this tie to faith, to serving God, I brought that in.

Pastor Pam’s Christian faith was foundational to her public position on the factory farm, and she said the support of United Methodist institutional leaders gave her confidence to speak out.

Had I not had the backing of Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce. R. Ough and my district superintendent, Rev. Cynthia Williams, I would have been out on a limb by myself. But they agreed that the Book of Discipline and the Social Principles do support the position I was taking. And it is relevant to our Methodist beliefs and principles. It’s a positive statement about Methodism that this is part of who we are.

My beliefs were—and are—based on the fact that God created the world and entrusted it to us humans to preserve. When I read the scientific explanations of karst geology, then read the proposal for the hog operation, I believed that they were incompatible and dangerous for our township—the plant, animal, and human life. I focused on the danger that this size of operation (and the likely additional operations sure to follow) presented to God’s creation, as well as my concern for the future livelihood of the residents of our township. I quoted the Bible where appropriate; I quoted John Wesley’s three simple rules; and, I appealed to the sense of “do the right thing” that resides inside most of us.

The permit for the factory farm was finally denied, and in fall 2019, Newburg Township passed a zoning ordinance to put its own limits on the scale of animal agriculture in its township. While a majority of township residents opposed the factory farm, Pastor Pam found that part of the organizing work also included discerning how to speak lovingly and pastorally with congregants and neighbors who took a minority position of support for the new hog operation.

Speaking out against this proposed hog operation felt, and still feels, like it was the right thing to do. It was mighty uncomfortable at times, as a few community members took issue particularly with my speaking on it as a pastor. But, if necessary, I would do it all again to protect our township: the livelihood of our local small businesses, our family farms, our children’s health, and our small rural churches. 

Related: Letter to the Editor, Fillmore County Journal / Statement to the press

Isaiah Friesen is the Minnesota Annual Conference's environmental justice organizer, a position in which he works closely with Hopeful EarthKeepers, a network of individuals, small groups, and United Methodist churches moving toward a holistic relationship with God’s creation. Rev. Pam Seebach pastors Newburg UMC and Mabel UMC, both in Mabel, and Harmony UMC in Harmony.

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