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AOLC Co-Founder Receives Her Doctorate in Ecotheology and Reflects on the Beginnings of the Learning Center

Fifteen years ago, Neddy Astudillo and her husband Tom Spaulding, Executive Director of AOLC, founded the Learning Center with help from John Peterson and a handful of other Angelic Organics shareholders.  Neddy and Tom were the Learning Center’s first On-Farm Educators.  We chose to highlight Neddy this month for the Web of Interconnections because she had such a strong founding role in our organization and because we are so proud of her for recently getting her Doctorate of Ministry in Ecotheology!  We recently spoke with her about her life’s work and the birth of the Learning Center.  

AOLC: When was your calling revealed to you?   

Neddy:  As a young child, I became very sensitive to issues of injustice when we moved to Argentina so my father could study theology in Argentina. It was a very tumultuous political time. I witnessed a church speaking out for social justice being persecuted, repressed and then "disappeared". I think this seeded in me the desire to make the world a better place. So when my time to go to College came, I decided to study Sociology. I felt it would give me the tools to understand my world and give me the tools to make a difference. After a few years of study, I became overwhelmed with so many issues, social phenomenon, injustice, etc., I didn't know where to start!

In the meantime, I participated in church actively as a youth leader. It was during that time of discernment that I began to dream with dolphins. I found myself underwater, swimming with them, and the feeling was so peaceful and full of love, like nothing else I had experienced in my life before. I knew they meant something, but I did not know what. At the same time, I began to notice articles about the killing of dolphins by the shark and tuna fisheries in Venezuela, so I began to clip these articles and glue them to my closet.

One day, my sister called me to tell me about a public forum about the killing of dolphins somewhere near my house, and that is when I had what people call a “conversion experience”. After hearing the speakers I felt I wanted to do something about it. I was ready to give my life to this cause, or even lose it, if needed. After the talk, I approached the main speaker and I told him that I wanted to help his environmental organization as a volunteer. I told him I was a Sociology student, and when I said that, he looked at his friends and smiled and shared that for over a year, they had been looking for a sociologist willing to work with them. "We have a job for you," they said. And so, my life changed that day, forever.

What work were you and Tom doing in Chicago when you had the idea to start the Learning Center? 

I met Tom while I was doing research about the killing of dolphins and meeting the political, sociological and economic reasons why this was happening in Venezuela. In the meantime, I tried to share my findings with the youth and the pastors of the church, but I found no echo from them. In 1992, there was no interest in Venezuelan churches to work on environmental issues, and I found myself ignorant as to what the Bible had to say about the environment. In that mindset, my words had no authority in the church setting.  I only knew the creation and Noah's story. So, half a year later when I migrated to the US, now married to Tom, and after finding out that seminaries in the USA were incorporating ecojustice and ecotheology studies as part of their curriculum, I decided to go to seminary myself.

It was during this time, and while finding myself sick with Endometriosis, in need to find healing and detoxify my body, that Tom and I researched and connected with the Angelic Organics farm. Soon after we became shareholders, and later volunteers. Tom himself was going through his own vocational crisis, feeling he wanted to work on local issues around sustainable agriculture, not so much traveling overseas anymore to teach others about environmental issues. We wanted our values to have a root in our own place. So a few years later, after finding ourselves visiting the farm quite often, camping out on weekends, and helping in the harvest, John Peterson invited us to help him start what today we know as the AO Learning Center. A few months after my graduation and giving birth to our youngest son, we moved near the farm.

Tell us more about the beginnings of the Learning Center and what is was like to move your young family out to the country and start a non-profit.

There was lots to learn, and that made it exciting, but as a Latina, it was very difficult and a very lonely move. We left behind a very comfortable apartment in front of Lake Michigan, friends, and church. But we also felt we needed to do it. Not because it would be easy. It was just a gut feeling, and things began to line up in that direction that we felt it was God's will. How could I go against that? Up until that point, we had always talked about going to South America after me finishing seminary, to continue what I had left behind. This was a new plan. 

The place became ideal to raise children. They could play outdoors happily and I did not have to worry about their safety beyond washing their hands, tornadoes or being kicked by a horse. Slowly but surely, a community began to build around the Learning Center. It was great to learn about soap making, cheese making, raising farm animals, organic farming, etc.; and being able to share that with those interested. While in the city we had felt how difficult it was to live a sustainable life, so here we were getting closer to our ideal almost from scratch. I can't deny I had South America in my mind more often than not.

Even though we began homeschooling our children and enjoying that part of our adventure, as things got busier at the farm, much of the load fell on me and I had pending vocational issues, so our children began attending local school and that ended up being better for our family life. I was able to connect with a local Latino ministry, which is where I am a pastor today.

How do feel that growing up around the farm impacted your children's lives? 

I think it gave them the freedom to experience the world more freely, less influenced by technology, more influenced by the gifts of the outdoors. Surprisingly, I think this helped them develop their inner-self. Each became who they are. Even though they maybe complained about eating healthy food so much, increasingly they hear the word "organic” on TV, in the movies and the radio, so I think they know their parents were involved in something that the world is just beginning to catch up and they themselves have a precious experience to share. I hope as they grow older they will begin to appreciate this even more and more, just like I am now that I am not so involved with the farm myself.  

As this is the Learning Center's 15th Anniversary this year, reflecting back, what amazes you about where the Learning Center is now?   

It is such a big tree! I can't keep up with all the branches it has grown, all the programs and all the people involved in it. It is beautiful to see. I am very proud of all who have come to make it their own, and sorry that I can't keep up with all that is going on.

Did you realize what an impact this organization would have on the lives of so many? 

No. But now I understand why we felt we just needed to do this 15 years ago, even though it was not easy and even seemed foolish too. 

Congratulations on receiving your Doctorate of Ministry in Ecotheology.  Tell us a little more about your doctoral program. 

For the last 15 years I have been searching for a way to stay connected with the work I left behind in Latin America. Seven years ago during one of my trips there, I realized that the need I saw in 1992 was still present: ecotheological education and environmental ministry in churches, although the difference now was that many ecclesiastical organizations and seminaries had recognized it as one of the themes to work on. There were just not enough professors available. I saw that I was still needed, and that my heart was still beating for the South. So as soon as I could, I began my doctoral program at Drew University, and my doctoral project became putting together a course on ecotheology helpful to the Latin American experience. In 2008, I contacted several protestant seminaries to offer the course and I was invited to teach it in Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru. This experience allowed me to complete my doctoral program. 

Neddy receiving her doctorate at Drew University

Your work is a merging point of environmental justice, social justice, sustainable agriculture, ministry, and spirituality.  Do you want to talk about the importance of this integrated approach at this point in human history? 

Unfortunately, environmental issues are linked to social justice, economic and even political issues. When we try to make a difference in our communities we become aware of all the barriers that make our work more difficult. When we experience the lack of health in our bodies we see how much we have been impacted by this systemic problem. When we seek our healing we see how much environmental work is also about caring for our bodies too. And when we recognize the many ways that our lives are not contributing to life, and how hard it is to change our habits we begin tackling ethical and even spiritual issues. We are all relationships. It is easy to get overwhelmed sometimes, but each one of us should start with what we can. Today, more and more, making a difference in our own lives has a positive effect in the global world.

Is there anything you would like to say about your recent trips to Brazil and Venezuela and the impacts they have had on you? 

These trips are fuel to my soul. Environmental work in these countries is a life and death issue. We in the US are just beginning to understand that. I hope we learn quickly to avoid more pain and destruction. These trips also grow my desire to stay connected and finding new ways to be a resource. Just like in the US, many churches know we need to do something about the environment, or that something is going wrong, but are afraid and feel it is too political. We need to brake down those barriers, and illustrate how our lives are connected to all these larger issues. Not doing so is being part of the problem.

What lessons has the farm taught you? 

The Learning Center has taught me the importance of patience and building community around issues you most care about to really begin making a difference in the world and the people involved in it. I learned about the power of networking to reach further in your efforts, and the joy of selflessly sharing what is good with a world that needs it. 

Finally, what is your favorite animal on the farm?

Goat kids, and the Indian runner ducks, when we had them in the past.