PETA has targeted a South Carolina monastery's egg farm. But with Church's Fried Chicken and KFC down the road, couldn't they find bigger birds to fry?
By Stephanie Hunt
My first pilgrimage to Mepkin Abbey was on Palm Sunday, almost 10 years ago. I felt oh-so sanctified spending that holy day on such hallowed ground, soaking in the somber sung prayers, Psalms worn smooth through ancient repetition. After None (midafternoon prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours), I wandered the Abbey's famed gardens, once formal camellia and rose gardens now overgrown and unruly, and all the more beautiful because of it. Loutrell Briggs had designed the gardens for Clare Boothe Luce when this land was the Luce family's Southern playground. Clare and Henry donated it to the Cistercians in 1949, and are buried here under mournful, massive live oaks laden with Spanish moss.
The Luces loved this former rice plantation high on a bluff along South Carolina’s Cooper River, and on that glorious Palm Sunday, it was easy to see why. Herons sunned along the riverbank, azaleas broke forth in riotous pinks and purples, wisteria climbed willy-nilly, draping fragrant lilac blossoms over a huge rotting oak—nature's version of a purple cloak on a Lenten cross. Pure Mepkin magic.
Lately, however, Mepkin's quiet, contemplative brotherhood would do well to channel some of Mrs. Luce's sass and backbone. The Abbey has been under attack ever since PETA-philes smuggled a camera into Mepkin's chicken houses. Selling fresh, hand-gathered eggs has been the abbey's bread and butter, so to speak, for years, and folks like me throughout the greater Charleston region go out of their way to buy them. But it seems People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals take offense at the way the Brothers Praying for All Creation run their egg operation.
PETA posted a shock-and-awe video on their website revealing that Mepkin's hens live cramped four to a cage and never "feel the sun on their backs, build nests, raise their young or do anything else natural to them." Well, for that matter (except for the sun part), neither do the monks. PETA cries foul over the fact that Mepkin's birds are debeaked (the Abbey buys them that way) and forced to molt (which the unsuspecting monk who kindly gave the PETA infiltrator the henhouse tour likened to "fasting"). These, however, are standard, approved egg-farming practices, used in 96 percent of this country's egg-producing operations. And, according to the Abbey spokeswoman, this cage and row method is arguably healthier than having free-range chickens running amok in their own feces, albeit with the sun on their back.
So why assault this small flock of devoted men following the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, which dictates a communal life of prayer, sacred reading and humble work, in poverty, simplicity and hushed solitude?
"For me, as a Roman Catholic, I couldn't look away," explains PETA representative Bruce Freiderich. Ironically, Freiderich and his fellow petty PETA people staged their "Boycott Mepkin" campaign outside a downtown Charleston Piggly Wiggly grocery store, our local chain that faithfully carries the eggs, in egg toss distance from a Church's Fried Chicken on one side of the street and a KFC on the other. No joke. Couldn't PETA find bigger birds to fry? The fact is, we're always looking away from something, and Roman Catholics have typically done a mighty fine job at turning the other eye.
Unless we're Barbara Kingsolver, or Amish, or an organic farmer using horse and plow instead of fossil-fueled tractors (oops, isn't that cruel to the horse?), it's hard not to choke on the omnivore's dilemma in today's agribusiness world. And even if we could spend an entire year or more, and a healthy book advance, on deconstructing the food chain to eat in full consciousness and clean conscience, as author Michael Pollen did, there's still some karmic price to pay the universe for our sustenance. I once watched a hawk eviscerate a poor squirrel in my back yard, devouring him stringy intestine-by-bloody tendon, doing exactly "what was natural" to him. Sorry PETA, but eating ain't pretty.
Which brings me back to breakfast. Just before Christmas, after nearly a year of PETA harassment, Mepkin announced it would phase out its egg farm, forgoing the $140,000 a year the small operation brought in to sustain the Abbey. When all this began last February, the monks responded to PETA in good faith, promising to do what they could do improve coop conditions and be more sensitive to the creatures in their care. Yet answering reporters' relentless calls (AP picked up the story; “60 Minutes” sent a news crew) and having PETA sympathizers stand outside their gates waving nasty signs interfered too much with their life of prayer and their mission of hospitality, so reluctantly, the monks relented. PETA won, if robbing monks of their livelihood and putting a few thousand birds out of a job can be considered victory. Soon, I'll only be able to buy regular grocery store eggs, shipped in from some impersonal, industrial chicken operation. Soon, Mepkin's chickens will be ground up for dog food. I guess, then, the dogs win.
Mepkin's monks, a small group of mostly hunched older men with wispy beards, aren't ones to speak out in self-defense, or to speak up at all. They have, however, made a name for themselves in recent years as champions of land and wildlife protection, putting 3,000 acres of vulnerable riverfront and marshland in a conservation easement as an act of ecological stewardship. They have been good friends and neighbors to the Lowcountry, providing warm hospitality to guests on spiritual retreat or day visitors simply seeking a quick dose of beauty, peace and tranquility. In addition to selling fresh, locally farmed eggs, the monks gather chicken poop and make and sell Earth Healer compost—or as I call it, Holy Shit—giving local gardeners a local supply of organic fertilizer. Each summer the Abbey hosts popular concerts featuring world-renowned artists during the Spoleto Festival USA. Its small art gallery and world-class theological library draw art lovers and students from all over. And for me in the mornings, the Abbey's eggs have always been a bright yellow promise that simple, wholesome goodness exists, that His yolk is easy, and that all is not scrambled in our greedy, grubby world. Or is it?
I guess Clare Boothe Luce had it right: "No good deed goes unpunished." Sure, I'm all for the ethical treatment of animals, and monks. I agree with Wendell Berry that "eating is an agricultural act," and a spiritual one. I want to know where my food comes from, and for years I took comfort knowing my eggs were handled by holy men. I don't like seeing chickens suffer, but I'm not so sure that liberation theology necessarily extends to free range for all. The PETA folks have egg on their face. I imagine the monks are praying for them.
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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last essay for SoMA was Caught in the Wrapture.
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