Unsurprisingly, the expertise Lisa Bates-Froiland brought to her role as pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Milwaukee didn’t include an extensive background in beekeeping.
“None,” said Bates-Froiland, who’s been with the congregation since 2011. “I put honey in my tea, end of story.”
These days, however, she’s better educated about bees. Six years ago Bates-Froiland and Redeemer joined forces with a nascent nonprofit, BeeVangelists, whose mission is to spread “the gospel of abundance as taught by the bees, through advocacy, education, products and practice.”
“We’re a city church that has expanded its membership threefold over the last 10 years,” she said. “We’re doing vibrant things, out of the box, like beehives on the roof.”
The partnership arose, Bates-Froiland said, from a simple question members of the 132-year-old church asked themselves: What can we do with the flat spot on the roof?
“We talked about a garden, but that was too heavy,” she said. “I had a friend who was a beekeeper who said, ‘How about bees?’”
Bates-Froiland’s first thought was, “Who’s going to take care of them?” But the friend had a ready answer: “I know a guy.”
That guy was Charlie Koenen, founder of BeeVangelists. Once the owner and operator of a local computer shop, Koenen became interested in apiculture, or the raising of bees, through Growing Power, a nonprofit urban farm in town.
“The farm was run by a former NBA player, Will Allen, and it taught people about food and nutrition and about connection to the earth,” Koenen said. “In 2001, I was disillusioned and open to new ideas. I had no connection to the earth—I was playing in digital sand, in silicon.”
“Most of the work happens outside the hive, spreading goodness and making growth possible.”
Like Bates-Froiland, Koenen knew little to nothing about apiculture, but the more he learned, the more interested he became. Soon he was a beekeeper and beekeeping instructor at Growing Power. He launched BeeVangelists in 2015.
“It’s the idea that bees are our teacher and bees are a lot like the congregation in that everybody comes together to hear the good word, and then they go out and spread the buzz,” said Koenen, now a member of Redeemer. “And I love how the congregation comes together when we decide to do projects around the bees, like harvesting honey, rendering wax from the hive and turning it into candles or lip balms.”
Among the more than 100,000 animal species that contribute to plant pollination, bees are the most important. Without bees to transfer from plant to plant the pollen needed for reproduction, nearly 100 commercial crops in the United States would vanish.
Bees are the standard-bearer among insect pollinators because they’re usually present in the greatest number and are the only pollinator group that feeds exclusively on nectar and pollen throughout their life cycle.
“Bees are so critical to our survival,” Bates-Froiland said, “and yet, from fear of bees, there’s been great destruction of these animals that we need so, so much for our food supply.
“From observing bees on the rooftop, I see them going in, going out, going back in, going out. And it reminds me of a church like ours, where people come in, they’re nourished with hearing the word of God, but the main part of our Christian life doesn’t happen here—it should happen out, just as bees’ major activity is to go out and pollinate and bring back nectar to make into honey. Most of the work happens outside the hive, spreading goodness and making growth possible.”
Building up the community
Situated near Marquette University and also the largest homeless shelter in Wisconsin, Redeemer has used its work with BeeVangelists to strengthen its service to unhoused people in its neighborhood. Participants in the Noon Run lunch program, a partnership between Marquette students and the congregation, have learned about beekeeping and facilitating discussion on the importance of bees.
“It raised their windhorse and gave them confidence, a sense of purpose and place, to be able to walk into a room and have people want to hear their stories,” said Koenen, who describes himself as a storyteller as well.
Despite Koenen’s membership at Redeemer, he still values the Catholic faith he grew up in. “I’m multidenominational, I guess you’d call it,” he said. “I like to think of myself as looking for the best in everything. I really respect the message Pastor Lisa comes with, and I really enjoy my time with her, showing her what happens day to day in the hive, then having her translate that into a sermon or lesson she’s picked up within the Bible that’s germane to the congregation.
“Bees bring goodness back and build the house up to be strong. There’s a lot that can be learned by placing a hive in your life in some kind of way or another.”