Friday, June 25, 2010

Ecommunity: Bethlehem Farm

I haven't received a greeting like the one I received at Bethlehem Farm since I last visited my mother. "Welcome Home," I heard each caretaker say as they stepped in for a hug.

You might think the community greeted me in a special manner. After all, I am the Eco-Steward acting as the roving reporter for the Stewardship of Creation Ministry Team in the Presbytery of West Virginia. However, this special greeting is the huggable "red carpet" they roll out for all of their guests.

This greeting stems from Bethlehem Farm's mission statement, which is the best way to describe this group of people. "Bethlehem Farm is a Catholic community in Appalachia that strives to transform lives through serving the local community and teaching sustainability. We enable volunteers to join us in living out the Gospel cornerstones of prayer, community, simplicity and service." Let's unravel that statement bit by bit to find out what Bethlehem Farm is, who is involved, and how they live out their faith as stewards of creation.

"Bethlehem Farm ..."

"Bethlehem" means "house of bread" in Hebrew and the city in Israel is traditionally known as the birthplace of Jesus. Although no one at the farm made this connection verbally, I believe the people involved live to see the life and love of Jesus--called "the bread of life"--continually reborn in their lives and the lives of those who come to visit them.

The main facility is not so much a house as it is a lodge. Inside are all the living quarters for the eight caretakers, sleeping quarters for volunteers, bathrooms, open-air clotheslines, a large living area, dining room, and, of course, the kitchen, where they regularly bake delicious homemade bread. Bethlehem is a pretty apt name.

The acreage grows crops and care for animals, making "farm" an appropriate title, too. The critters on the farm include two donkeys, a pig, a horse, chickens, a dog, cats, and bees. Some of the animals came with the land, which used to be a Catholic Worker House, and others have been added over the past five years.

The no-till garden yields produce year round. Director and gardener Eric Fitts oversees the organic production of the crops. Of the many natural ways Fitts cares for the plants, the newest is a chicken tractor. The chickens are moved from their spacious living area to the garden where they eat slugs and leave fertilizer. Fitts takes care of the land that takes care of him and those he loves, including the farm community, his wife, and his baby-on-the-way. The residents care for the garden with sensible, spiritual care.

"... is a Catholic community in Appalachia ..."

Not everyone involved in the farm is Roman Catholic, although the cornerstones of the farm come from catholicism. Catholicism is shared, not forced, and the Roman Catholics involved hope others share their faith and perspectives, too.

Volunteers and caretakers alike involve themselves in the faith aspect of the farm only as much as they desire. When they share mass, the priest explains why mass and the Eucharist are important to share, asking those present to participate in the liturgy however they are able and comfortable.

Outside of mass, the group "pray[s] multiple times a day," explains Ashley Boone, the sustainability coordinator and communications director. "And they're creative prayers," she explains, prayers often focusing on justice in their geographic community and the world at large.

Prayer is just one way the people become a small, intentional community that maintains a connection to and involvement with the larger, worldwide community. The caretakers come from all over North America to live communally and in simplicity in order to serve people. They serve each other, befriending and taking on multiple roles at the farm. They serve volunteer groups who come to the farm for service projects, mostly home repair in the surrounding area and community meals at the farm.

And they serve the global community by giving a little bit of Bethlehem Farm to each volunteer, what Boone describes as, "the experience the volunteers take home with them." She said volunteers will contact the farm after leaving, asking for tips on starting a composting system at their home or resources for simplifying and "greening" their local faith communities. Boone says, "a large population of volunteers make changes that are pretty crucial about stewarding creation."

Through the communal actions made inside and outside the farm, the caretakers and volunteers alike become a community. Not only do they live together, but also they become a part of Bethlehem Farm, taking ownership and participation. Boone sees this ownership especially reflected in the recent solar panels purchased and installed by the farm largely through the generosity of past volunteers.

" ... that strives to transform lives through serving the local community and teaching sustainability."

The solar panels are just one "testament" to transformation, as described by Boone. And it is not only the lives of the volunteers that are transformed. In a few months Boone will leave the farm to serve a third year with VISTA at the Alderson Hospitality House. Although leaving the farm, she said there are parts she will take with her, because her life has changed.

One way is through her diet. "What we eat is one of the largest ways we can have a positive or negative impact on the planet," says Boone. When she first moved to the farm, she became a vegetarian and only recently branched out to meat, but seldom and only certain meats, like venison and local, grass-fed beef. The farm is very thoughtful about where their food comes from and that thoughtfulness started a passion in her to last the rest of her life.

Like many others who visit the farm, she was interested in the ecological, economic, and justice issues regarding food before she went to Bethlehem Farm. But when faced with issues outside of familiar areas, she found it harder to view these issues in the same way. Today Boone says, "I won't eat ... meat unless I know where it came from." Diet is one major service and sustainability practice the farm offers, one everyone already makes a decision about daily, for good or ill.

Bethlehem Farm also serves and teaches through home repair, which is their main outreach service. The farm "work[s] with people rather than for them," according to their introduction flyer, available on their website. They don't receive payment, their services are out of love; they want to share what Boone calls their "friendship and presence" as much as their hands and resources to fix a roof or paint a house.

Their "friendship and presence" is shared and generally well received, even though they are and, likely will always be, a group of newcomers, none of them originally from West Virginia. This newcomer status does not slow them down at all.

People still attend the community dinners at the farm and the residents attend events and meals in the area, too.

"Some people find it funny how we recycle and reuse things," Boone mentions. At the farm, you will see aluminum foil and re-sealable plastic baggies hanging up to dry for reuse in the kitchen. When outside the farm, Boone says they bring their own plates and cutlery to some meals so they won't use paper, plastic, and styrofoam. They may get some odd looks and chuckles, but they are not met with resistance and ridicule.

The farm community does not try force their views on others, trying to transform those who do not want to be transformed. Rather, Bethlehem Farm is a "contrast community": they are noticeably different, based on their convictions and what works for them. They act firmly on their beliefs, but do not expect people who believe differently to act like they do.

"We enable volunteers to join us ..."

Bethlehem Farm works towards the kind of transformation represented by the Greek word metanoia, which is a change that comes about by penitence and spirituality, not coercion. The caretakers at Bethlehem Farm create an environment that allows people to come in and try their way of life for a little while, a way of life centered on "living out the Gospel cornerstones of prayer, community, simplicity and service." You can join them through a week of service or a longer time as a caretaker.

These four cornerstones are interconnected, as Boone depicts them and the volunteers and caretakers paint them with their actions. Their prayers occur because they are a community. Their community is deeply steeped in simplicity, especially in regards to sustainability. This simplicity itself is one of a myriad of ways the Bethlehem Farm community serves the larger communities of which they are a part: the Roman Catholic community, the faith community, the local community, and the community that is this earth.

Eco-justice, social justice, economic justice are all, simply, justice. Bethlehem Farm works towards justice with God in the way that seems best to them, which is all any of us can do.

Bethlehem Farm is located in Clayton, West Virginia. To make a donation or to learn more about the community, visit their website at or consider serving with them for a while.

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