Newest Caretaker Shannon O’Toole reflects on her move to the farm!:
As of January 1st, I will have been at Bethlehem Farm for three months. Sometimes, at random moments – maybe when I wake up and see the view from my bedroom of the clothes hanging from the clotheslines on the farmhouse porch, when I’m using a sawdust toilet, or when I’m chasing chickens that refuse to go into the barn at night – a thought still crosses my mind: “Is this insane? What am I doing here?” Perhaps it is insane. I grew up in the suburbs of a big city, lived a comfortable life, and got a degree from a great university. When I entered college, I wanted to go to medical school when I graduated. Instead, I now find myself living on a farm in the mountains of West Virginia, with hardly any cell phone service and located at least a thirty-minute drive from an interstate. I racked up a pretty penny in student debt, yet following graduation I’ve decided to do something that doesn’t count as a “real job” – try explaining that one to my relatives. I shower twice a week, there’s usually always dirt under my fingernails, and I don’t flush the toilet after I pee. I see the Snapchat stories and Facebook updates of many of my college classmates wearing business casual on a daily basis, eating fancy lunches with their coworkers, partying it up in Manhattan, and going back to campus for tailgates and basketball games. Compared to their lives, maybe my life here really is insane – at the very least, it’s a little weird. But isn’t that the point? Bethlehem Farm is a contrast community, so if my life here didn’t look much different from the lives of my friends and family back home, something would be very wrong.
So what’s my story as the newest caretaker, anyway? How did I end up here on this mountain? I first found myself at Bethlehem Farm a little over a year ago, in October 2015, when I came with a group of fourteen other Villanova University students on a service break trip. The fact that I now live at a place where I once went on a service break trip may sound silly, as if I’m somehow trying to continue living out a high point of my college experience – but it’s not like that at all. Once I got a taste of life at Bethlehem Farm, I couldn’t get this place out of my head, and I literally dreamed about returning. A week and a half after I turned the tassel on my graduation cap, I was back at the Farm for a short stint as a Summer Servant, during which I was discerning doing a post-grad year of service. I thought I would end up with the Augustinian Volunteers, but with some nudging, I turned down their offer and applied to be a caretaker instead. Villanova was the place where I first dove into my faith, discovered my love of service, and realized how the two inherently go hand-in-hand. And so really, it makes a lot of sense that Villanova led me to this place I now call my home, this place of prayer, simplicity, community, and service. When I entered Villanova in August 2012, I never could have even dreamed that I’d be at a place like Bethlehem Farm when I graduated. It’s truly incredible the places that God will lead you if you let Him.
My time at the Farm so far has been beautifully overwhelming – two group weeks, a newborn, a home repair conference in Tennessee, a board meeting, and preparation for the benefit in Chicago, among other things. I’ve learned and done so much already, but I know that I still have so much to gain and to give. I’ve learned home repair skills, kitchen and farmhouse skills, and how to carry out my specific caretaker roles. I’m learning to be more intentional, be more grateful, be more confident, and to let small things bring me great joy. I’ve learned ways to live more simply, to be a better Christian, and to be a better human. Most of all, I’m taking what I learned in college about being part of a community and applying it more deeply. My transition into Farm life was made easier by the fact that my first group week was a group of Villanova students. Their willingness to let go, be present, and serve reminded me of where I came from, where I was a year earlier, and how I came to fall in love with this place I now call home. What better way to transition into a new community than alongside members of your old community? At Villanova, I first gained a sense of what the idea of community is all about – I must’ve heard the phrase “the Villanova community” a million times throughout my four years there. Everything you do affects your community, and the simplest things can actually be great acts of service to your fellow community members. The Augustinians really like the Latin word “caritas,” which translates into Greek as “agape” and into English as either “charity” or, more preferably, “love” – unconditional love. Caritas is necessary within your community if the members of the community are to go out from themselves and adequately serve others. At Villanova, maybe this means holding doors, respecting quiet hours, or turning a lost phone into Public Safety – at the Farm, this can mean seeing the acts of washing dishes, feeding the chickens, or folding laundry as service, too, and doing them with love and gratitude, even if those things are not specifically what I came here to do.
The Caretakers that make up our community are all very different, unique people – but what draws us together is our common belief in this simple, intentional way of life, focused on serving God and the world around us. They have welcomed me in, teaching me and loving me through all my mistakes and stupid questions. We’re here to support each other, to hang out with each other, and to laugh, cry, and pray with each other. Living in community can be hard sometimes, but it is a beautiful thing.
I love it here in wild and wonderful West Virginia. Although moving here has not been easy, it has been worth it.