Walking the Earth with the Cornerstones

Walking the Earth with the Cornerstones

By Magdalena Smyth, Summer Servant and Bethlehem Farm Enthusiast, Exeter, New Hampshire

After completing my 11 weeks this past spring/summer at Bethlehem Farm, I was easily able to come home and pinpoint how I wanted to cultivate the four cornerstones in my daily life. But the thing that stuck out to me was how the Lord was subtly (well, it felt subtle then but looking back, I’m not sure how I missed it) planting those cornerstones in my life before I had arrived at the farm and could even identify them.

In January of 2020, I decided to spend a year committed to service to my neighbor. With no plan and practically no money, I found ways to travel and serve different communities. I spent two months in Ireland working in a Camphill Community (an intentional community for intellectually disabled adults). While I was there, I worked on a farm, in a school, and in the living facility itself. It was then that without me realizing, seeds of sustainable ways of living in a community, as well as a prayerful, simple lifestyle were being planted in my life. 

After Ireland, I traveled to northern Albania (which is tucked in snugly between Montenegro and Greece), where I lived with three Catholic nuns and twelve young Albanian girls. I took on the role of their English teacher as well as doing chores throughout the day for the sisters. Simplicity took on a whole different meaning for me there as Albania is a fairly poor country. I learned about living with what I strictly need and authentically sharing that with the people around me. Prayer became a central vein within my daily activities with daily mass and adoration. I learned to let go of many crutches which I had been unknowingly depending on for a while. 

After Albania, I found myself in the mountains of West Virginia on a farm I had never heard of until a couple of months prior to applying to be a Summer Servant. Learning about the four cornerstones more deeply once arriving, I instantly was convinced that cultivating them in every way possible was vital to the flourish of my mental, physical and spiritual health. I learned about different ways of prayer outside of the traditional forms, the importance of sustainability for us, our neighbors, and our future generations, how community living can be beautiful, stressful, and just right for me, and lastly how a life of service is the vocation God is calling me towards. 

A mother bird knows her chicks can’t eat and digest food without her chewing it first and then slowly feeding it to them. In the same way, now looking back, I think our Creator knew that in January 2020, I wasn’t ready to make drastic changes to my lifestyle yet to incorporate the four cornerstones. Our Lord, in all His glory and patience, slowly taught me how to lay down what is good and find what was best. And boy, am I glad He did. 

Parenting and the Cornerstone

Parenting and the Cornerstones

By: Caitlin Morneau

What is a recent experience that captures how I have lived out (and fallen short of) the Gospel cornerstones? In this moment, it feels difficult to call to mind any experience more profoundly than the pregnancy, labor, and birth of my second son. 

Colby was born on January 26th in our hometown of Alexandria, VA. I desired for his arrival and my experience of it to be spirit-filled, justice-centered, and community-oriented and was intentional about choices to make it so. In hindsight, I realize how these goals and practices align with the cornerstones that I internalized while living and serving at Bethlehem Farm. 

Community. During my third trimester, my best friend invited key women in my life to send “virtual blessing beads”- poems, prayers, quotes, messages, images, songs… of encouragement and hope. She compiled it into a video that I watched repeatedly in the final days leading up to delivery.

I remember a wise woman telling me that contractions are “pain with purpose”. Beyond the purpose of bringing life into the world, I wished for my embodied experience to have relational purpose too. So I invited loved ones to send me their prayer intentions, that I might lift them up with each contraction. This was a way to hold those closest to me throughout the experience. 

Prayer. Throughout my life, music has helped me process, regulate, and channel emotional and physical challenges. So I created a playlist – over 10 hours of women singer-songwriters whose style reflected the atmosphere of calm and strength I desired. It included Catholic artists Danielle Rose and Audrey Assad, farm favorites The Wailin’ Jennys and Gillian Welch, along with a recent favorite group called… Rising Appalachia. 

In college, I was introduced to Taize prayer by Julie Tracy, former caretaker, board member, and my campus minister. One meditation that resonated deeply with me (and was sung repeatedly during my first spring break week at Nazareth Farm) was, “Trust. Surrender. Believe. Receive.” This is the mantra that my husband, Aaron, softly spoke into my ear with every contraction, for 18 hours, from the time we arrived at the hospital through my final birthing push. 

Social Justice. Colby’s name was chosen for St. Maximilion Kolbe, a Franciscan friar who sacrificed his life in Auschwitz to spare that of a father. He is the patron saint of families, pro-life, prisoners and, further… lethal injection. I work for an organization that advocates to end the death penalty and advance healing approaches to harm and injustice. It is vocation realized. Colby’s name holds us responsible to the dignity of every life – especially the lives of those most marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. 

It is difficult to encapsulate just how this pregnancy tethered the experience within my body to the realities of a suffering world, especially our home country. Fortunately, Valerie Kaur did it for me. This quote from her memoir “See no Stranger” accompanied my final weeks of pregnancy, and reverberates within me still:

“In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth: The future is dark, but my faith dares me to ask. What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead, but a country still waiting to be born?”

Simplicity. Oh, simplicity… how I have failed you. How I would love to say that my child only wears second-hand clothes, cloth diapers (we’re working on that one), and sustainably made toys. How I try not to think about the many many disposable items involved in postpartum recovery. How I desperately need to find ways to hold myself accountable to what is a want or convenience vs. a need before purchasing. Our family has such a long way to go on this front.

Though, I’ll say this, bearing life reconnects me with the centrality of human dignity in all of its resilience and fragility. Colby’s discovery of the world forces me to slow down, be present in the moment, and humbly regard him as more important than myself. My children remind me to simplify my racing thoughts, use of energy, and understanding of relationship.

This is a beauty of parenthood. Our children help to hold us accountable for the earth we pass on to them and so much more. Especially with a three year old who notices, hears, and questions everything… my actions, words, choices, and example model how I hope for them to walk in this world. How I pray for my boys to know and live the cornerstones. I know that I will likely learn more from them in this regard than I’ll ever be able to teach – I look forward to Bethlehem Farm continuing to aid all of us in the journey. 

Caitlin Morneau was a Summer Servant in 2008 and 2010 and served on the board of directors from 2013-2019. Caitlin is Director of Restorative Justice at Catholic Mobilizing Network and lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, Aaron, sons Aiden and Colby, and black lab, Sydney.

Wind and Flame in West Virginia

Wind and Flame in West Virginia

By: Ralph Muhs, Community Friend, Greenbrier County, WV

It doesn’t have to be caretakers, or summer servants, or any of the hundreds or maybe thousands of people who have had their lives touched by spending a couple of weeks at Bethlehem Farm.  You don’t have to be a religious person, and you do not have to be a big financial contributor.  It is not necessary to be a recipient of the many construction projects Bethlehem Farm has done for needy people in the area. You don’t have to be young and idealistic, or have a burning need to live the four cornerstones of the farm. You don’t have to be anything at all!

Kay and I became acquainted with Bethlehem Farm several years ago.  My first experience with Bethlehem Farm was a chance encounter with Joe Prieboy who stopped by St. Catherine Church to ask what we were going to do with all the firewood we had from a tree removal. That encounter led to a gift of more firewood for the farm and an invitation to come to a community night. That community night led to many more, and it was at these community nights where we met so many young and interesting people, both caretakers and volunteers.  Our most endearing impression of the young people we met there was a refreshing aura of unpretentious sincerity. 

Jenna, a caretaker came to my home and we planed lumber, and that lumber became a permanent part of the new caretaker house.

Kim, Richard, and Lauren, three caretaker friends, came to my home and helped to build my workshop.  

Mostly, we just remember the many friendly welcoming caretakers, the energetic summer servants, and the hundreds of inspirational volunteers at Bethlehem Farm.  It is easy to feel optimistic when we go to the farm and meet all the young and idealistic people there. 

From the perspective of a couple in the seventh decade of our lives, Bethlehem Farm, and all those associated with it, give us a gratifying sense of optimism for the future. 

 

They’ll Beat Their Lightsabers into Plowshares

They’ll Beat Their Lightsabers into Plowshares

By: Matt Hubbard, Caretaker Emeritus, St. Louis MO

In the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker goes to the planet Dagoba to learn the ways of the Jedi from Master Yoda.  I don’t feel like I should have to explain this to you but most of my Middle School students have never seen this movie.  That horrifies me.  Anyway, Luke learns how to be a Jedi so he can go back and join the Rebellion against the Evil Empire. 

When I interviewed for my current teaching position at St. Ann Catholic School, I told this exact story about Luke Skywalker to describe my time as a Caretaker at Bethlehem Farm.  I always knew that St. Louis was my home.  I grew up here and I want to be a part of the struggle in my home.  I graduated college with no actual skills except for a working knowledge of procrastination.  Bethlehem Farm taught me how to be a Jedi.

In the 7 years since leaving the Farm I have spent time working in urban farms in St. Louis as well as two years working in a homeless shelter.  For the past 4 years I have been teaching Middle School Social Studies, Religion and Social Justice at St. Ann.  St. Ann School is where I went to school (K-8) and St. Ann Parish is where I was Baptized, had my first Communion and where my wife and I were married.  When I was hired the pastor and principal charged me with creating a Catholic Social Teaching curriculum for the Middle School.  I now have a 3 year curriculum where 6th grade explores the Dignity of the Human Person, 7th grade expands to the Community and Work and 8th grade looks at Global issues and Climate Justice.  I teach Catholic Social Teaching in my Social Studies class as well.  What better way to teach Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers than through the struggles of the worker and the life of Eugene Debs in the Industrial Age?  What better way to teach Peace and Disarmament than through the story of Fr. George Zabelka in WWII?  

When I arrived at St. Ann they had a garden with 5 garden beds.  In 4 years we have expanded it to 25 garden beds, 8 fruit trees, automated irrigation and we partner with 40 chickens for our composting and egg needs.  We have a garden market in the summer in which my neighborhood gets a source of fresh food and my school gets some modest monetary returns.  We are trying to build a larger network of nearby community gardens to build a larger food market as a new food system in our community.  We want to fill our neighborhoods with fresh food.  Local agriculture is the domino that I believe could tip against climate change.  Not only would it eliminate some of the use of fossil fuels used to transport our food across great distances.  It also can lessen the demand for deforesting new factory farmed land and the brutal land grab that has driven humanity ever since the beginning of the Neolithic Age which has led to the genocides of entire human, animal and plant groups as their lands are coveted and conquered.  Lastly, it builds community.  And community is the ultimate solution.  (For my full vision of the end of climate change check out my free book Victory Gardens: An Unfortunately Fictional Account of an Apocalypse at https://growingvictory.wordpress.com/)  

So to that end my school garden has been partnering with families in the school who want to begin backyard gardens to make that dream a reality.  We can’t fund the materials but we provide free knowledge and labor to design a garden that fits the families’ needs.  We will provide seedlings from under my grow lights and knowledge throughout the season.  If they grow an abundance they can share with their neighbors or bring it up to the school’s garden market and make a few dollars selling it with me.

We have had many setbacks over the four years.  But we just keep pushing forward with our goal fixed in our mind and creativity always leading us on.  

Somedays it feels too slow.  Somedays it feels like not enough.  Deforestation, pollution and carbon emissions are back on the rise after their 2020 dip.  Some days I can delude myself into thinking, “The problem is too big and I’m just one person.”  What an arrogant and ignorant thought that is.  I didn’t build the St. Ann Garden by myself.  I am a part of a committed and passionate team.  And you, the person reading this, would not be here if you weren’t also with me in the struggle in your own community.

No. I will keep the faith, work the land, pursue the goal, and do my part in my community.  My effort alone will not be enough but I am not alone.

It may seem to me to be too slow and futile but as Yoda, on Dagoba, responds when Luke asks if the Dark Side is stronger than the Light, “No. No. No.  Quicker, easier, more seductive.”  So maybe I need to learn patience.  Luke goes on to ask how he can tell the Dark Side from the Light.  “You will know…when you are calm, at peace.”

So I’ll try that: to be calm, to be at peace, to listen to the wind.  Just like I learned at the Farm.

Simplicity in a potter’s field

Simplicity in a potter’s field

By. Ann Karasinski, Former Summer Servant, Grand Rapids MI

The sun was rising, burning the fog off the mountain. It was quiet as I sat at the long table in the farmhouse and said my prayers. With no volunteer group, the caretakers and summer servants were following a different routine, tending to personal retreat and rejuvenation. I was new among them, an oddity as a summer servant. Older. Nearing the end of a career instead of its beginning. Recently widowed and grieving deeply after the death of my husband Gary.

In the afternoon, Blue, the farm’s Heeler, took me on a walk around the woodland trail, and we ended up at the small cemetery in the back pasture. There was the dry buzz of grasshoppers and the chalky smell of sudden warmth. Small white-washed stones marked the graves, but no names were visible. Carefully, I walked around the edges, mindful of the men buried within who otherwise would have ended in a potter’s field. The loneliness of their histories melted into mine, calling to mind the things we share on our brief earthly journey and our return to dust. 

On my way back to the farmhouse, I walked past the gardens, overgrown and gone to seed. In the coming weeks, I would help weed and prepare the beds for new growth, working side by side with young volunteers, scattering carrot and parsnip seeds, harvesting asparagus, digging out the deep taproots of the stubborn burdock.  

Simplicity is what attracted me to Bethlehem Farm and a hope in the peace it might offer. From the time of Gary’s diagnosis and lasting months past his death, I found myself in the Garden of Gethsemane. Waiting. Dreading. Resisting. I’d heard the homily about the grain of wheat falling and dying, but still, I refused to let go. Ignoring Jesus’s model, my long-held patterns suggested I could think or feel or work my way out.  

As the rhythm of the farm came to be part of me, I couldn’t help but feel things moving inside, changing. The times of connection with community. The times I wanted to go home, to run away. The striving for something greater than the sign of Jonah. The surrender to whatever grace had led me. More than once, I thought of telling Gary about my journey, forgetting that he wasn’t at home waiting. More than once, I believed I recognized his laugh as I bent over the garden bed, walked around the trail, revisited the cemetery. 

It has been nearly four years since I left the farm, and still, I carry the lessons of simplicity. I’ve come to notice a singular focus on appreciating what every moment is offering. A way of simplifying my life to its deeper meaning. A way to die and come back to life. To borrow from Henri Nouwen, it is the experience of entering “into the desert of loneliness” so that it may be transformed “into a garden of solitude.” 

Now, I visit Gary’s grave, simply marked with a smooth black stone and his engraved name. It is sacred ground, and as I kneel, I listen for his laugh and for the whisper of God as the wind runs through the trees.

Wind and Flame

Bethlehem Farm: Wind and Flame

By: Matt Hubbard, Caretaker Emeritus, St. Louis MO

In the Old Testament, wind and flame are some of the signs of the presence of God.  As the Bible opens, God’s Spirit (the same Hebrew word as “wind”) moved over the chaos waters, preparing to bring the spark of life to the universe.  Moses experienced God in a flame in a bush on Mt. Sinai.  Flame led the Israelites into the wilderness after a strong wind opened a path through the Red Sea.  A fiery cloud of God’s glory entered the Tabernacle in Exodus and then moved to Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings. The prophet Elijah gains courage and counsel in the whispering wind on the same mountain that Moses had seen God’s fire centuries before.

As the New Testament opens, the Spirit wind of God is upon a fiery new teacher named Jesus who gathers a community to be the kingdom of heaven on Earth.  After Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension that Spirit wind and flame enters the community of his followers at Pentecost.  Just like the Spirit over the chaos waters, this wind and flame lights the spark of life into the community to begin the ministry of Jesus as his Body.

My name is Matt Hubbard.  I was a Caretaker for a year and a half.  I now live in St. Louis with my wife Laura (also a former caretaker of 5 years) and our two kids Felicity and Max.  I teach Social Studies and Social Justice to Middle School students at St. Ann Catholic School.  Our school is dedicated to Catholic Social Teaching and Care for Creation.  I also run the school’s farm.  We have 25 beds, 8 fruit trees and 40 chickens and are expanding our ministry by building new gardens in the yards of our school families.

Wind and flame are some of my most profound experiences of God at Bethlehem Farm; the silent moments of listening to the wind or the loud moments of community around a campfire.  So we, the ones who have left the mountaintop are the wind and flame of the community of the Farm.  The spark of life has been lit in us to carry to all corners of this round world.

Community is united by its stories.  With this blog I am asking for stories from the diaspora of the Bethlehem Farm’s wind and flame.  As you carry the Cornerstones with you to your community what successes have you had?  What failures have you learned from?  

Please send me your stories at thehubbcap@gmail.com.  No need to make them a novel.  I may suggest edits or ask if you could expand on your thoughts.  Then I will post them on this blog as encouragement and inspiration. If you have a photo to go with your story, great, send it along, but if you don’t have a photo, then please send your story all the same.