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.