Faith and Farming

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Bonjour, I’m Claire, and I’m French.  I like to say that when I applied to be a Fall Servant at BF, I was looking for “a farm-community to garden with Christ.” After traveling on my own and farming for several months, I felt the need to join a community with whom I could share both my faith and agroecological practices.

It was a blessed period for me in the sense that everything was unexpected! First of all, my stay at Bethlehem Farm changed my perspective on my future, deepened the relationship I had with Jesus, and broke the boundaries of the “impossible.” In the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, in the forest turning red and yellow and taking on the colors of autumn, I saw God every day in the perfection of Creation. I was mainly gardening alone and in silence, outside, all day. I’m usually very social and at first I wondered how I could appreciate so much time alone. But I was not alone; these awesome days spent outside were in the presence of Christ. I never had so much time to speak heart-to-heart to my Loving God. We often say that Nature is the fifth Gospel! I saw that! By listening to Him and looking at his Creation through the forest, bees, and in the soil itself, I learned that Nature is perfect and also needs time. What a lesson of humility. Plants need time to grow, soil needs time to regenerate, and humans need time to be shaped as mountains are by God. It’s not necessarily slow but it requires patience.

My stay at Bethlehem Farm was blessed and unexpectedly awesome! I also saw God Himelf. With a current caretaker, we decided to start some days with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. What a gift! By joining BF I wanted to be gathered in the name of Jesus with other brothers and sisters and here He is. He came Himself to us. And so I thought, Christ is really always available, always waiting for us and looking after us. Here He is, right now. We simply need to do the first step, to open our hearts, to be available, and God will do the rest. And I praise God for what He did in my life during this time. I was at the end of my studies, full of ideas and with the desire to promote organic agriculture, care for Creation, and give attention to the poor. I really wanted to be involved in those domains and at the same time I was somehow afraid. Afraid to start, to do something too big for me that seemed impossible! I found everything impossible, even starting a company to defend these values, to get a piece of land and start gardening, to actually enter into action (what else?). Yes, it is impossible alone and that’s precisely the reason why Christ has put the desire in me, because He needs me for His work, and I need Him! The ministry of Bethlehem Farm really helped me to get over these fears. I realized how impossible it is to build a building alone, to cultivate the entire garden alone, to wake up every morning and find the energy to assist our poor neighbors without the grace of God. But the good news is that we are not alone! And God calls us to do things impossible to our eyes; He enters our lives and is our Help. I left the Farm with an inner desire to dedicate my life to daring to do seemingly impossible things. It won’t be easy but it will be with Christ.

Besides the time and work I offered to the community, I was looking for a job in France. This time of searching woke up uncertainty, fear, and impatience and yet, as a friend had advised to me, I seriously involved Christ, Mary, and Joseph in the search to really listen to them instead of following my desires only. The graces this brought me are peace, hope, perseverance, and patience. And at the same time I clearly mentioned my demand, letting them know that I feel urged to act and promote an agriculture of life. Now I surrender to the God’s time, trusting Him and praising Him for the life He gave me. I feel that sometimes we need to have our eyes opened to see all the good and all the chances we have.

 

Abigail’s Story About Love

“God taught me very quickly, sweetly, and simply – and when needed, harshly – about love”

 

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My name is Abigail Tolrud, and saying that Bethlehem Farm changed my life is an understatement. I arrived in West Virginia with literally five dollars in my pocket and a duffle bag, with my hair in zillions of little braids, because I was crazy enough to think that running water didn’t exist in West Virginia and that I would never be allowed to shower (I thought that braiding my hair would somehow help with not being able to ever wash it).  I soon found out that this was insanely wrong.  I learned that electricity and water in West Virginia is possible – due to coal. Coal these days often is mined through the process of Mountain Top Removal, which, to make a long story short, is a process where the top of an entire mountain is blown off.  Practices like these somehow become socially acceptable because we think that having a lot of money is cool and that health and life and beauty don’t matter.  Our society thinks that if we can get what we want quickly, then it must not matter what negative consequences could later follow – which leads me into why I believe God called me to be a Summer Servant. He told me to stop with the petty college drama and stress and worries of forcing myself to have perfect grades – all things that I was letting become top priorities in my life. God taught me very quickly, sweetly, and simply – and when needed, harshly – about love. And when I think about the most valuable thing that I learned at Bethlehem Farm as a Summer Servant, it is no doubt just that – Love.

God taught me that I needed to wake up and pray and be vulnerable and focus on others. God taught me that what we eat matters and what words we say to others can at times affect everyone’s feelings and thoughts. I came to Bethlehem Farm with the mindset that it would be a short break from the “real world” before going to work for a summer camp. Man oh man, did God have other plans for me. One week in I called my boss and quit, and then I called my parents and told them that I was about to put my life and my concerns and my worries aside this summer – for three months. They told me it was too spontaneous and that as adults we can’t give up our lives or put them on pause for the world’s problems. I love my parents and they later understood the journey that I was called by God to take – but the ironic thing about our conversation was, isn’t that the problem? We as a society think that the big problems are just too big. They are too much work. They are too much of a burden. Someone else, some other day, will take care of them.

The thing is, Bethlehem Farm is the real world. It is a real community, because Love matters and love is real.  God taught me the power of small actions through many tasks.  God whispered in my ear every day reminding me how much I loved kids, as my mornings at Bethlehem Farm were with filled with giggles and smiles, and, when I was lucky, cuddles and hugs from the Fitts children.  God reminded me of my vocation to work with children. God screamed in my ear, “Sustainability matters!” when I learned time and time again about the endless amount of resources – specifically water – that we as a society are constantly wasting. Bethlehem Farm opened my eyes to the fact of how much I truly love a sustainable lifestyle.  God touched my shoulder gently as I learned about drywall and roofing and drilling and painting. I learned the true definition of service.  Service is working long days to cook a meal for sixty people, and service is listening to the lonely neighbor at a community night dinner, and service is striving to see the truth. The truth is that of struggle and need that others are unwillingly carrying on their backs. We live in a world where families are barely able to feed their children and leaking roofs are normal.  Service – as a wise friend once told me – is anything that we do for another person out of love.  Service was when my community nursed me back to health after an allergic reaction from a bee sting and then later on from the flu.  God showed me love through every single person whose eyes met with mine at Bethlehem Farm: every neighbor and every homeowner and every volunteer and every Caretaker and every Summer Servant – some a crazy amount.

It would have been enough to see a place like Bethlehem Farm even for just one day.  It would have been enough to even know that such a place existed.  I got to live and laugh at a place so powerful and filed with so much love, and I thank God every single day for the gift of Bethlehem Farm in my life.  God knew that the broken and scared girl who walked into Bethlehem Farm one day in May with far too many little braids would soon see the path of beauty and power and love. And so, I will end my Summer Servant tales with a line I found in my journal:

“Dear Unknown,

Sorry I haven’t written in a while, journal.  Basically everything I have written since being at the Farm that I said seemed strange is one-hundred percent normal now. I have moved in.”

Thank you, Bethlehem Farm, for love.

Reflection by Jenna

Jenna Steltenpohl of Jasper, IN, spent time with us as a fall servant from September to October, 2016:

It was a warm September day when I stepped off of the Amtrak train and onto West Virginia ground.  It had been a long trip; I was eager to get some fresh air.  However, I have to admit that I was nervous.  I had never been away from my family and friends for more than a couple weeks.  I knew that this next month at Bethlehem Farm would be filled with many firsts, and I was looking forward to the spiritual and personal growth that I would experience there during the special Jubilee Year of Mercy.

I was overjoyed to be visiting the Farm again!  I spent most of my first weekend there wandering outside and finding God’s mercy in everything that I encountered.  The Caretakers made sure that I felt welcome, and nobody seemed to mind that I was such a quiet, introverted person.

Living with the community seemed to give me the perfect balance of prayer, work, fellowship, and quiet time.  Every morning we had group prayer in the chapel.  It gave us the chance to thank God for the new day, and to prepare our hearts for the experiences He had in store for us.  I would ask God to give me the grace to always serve joyfully, and when I did, this prayer would stay with me throughout the day.  My work days were usually filled with me doing small things around the farm, and I also got to help out at a particular work site, Cathy’s home.  Even though I had almost no experience with some of the projects, I was always encouraged and never frowned upon when I didn’t know what to do.

When we weren’t working, we would spend time playing board games, swimming in the cold, clear river, and walking the Web of Life trail, among other things.  I remember the long car rides, good conversations, and the beautiful mountain views that kept me ever thankful for the chance to stay at Bethlehem Farm, even if only for a time.  When we returned from whatever we had been doing each day, I made an effort to visit the chapel and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for all of my family and friends back home.

On my last day at Bethlehem Farm, I remember walking up Bill Mann’s Hill and reflecting on how things had changed since I had first arrived.  I had definitely gained more self-confidence, and I had been able to make prayer a bigger priority.  It seemed like stepping away from my Indiana home for a while gave me a new perspective on my life there.  And now that I am back home, my experiences from Bethlehem Farm still remind me to take care of myself, the world I live in, and most of all, to live simply and trust in God.  Thank you, Bethlehem Farm, for this awesome opportunity!  I miss you all and hope to return soon!

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Serving, Embracing, and Praying

Does the cold weather have you pining for warmer summer days?  Let 2016 Summer Servant Jeff Baker take you back . . .

“After a somewhat long, but adventurous drive, I rolled up a narrow cork-screw road. As my tires slid on the gravel, I had a strange feeling I was literally in the middle of nowhere. It was like the opening scene to a typical horror movie–on top of that, in all the irony, the farm was seemingly deserted…”~ Day 1 Journal Entry.

I fortunately found a human, and was given an offer I could not refuse—bailing hay. I had just finished the backend of a seven-and-a-half hour drive and was a little tired. However, I proceeded to plop my arms out like a forklift and stack bales of hay into a barn. For some reason I was excited about this work. My self-explanation is that I felt like I was a real farmer! Check, there goes another one off the bucket-list. Within a day I was helping to prep the facilities for a high school group week.

“Welcome home!” I exclaimed as I awkwardly embraced several strangers loading off from a long trip. The farm had this thing, where you would say welcome home to people and hug them. “High schoolers usually think we are some kind of a cult,” one of the caretakers calmly said. “I thought you guys were pretty weird, but…[insert something positive],” exclaimed one of the high school students. “No you are right, we are weird,” the director nonchalantly interjected. So you can get an idea of the kind of people you would be meeting if you were just arriving at the farm—the awkward, the weird, and affirmation of weird. Did I mention one of the summer servants said I should never be a sales man?

Anyway, what is Bethlehem Farm? Where is the sales pitch? Well, here it is. Bethlehem Farm is a…farm in West Virginia, that strives to be an intentional Catholic community in Appalachia. This community serves local homeowners, volunteers, and my stomach! There were some serious recipes rolling out of that kitchen! Lots of on-site garden vegetables and local organic foods.

I know, I know….I am only scraping the surface. But how could I explain broad-shouldered mountains that stood like military columns? Or the trees breathing out mystical mists onto the faces of humble giants? The cows grazing and gazing a dampened, matted pasture? The faces of the students as they warmed, gleamed, and cried? The youthful zeal, heightened emotions, and hearts pouring out in prayer? The heroic acts of mud waddling under a flood stricken home? The sweat, toil, frustration, and courageous will to serve a stranger?

Service is a funny thing, because it reveals so much character with the utmost simplicity. To serve is to make a choice and the choices that we make decide who we serve. We can serve either God or the other guy; others or ourselves. There was a priest one Sunday mass that mentioned the following: “If you could boil down the Bible down to one word…it would be service.” He had witnessed many volunteers who aided in flood relief. He spoke volumes of the many volunteers who lent a hand to their fellow brothers and sisters in need. It was really beautiful how everyone rallied to help their neighbors. It was both touching and comical to hear the priest demanding people to stop bringing towels. He had so many towels he jokingly exclaimed the possibility of opening a towel shop. As people let out soft smiles and laughs, it brought out another side of service—a yolk that is much lighter. It is the joy that comes out of us as we stop, listen, and give what we are holding in our hearts.

Then, there was another side of service; community. I witnessed this additional side through the volunteers, Bethlehem Farm staff, and the summer servants. Every day we would clench each other’s hands and make a commitment to each other. Together we were going to make some sacrifices for the good of others–whether it was flood relief, home repair, or just having conversations. We had a hand in helping our neighbors in need. In this way, we were fighting for other people’s human dignity and all while strengthening our camaraderie. It was a glimpse of what Jesus asked us to do, and what we are capable of doing. Jesus never asked us to just sit there and isolate ourselves, but to take up our crosses and follow Him–to follow Him into those mountains, under those muddy houses, on those rooftops, and into the loving embrace of those “weird” people at Bethlehem farm. The farm’s staple “welcome home” and hug meant something. Home is the economy of love; it is the place of commerce where we exchange conversation, good food, and good company. So I know a place called Bethlehem Farm, but some people like to call it home, because “business” is booming.

Jeff Baker