By Trevar Simmons
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. This special greeting is the huggable “red carpet” they roll out for all of their guests. This greeting, like all of their practices, stems from Bethlehem Farm’s mission statement: “Bethlehem Farm is a Catholic community in Appalachia that strives to transform lives through serving the local community and teaching sustainability.”
Part of their service and sustainable practices is their 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.
Although spiritual for Fitts and others, 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 are able and comfortable. 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.
The group serves 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.
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 through 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. 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.
When faced with issues outside of the familiar areas of presentation, 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.
Recounting other sustainability practices on the farm, Boone mentions, “Some people find it funny how we recycle and reuse things.” Inside the home, 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.
Bethlehem Farm works towards the kind of transformation that comes about by penitence and spirituality, not coercion. Their mission statement continues: “We enable volunteers to join us in living out the Gospel cornerstones of prayer, community, simplicity and service.” The caretakers facilitate an environment allowing people to try the farm’s way of life for a little while, a way of life centered on faith and action.
These four cornerstones of their faith and action 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 http://www.bethlehemfarm.net/ or consider serving with them for a while.