In 2008, Paul and Sarah Clever moved onto a small piece of land at the end of Armitage Road in Athens, Ohio. The following summer my husband Rob took the counselors from Procter Summer Camp down to Good Earth Farm as part of staff training. I tagged along, wanting to see for myself what was happening there. It was one of those moments where I remember being both in awe and a little uncomfortable at the same time. Being there, I had the sense that everything was going to change.
I remember seeing books piled on the coffee table in the living room and praying the daily office together and eating pizza. I remember a long, hot afternoon of pulling weeds and staking tomato plants. It was after that experience that Rob and I put in our first raised bed in our backyard and began growing our own vegetables. A year later, I felt that tugging at my heart as God invited me to begin asking what kind of communities I might be part of creating. As I began my work as Missioner for Fresh Expressions, I spent many hours in conversation with Paul and other community members from Good Earth Farm. They became friends, fellow practitioners, and wise mentors. Among the many things I learned are three lessons that I think are especially valuable.
Smallness matters – 2 and 3’s as the basic unit of Christian community
Being with the Common Friars was always a reminder of Jesus’ words that “when two or three are gathered, I am there in the midst of you”. There was a simplicity to it all, in conversation, in prayer, in communal meals, in work done with a shared intention. God was in all of it and that was enough. Kelly Latimore used to say that the work of the farm was at heart an excuse to just be with people, to cultivate deep and transformative relationships.
Although the diocese and the parish are important aspects of our life as Christians, most of us have found Christian community in smaller ways –through a friend, or in a bible study, or small group. I believe these small groups act like leaven for the church, activating change that is far bigger than their size would normally allow. I believe that God seeks out the small to influence the whole. The church has always grown this way, through a duplication of small groups of people. This was how Jesus spread his message about the kingdom of God. How can we as a church encourage the spread of these small communities of practice? Whether a family or household, intentional community, prayer group, house church, service team, facebook group, or spiritual friendships –these 2’s and 3’s are the basic unit of Christian community and Good Earth helped model for us the importance of these communities in people’s lives.
Live according to the seasons of life
Life on a farm is a reminder of the seasons. There is a time for planting seeds, a time for bearing fruit, a time for harvesting and a time for allowing the land to lay fallow. Paul allowed the days and the seasons of their life together to reflect the wisdom he learned from listening to the land. He adapted their rhythm of life to the growing season. He celebrated the growth and learning that came from new people, new endeavors, and new ministries. And he noticed when something needed to die and honored the ending that was inevitable.
I realize that part of our resistance to change in the church is our disconnection from the cycles of life we see in the natural world. We need to learn to recognize when the ground changes, always on the look out for the new life that is springing forth but also with an eye to those things that are dying. When we plant something, whether a flower or a faith community, does it have to last into perpetuity to have value? Perhaps, one of the most valuable lessons that the Common Friars have to teach us is to know when something is finished and to see the value of a community that meets a specific need at a specific time, offering something beautiful and meaningful to the world for a season and then dying gracefully to create space for other callings and communities to be born.
The Importance of a Catalyst
In this way, Good Earth Farm served as a catalyst in our diocese. The work of Paul and Sarah and Kelly and Tom (and others) served to instigate and encourage the work of fresh expressions. They inspired us and gave us permission to experiment with new forms of Christian community that existed outside of the parish walls. As they celebrated Eucharist in their dining room each week, gathered for communal meals under the trees, and grew food for those who were hungry, they reminded us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
I am eternally grateful to the Common Friars for teaching me, for the opportunity to learn together about intentional community, for being brave enough to try something that seemed a bit crazy to everyone else. I am grateful for their honesty about the gifts and the challenges of a life in community and for the ways they invited me (and many of you) into their shared life. I was inspired by the dream that Paul shared, so much so that we began our Floral House community in Cincinnati. In Columbus, the Franklinton community and St. John’s were encouraged by the Common Friars and have begun an Episcopal Service Corps community –Confluence. Procter started it’s own working farm and diocesan CSA. I spend time talking with people young and not so young about how they long to create new households and small communities of practice together. I see this as a direct result of the work of Good Earth Farm. And a reminder of the importance of catalysts in our midst.
Catalysts are willing to help offer wisdom, ideas, energy, and values into a system. In science, they speed up the reaction and leave less waste behind than non-catalyzed reactions. As I spend time pondering how these kinds of small communities of faith and practice are changing the church and more importantly the world around them, it is this: as catalysts, they inspire and energize us to create a different kind of community. They remind us of the value of relationships, the importance of following the Spirit in new ways and the power of community to transform us all.
I wonder what you learned from the ministry of Good Earth Farm and the Common Friars? I invite you to share your experiences here in the comments.
After more than 5 years together, the Common Friars discerned in September 2013 that they were no longer called to life together as a religious community. Paul and Sarah Clever now have two young children and are working to cultivate a household farm for their family. Kelly Latimore has moved on to do a farm internship in California for a season and continues to develop his art as an iconographer (kellylatimoreicons.com). Tom Fehr has said goodbye to Grace Church in Pomeroy and is looking for his next call. The community moved off the land on Armitage Road in March of 2014. The diocese is so thankful for the ministry of Good Earth farm and wish the community many blessings as they move forward in their lives.