Welcome home! They were the first words that I heard as I walked through the doors of Bethlehem Farm some seven months ago for what I thought was going to be a month. “I can do anything for a month,” I told myself. I needed something to do in transition and they were willing to take me in on short notice. Talk about trust, here I was, a middle-aged man who had walked away from the life I was living, not married, and they were willing to take me in! So on a Monday in late April I arrived on the front steps to that greeting, welcome home, only to find that there was something more to it than I could have imagined, a place that has not only been home over the months but a place that has aided me in finding the home within myself that seemed all but lost and relationships that surpass that of time. Better yet, had helped me in finding a home never had found.
It was just a few short days prior to arriving there that I had received word that my dad was hospitalized. I wasn’t sure if I should actually come to such a remote part of West Virginia, nearly eight hours from Burton Street, where I had grown up as a child. However, at the time my own life was out of sorts and rocky at best and I needed, as I had told them, some sense of stability. Not only was the life I had known been allowed to shatter, but I hadn’t realized at the time that the passing of my dad was just about two months from the time I walked up the front steps of B Farm. I needed stability, though, and so I went without really knowing what I was about to get myself into in the coming months. Some three hours later, dozens of high school students also arrived and the stability I was looking for was going to need to be put on hold. I was going to need to jump fully in to learn what the farm was all about along with the high school students who were arriving from around the country.
It was the beginning of an experience that words still fall short to describe. There is absolutely a sense of home, and the men and women I have lived and worked with during this time are more than just colleagues or some other formality, they are family and friends. It falls short on words because words often don’t come close to describing the home that has been discovered within myself during this time, literally getting my hands into the grittiness of the lives of others, the earth, chicken poop, bread and food, but not necessarily in that order, has broken me wide open! For someone who has a strong connection to the Christmas stories you’d think that the grittiness would have already been well-known. However, life’s circumstances and states in life often prevent us from finding that home, even more ironic since I had devoted so much of my time and life to such an endeavor. It was literally, though, digging in dung and dirt where I found that grittiness, at times moved to tears by it.
The progression of my dad’s health seemed to deteriorate daily. There didn’t seem to be an answer to anything. There was still hope, but over time, even that began to wane. I would travel back and forth when I could, often running out as soon as we sent off another group from the farm. There were moments, though, where I found myself out in the field by myself or with Shannon, who too came to the farm looking for something. By the afternoon we’d often work in different parts of the garden, leaving m alone with my thoughts, a farm tool, and the earth. Even as I write these words, I find tears coming to my eyes because it seemed like yesterday there was so much unraveling going on within and beyond me. It was all an act of trust, from the very beginning, not knowing where any of it would lead. At times I could look back and wonder how on earth I was able to venture through such turbulent times in my life.
There was something about the digging, and digging deeper. There was also something about the process of baking bread and kneading it. Both actions have similar qualities of digging and kneading, pushing and feeling, breaking through the surface which seemed so thick. It all has a way of grounding you in the process. The results are not immediately experienced, just like farming, but over time there is a gradual change and life begins to poke through. There’s something about that physical push that often broke me open and brought to the surface all that seemed buried within. There was a deterioration going on in my own life. No, the consequences are not the same as my dad, who lost the battle with cancer, but death has come this year in my life, both in the passing of him as well as in my own life, both of which stand in stark contrast to the perennial. Everything seemed to be passing, slipping through the fingers, like the crumbling of dirt in the field.
I now stand on the cusp of the longest time I will have spent away from the farm all year. After seven months of farming, cooking, canning, growing, learning, and becoming, more sound and grounded myself, it’s time to take home on the road for a while. Sure, there is some hesitation, but none like I had when first venturing to southern West Virginia back in April. Looking back, it was a cancer of sorts, that was also killing me from within, but mine had a cure. In some ways it feels as if the year has become full circle for me, back where I began, but moving forward from a very different place than when it felt like it was falling apart around me. Bethlehem Farm and welcome home has a deeper meaning than simply returning to a place. It’s about returning to a center. It didn’t take long to realize why so many returned to the farm, year after year, to this special place. Surrounded by a rather chaotic world, whirling around, it stands at the center of authenticity and the quest for wholeness in life, to grow into the life that had been intended from the beginning. Everyone arrives on those steps for very different reasons. Some simply for the act of service it provides, as for countless high school and college students; yet, even they leave different than when they arrived.
Others, like myself, though, come looking for something else because of our stage in life. The countless conversations with the college students have been one of the best parts of the time at the farm. Sometimes it was just the silence of working in the field or even the quiet of the kitchen when no words were needed. There was, here, no longer this sense of hierarchy I have had to live with, but rather a level playing field and equal grounding. There was no special clothing, unless you count work clothes, that differentiate one from another. There was no special title or expectations or anything else. As a matter of fact, there’s simply a nakedness that comes from the experience, a vulnerability that reminds we are all human and life really is passing, none of which needs to be taken all that seriously. As much as I have been a part of their journey, they have been of mine as well. They walked the journey of my dad’s death with me and kept me grounded even through my own. They could sympathize and empathize but at the same time, their lives weren’t destroyed by what was happening in mine. That’s the grounding I was looking for within myself, summed up and found through those simple words first uttered as I, and countless others, walk up those steps at Bethlehem Farm, “Welcome Home.”