FROM FARM TO HOME
Alderson, West Virginia
West Virginia is full of hollows carved by winding country roads twisting through trees that stand straight up in lines reaching upward like crooked arms stretching to touch the sky. It’s not an easy place to live. A drive into town is a significant effort and generally warrants the trouble. Neighbors are important here. The community is cherished because it can be hard to maintain.
Many would deem such efforts a hardship. Colleen Fitts finds it appealing. She likes that she has to think about what she needs and she appreciates the quiet moments in her car when she can have time to reflect as she swoops through some of the most beautiful landscapes in Appalachia. No trip is superflous, meaning her home is only populated with the very minimal things she and her family need. Nothing more and nothing less. She counts her blessings, along with her husband Eric, everyday when they wake up to their hilltop view in rural Summers County, West Virginia where they have established a community of caretakers at Bethlehem Farm.
Together they serve as directors of Bethlehem Farm, a community minded farm focused on sustainable farming practices and community service to the financially struggling populations surrounding them. Everything at the farm is filtered through a Catholic lens that focuses on four cornerstones: simplicity, community, prayer and service. The farm is ran by a crew of year to year caretakers who work on different aspects of the farm and within the community, the Fittses and a full time farmer who manages the science of their year round gardening. Together they help maintain the farm and organize crews of college and high school volunteers that filter in and out of the farm for one week stays on community service focused spiritual retreats.
Between the cornerstones and the intentional lifestyle that the people on the farm lead, Colleen says she hopes that their values filter down to their children “without having to bonk them on the head with it.” For the most part, the children are used to sharing their common areas with new faces each week. Though they tend to gravitate towards their parents and caretakers, Colleen says Miriam tends to feel out the volunteers each week and finds one she will stick to and spend time with. They participate in community meals and chores around the farm but do not go on site crews or to the various spiritual retreat prayers and lessons throughout the day.
“They are the most loved children I know,” said Colleen. “They don’t know what it is like to get a harsh word from somebody. They are listened to here. I believe in a hands-on childhood so for every activity I try to have a child version so that they can participate.”
At the core of these beliefs is Eric and Colleen’s hope that they can provide not just lessons to the hundreds of caretakers and volunteers that visit their farm each year to do service, but also to their 5 year-old daughter Miriam and 2 year-old son Isaiah. They want their children to have a different childhood, free of what they see as a happy, suburban upbringing that was unfortunately detached from nature and a connection to the work and realities of where food comes from. For them it is important that their daughter sees how a garden is worked and tended and that the chickens provide them with countless meals. Colleen loves that her neighbor provides them with beef that is straight from their grassy hillsides and that various other community members share or trade produce with them. Each meal she shares the origins of the food everyone is about to eat along with the prayer over their so carefully curated meal.
“I think know how is part of Appalachian culture,” Eric said. “I have met people that know every single weed and know how to use it and know what is good for you and who have grown the wheat that they are going to grind into flour and put into their bread. That kind of know how is definitely lost from most of the people who come here from outside of the region.”
Colleen and Eric also believe in hard work, something they say aligns well with their spiritual journey in Appalachia. Colleen focuses most of her attention these days on raising the children as well as the day to day operations of the home crew, or crew of students that stay on the farm each day and prepare meals for those out working.
As she goes over a large food order and plans for meals for the current day and the next morning, she plops Isaiah down on the counter next to Carly Knapp and Richard Storey, two contracted, year-long caretakers who are in the midst of preparing breakfast for all of the volunteers who are outside getting an early morning sunrise power tools tutorial from the other caretakers. As Knapp cracks egg after egg into a large stainless steel bowl, she hands a fork over to Isaiah and asks him if he wants to beat the eggs. As she continues cracking over three dozen eggs to feed the 30 people present for breakfast, Isaiah gets to work whisking, and does it skillfully. Later he transitions into cutting pieces of cantaloupe with Richard, all with unexpected skills for a child of two. He does both with joy, not once complaining or realizing he has been put to work.
“I personally like work,” laughs Colleen. “I miss not going out with the home crews. I don’t get to do it that much anymore because I have work to do here. I want them to know that you have to work hard for things. I think prayer is important and service to others. I want my children to know that there is no job that is too humble and that scrubbing toilets can still be service to others.”
Eric’s day starts by leading volunteers through a prayer and spiritual lesson. Regardless of time, each day starts this way. He laughs because he knows the community often scratches their heads at their “lazy” start times. Most of his home repair and community service crews make it out to a site around 9 a.m., which by most construction standards is late because of the sun and heat. However, Eric says it is more important to get people up and out of bed, feed them a spiritual nugget of knowledge in addition to a hearty home-cooked meal and then send them out to do animal care-taking on the farm before they depart for their jobs in the community.
“Yeah things might look a little different here,” Eric said looking out over the community building’s wrap around porch capturing a perfect view of the farm’s gardens and high tunnel. “When people come here we might be confused with a hippie commune, because we share things in common. We have a lot of things that people might associate with tree huggers or far flung environmentalists. We have composting toilets, green houses, passive solar heating and lighting and we collect our rain water. But those come from our belief that this is a gift that we have been given and it’s not something for us to use up and spit out, but something for us to care for and pass on to future generations. So in some ways I think people are able to come here and see parts of the Catholic faith that they didn’t know existed and it might awaken things in them that way it might enliven beliefs that they have held that have been disconnected.”
Eric is heartened by a recent encyclical letter released by Pope Francis called Laudato Si, On the Care of the Common Home, which focuses sharply on the environment and sustainable living choices as paramount to Christian values. Fitts believes this letter supports the cornerestones that have been guiding him at Bethlehem Farm for the past 11 years and adds validity for any who might question how sustainability and simplicity connect to faith. The letter also connects back to Bethlehem Farms origins, which comes from conversations held by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia who released a pastoral letter in 1975 called, “This Land Is Home To Me,” which plead with the area to hear the voices of those struggling with poverty and to take note of the exploited land as something of beauty and value. The letter prophetically warns of what could happen if nothing is done. Its warnings in many ways are the realities of those still living in the Appalachian region. The letter is also the basis for how the farm came about and why the cornerstones are the guiding values.
“Our impact at Bethelehem Farm goes beyond the region and so our hope is that each person that goes through here seeds that lifestyle to the world and does that in their own way,” Eric said.
This is evident as Eric, whose natural demeanor is quiet and reflective, brightens and comes alive as he hoists Isaiah onto his hip and takes him out to the long driveway that leads off of the property. Volunteers cheer and sing as Eric and Isaiah high five and wave to volunteers heading out into the community for a long day of work. His face illuminates and he smiles and laughs as each car passes him by, prepared to begin a day of seeding the community with a sense of compassion and understanding of what one needs to just feel comfort and safety. They need a home that has the comforts needed for a safe and healthy life.