Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Life on an Urban Farm

“Color me green,” an old environmentalist friend used to say whenever we at Annunciation House of Worcester were undertaking an initiative that met with his approval. It was a nice but also very apropos way for him to signal agreement especially when what we were doing had to do with urban gardening, solar energy projects and the like- with the greening and the regreening of our own little patch in the wide world! It was also nice to know we were pleasing someone in the know about these things even if our efforts seemed to us quite modest considering the great needs of a planet in peril. Still we tried to be a microcosm of what could be done in an urban clime by folks who would have the Spirit move among us “renewing the face of the earth.” Conscious of some calling to this we tried and try to share who we were and are as a simple household blending a variety of influences- Franciscan, Benedictine, Catholic Worker, interfaith, hippie... praying and working for a more just and peaceful world by means quirky and personalist! Our particular vocation seems to be just trying to be open to the designs of the Divine- to utter our own distinct "Fiat" to God as best we can despite or even because of our being of the rascally sort. 

We named our house many years ago at the suggestion of a former Trappist monk and carpenter. At the time, he was refashioning an old garage of ours into a chapel/prayer hut/”poustinia” (translated from the Russian, “desert place”). It was a great labor of love on his part for a family with a bunch of kids now settled in what was once a farmhouse built by Irish immigrants a century and a half earlier. Our home seemed necessarily to have a social dimension to it. There had been an old barn on the property but it had been torn down long before we arrived. But there was still an old garage, a chicken coop and a good bit of land attached to the old house here on the outer edge of what is now the second largest city in Massachusetts. It seemed to all fit together. We experimented with doing what we could to make use of the gift we had received largely because of the generosity of my wife’s mother who had bought the place from old Swedes who followed the Irish in farming here for years. We inherited what was left of the old farm. Because of my Catholic Worker connections, I was particularly inspired to include some of Peter Maurin’s (the co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement) vision into our own family’s based on the pursuit of his three “C’s as he used to call them- “Cult, Culture and Cultivation.” 

Cult has to do with the spiritual life, with giving priority to prayer, liturgy, meditation. So we have a chapel with a name inspired by the weathervane that has long perched atop the old garage displaying a hunting party on a horse following a dog in hot pursuit of a fox that was fleeing from them all. The image and story relayed in the weathervane reminded us of Francis Thompson’s famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” and so we named our chapel after the Hound who we knew to be in pursuit of us too as he was of Thompson who had been an opium addict in late 19th century London. We gather for “Centering Prayer” as a small group and take refuge in the place when “labor and heavy burdens” make for a homecoming to the one who offers us rest there. We have hosted anniversary Masses for our beloved dead and held retreat days in the chapel as well. We’ve a wood stove there to keep us warm in the winter months.

Culture has to do with the life of the mind or what Maurin called “clarification of thought”- meetings in which to talk matters over in a somewhat scholarly but also practical way. In this regard, we have a grape arbor behind the chapel and in good weather we gab there about what we hold or should hold dear.  In inclement weather, we meet in the living room for discussion and reading groups. We gather here to read and comment on books we find helpful to our spiritual and thought life. We have read from Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings and Julian of Norwich’s “Showings of Divine Revelation.” We are currently reading Dorothy Day’s diaries “The Duty of Delight.”  Following our sessions of nourishing spirit and mind, we share a pot luck supper. There is a sense of appropriate and joyous feasting and also of fulfilling Peter’s wish that there be houses of welcome, houses of hospitality. 
Cultivation has to do with Maurin’s express desire that farming communes or “agronomic universities” serve as an antidote to those aspects of industrial culture that were and remain irreverent or indifferent to creation. Agricultural and craft pursuits were to be and also suggest to others the pure means whereby a more sanctified economic order could take root in the shell of the old. To this end, behind and to the side of the arbor are our gardens where we grow fruits and vegetables in the spirit of Peter’s vision that we pursue a “Green Revolution” (blessed agriculture) as the basis for securing a whole and holy life. Here we grow a lot of the usual vegetables- tomatoes, cucumbers, squash (summer, zucchini, acorn, and butternut), broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, peas, beans (pole and string), peppers, lettuce, beets, potatoes, Swiss chard, kale, Brussel sprouts, leeks, asparagus, rhubarb and pumpkin. Last year we harvested some garlic for the first time. We have two peach trees which bore abundantly last year and growing cherry and hazelnut trees. We’ve blueberries and black raspberries, apples, pears and Japanese quince and Concord grapes too but the birds have been enjoying those more than we of late. We have in the past made grape jelly and juice. We have put up apple sauce and are still enjoying a large jar of quince jelly. Mind you, we are still city people and the gardens are of a scale as to feed the family here mostly and gift a few friends with a little something fresh and good at harvest time. We used to have chickens that provided us with eggs but gave them up some years ago and in place of what was once the coop is a greenhouse so we can get seedlings ready for planting and have a good storage space for tools. Gardening keeps us close to the soil and to an appreciation of the natural world. It draws us closer to Source and sources reminding us that we too proceed through seasons comparable to those involving sowing, weeding and harvesting. Farming puts us in better touch with our own cyclic experiences of struggle and joy, dying and rising.   

When newcomers visit, a tour is in order and once we’ve traversed the landscape and stopped by the chapel, the arbor and the gardens, the point is made that Peter Maurin’s three “C”s are all here in a row. Although the scale is modest and we need be very humble about our venture, it seems apropos that each “c” is given some attention. Like three little seeds, might they just contain the possibility and potential of generating much new growth? We sure hope so, God willing, God blessing!
(Annunciation House of Worcester has a Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/297981285119/)               
Michael Boover
First Published in Living City

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Walk Together Children

Hey y’all. As many of you know, I have spent the last week participating in the National Park Service’s 50th Anniversary Selma to Montgomery Walking Classroom. And now it is time to head home again. What do I even say? It was spectacular. This experience has been touted by the National Park Service as “life-changing” and “history-making” and although I think it’s a little preemptive to claim either of those titles already, I will say that it was such an incredible experience that I am sitting here struggling to find any words to do the journey justice. 

And it was a journey. 6 days ago feels so far away and thinking of returning to my home in Enfield feels even further. I have grown accustomed to walking, talking, singing, and chanting and in some small way I have given a piece of my heart to this 54 mile stretch of 80 East from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Leaving behind a piece of your heart – whether with a person, or a place, or both – can leave you with a strange numbing sort of pain for a while. A pain that you don’t actually want to escape because in some ways it is like being surrounded by a cloud of genuine gratefulness and awe. It is this joyful sadness that I feel today. 

Talking to a friend from the march about this feeling, we both immediately thought of the same quote from Mother Teresa – “I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” This hurt in our hearts, comes from an abundance of love. Love for the people we walked beside. Love for the foot soldiers who came before us. Love for the unity that bound us together in the splattering, wet rain or in the sweat of the beating sun. Love for the openness that let us share deeply as our feet moved together. Love for the sound of voices from across the nation rising as one. Love for the rangers who fed us, taught us, counted us, and kept us safe. Love for the green pastures, cloudy skies, and even for the far-off cows who were mostly oblivious to our presence.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” In many ways, I feel that this proverb is all that needs to be said about our journey. “Walk together children and don’t you grow weary.” Bam. Done. Walk together. Truly walk together. I love that adverb “together”. It’s not “walk near”, “walk with”, or even “walk alongside”. It is walk together. When you walk together, you are one.

Ubuntu (another African concept): “I am who I am because of who we all are.” In walking together, camping together, eating together, singing together, marching into the capitol together we built an impromptu family. The word that keeps coming to me is intimacy. There was a deep shared intimacy amongst us. We learned – not through lectures or reading, but through doing and living – that our strength comes not from any individual but from our unity. Walking by myself I would just be lonely, tired, and wet. All things I hate. Together the hills did not seem so big and the journey did not seem so long. In fact, it is surprising how quickly you can become accustomed to walking 12 miles a day. Days of 3 or 6 miles, we complained, were just not far enough.

At the beginning of the trip, I mentioned that I find it is easy to feel alone in “fighting the good fight” and so maybe the most important part of this trip is just that I don’t feel so alone. This week I saw potential and passion oozing around every bend in the road. People with incredibly diverse interests joined together. Feet that kept walking even with blisters. Honest connections and conversations. It left me feeling like there is a lot of hope out there. Just like my photojournalist friend Albert trains his eyes to look for the best shot, I’ve just got to tune my eyes for the hope that is all around us and then keep on walking. Keep on walking. Together. And don’t grow weary.
Jennifer Arnold
Guest Blogger
First Published at The Education Exploration

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Seeing Each Other as "One of Ours"

The program began before it had started, its meaning expressed in a chance encounter of two people standing by the threshold of an open door. Chaim had arrived, delivering kosher Middle Eastern food. It used to be when I would place the order and request delivery to the mosque in Roxbury, there would be a moment of confused silence at the other end of the phone. Now it seemed so natural, change over time; Rabbi Reinstein, the mosque, imams and rabbis. As I stood with another rabbi greeting Chaim, Mohamed, a partner in dialogue, walked briskly across the tiled floor of the grand foyer of the mosque. There, at the threshold he extended his hand and began speaking to Chaim in Arabic. Without missing a beat, the Jewish deliveryman responded in animated Arabic. As the two men began to laugh, Mohamed exclaimed, “I thought he was one of ours.” Greeted as a lantsman/countryman, a Yiddish term from Eastern Europe just as foreign to him as to Mohamed, Chaim explained that he had grown up in Libya speaking Arabic. In the relaxed atmosphere and good humor that filled the entry space, others having joined us, drawn to the sound of laughter, we were all, each to the other, as “one of ours,” lantsmen.

With Chaim’s arrival, we were setting up for a program of Building Bridges through Learning. During a time of ugly controversy, fomented by opponents of the very mosque in which we were meeting, a Muslim colleague and I started Building Bridges, seeking to create a different reality by bringing together imams and rabbis to study together. Always with a thematic focus explored through Jewish and Muslim texts, we learn with and from each other, but most importantly, we learn about each other. 

There is a natural bridge between Jews and Muslims that is too often forgotten today. Both peoples are a people of the book, ah’l al kitab/am ha’sefer. Building bridges through learning, we create common ground upon which we, and through us our communities, can come to know each other. With the experience now of nearly ten years of learning together, a depth and sense of trust has developed that brings a growing sense of ease to our interactions, even as we welcome new people. 

Seeking a lens through our texts by which at times to address challenging issues that beset us, and at others to discover and delight in threads of connection, we were exploring on that day a fascinating weave of thematic connection. A little known bond between Jews and Muslims is our common celebration in sacred text and calendar of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery. While not observed on the level of Passover in Jewish tradition, for which the more likely parallel may be Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the freeing of the Hebrew slaves on the fast day known as Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharam. It was a particularly timely theme for the Jewish participants, in the midst of preparations for Passover. During our learning, a Muslim woman at my table said that when she fasts on Ashura she “feels like we are in solidarity with the Jewish people.”

As the planning committee considered the Exodus as a focus, strains of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” spontaneously rose from among us and floated around the table, Jews and Muslims joined by a Jamaican Reggae singer. As the Jewish story of liberation from Egyptian slavery offers universal metaphor and inspiration in the quest for human freedom, the essential question is how to make the story real. To Bob Marley’s question in song, the answer is ours through deed, “Won't you help to sing these songs of freedom? 'Cause all I ever have, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.” In our gathering was the beginning of an answer, one small step along the path toward a new way, people joining together, breaking the shackles of all that would divide, familiarity and friendship to replace distance and suspicion.

In a time when despair comes so easily, there is hope in the simple encounters of people with each other, planned and unplanned, always open to possibility and unexpected signs of change. Looking toward the morning light from the midnight hour of our ancestors’ departure, we begin the walk toward freedom. That is the message with which the weekly Torah portion of the week of our program, the portion Tzav (Lev. 6-8), opens and the message of the Shabbat that precedes Passover, Shabbat Ha’gadol/the Great Sabbath. In the first verses of the portion Tzav, the Ascent offering is to be burned upon the altar through the night until the morning, when the new day’s fire shall be kindled from the dying embers of yesterday. In the prophetic reading for Shabbat Ha’gadol, the Prophet Malachi bids us look toward the dawning of the new day of liberation for all, the meaning of Passover and Ashura fulfilled, of swords turned to plowshares, “Redemption Song,” upon every tongue: Lo, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God, Who will turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.

On that Shabbat of new possibility preceding Passover, we stand by the threshold of an open door, looking toward a time when all shall laugh together and see each other as “one of ours.” In the excitement of encountering another whom we only thought was “one of ours,” we suddenly realize that our “mistaken” thought is in fact true on a deeper level than our initial thought. We create in that moment of realization a portal to sacred space, the beginning of relationship before we have even started. Hearts turning to each other in openness, we are all lantsmen who speak a common tongue, the language of the heart.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


    As a person who cherishes a life of “double belonging” - - embracing both Christian and Jewish life and practice, holidays and liturgies, I find the season of Lent and the close proximity of the central ritual observances of both traditions to be a strenuous time of year - - strenuous, and profoundly rich and challenging.  I am about 12 years into this journey and each year has brought its own blessings and insights, questions and confusion, revelation and integration.   This year as the first night seder of Pesach and the observance of Good Friday coincide, the richness and the challenge deepens.  

    Earlier this week, in a study of some of the midrashim (a form of exposition and commentary on Torah) related to Pesach, my teacher drew the class’s attention to a few words from the Passover story: “…On the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household;”  …..and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregations of Israel shall kill it at dusk.” (Exodus 12:3,6)

    The question for discussion was “Why the 4 days between obtaining the lamb and sacrificing it?”  My classmates and I wrestled with the text for a couple of hours, coming up with a variety of understandings, none of them satisfactory. We finally ended up consulting a rabbi friend.  Within minutes she shed light on a possible meaning via a mystical approach to the text.  Briefly, she explained that the number 4 is the numerical value of the 4th letter of the Hebrew alphabet which is dalet.  In his beautiful volume titled The Book of Letters,  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains that dalet is “the door” - - which is delet in Hebrew.  Once we had that bit of insight, we were on our way to understanding that perhaps the 4 days between the obtaining of the sacrificial lamb and the evening of its slaughter might represent a “portal” or doorway through which to pass into whatever exists on the other side.   Just a few verses later, the instruction is given to the Hebrews to paint the doorways of their homes with the blood of the sacrificed lamb so that the angel of death would pass over them. Israel subsequently passes through those doorways into freedom from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  

    In my “double-belonging” state, it is impossible not to see how the tradition of midrash continues on in Christian texts as the Gospel writers have Jesus saying of himself “I am the door….” And how the early Jewish gospel writers take up the task with the tools at hand and create a midrash for the infant community that arose around the memory of Jesus. The gospels come into being to help that community make meaning of their struggles with Roman slavery and oppression.  For them, Jesus would become the door through which they could move into a future free from the fear and death that Rome represented as a later re-branding of Pharaoh and Egypt.

    For many generations, in many times and places, Jews and Christians have been in an uneasy relationship at best, and in horrendous, prejudicial, life negating conflict and oppression at worst.   Alarmingly, anti-Semitism is rampant again in Europe.  The life and safety and well being of an ancient people and tradition is again coming under threat in the western world.   As a person of “double belonging”, much of my own journey has been about  asking questions, educating myself, examining my birth tradition, looking at my own culpability, immersing myself in my Jewish community where I live, studying texts with Jews - - and ultimately embarking on the inner task of re-uniting and re-integrating that which has been so broken and scattered for 2000 years. 

    The great stories of redemption and liberation at the core of Judaism and Christianity are inseparably intertwined this year.   Simultaneously, the human community is fractured by violence, fear, mistrust, disrespect – all symptoms of oppression under the 21st century manifestations of Rome and Pharaoh – human trafficking, economic disparity, militarism, food insecurity, homelessness, violent fundamentalism and on and on.

    The human community needs to find a way to “double belonging” - - a way of being together on this planet with each other’s best interest at heart – a way of belonging with and to each other.  An 18th century teacher, the Baal HaTanya, taught that compassion destroys hatred and awakens love.  The simplest definition of compassion is  “to suffer with; to have a sympathetic consciousness of another’s distress with a desire to alleviate it.”     Our “double belonging” begins with learning compassion and with the realization that we do not belong to ourselves alone – that we are responsible for and accountable to one another as human beings in life together.  When one suffers , we all suffer.  Our work is to find the doorway, mark it visibly, and walk through it together into a future unmarred by the oppressive violence and fear of the Pharaohs of today.  We belong there - - together.

Vicky Hanjian