16 June – 15 July 2018
Back in August I when school was starting up again at Cornell, I was jumping straight into being president of Cornell Catholic (a little daunting after a year-long absence) so I met with our new campus minister, Pat, to talk about what we wanted the goals of the Catholic community to be during the coming year. Pat had been a staff member and Project Coordinator at Nazareth Farm for three years, where Cornell takes a group of students each January the week before school starts up again. I remember one of the first parts of the conversation going something like this:
Pat: “Have you been to the Farm before?”
“I don’t know”
“Ok, then you’re going.”
At first I was pretty resistant, not because I didn’t want to go, but because I didn’t really like being blatantly told what to do (sorry Pat). But I also realized shortly after that conversation that I really had no reason not to go, and it would be my last chance anyway.
So in January, a week before the spring semester began, I flew back to Ithaca only to make the 7ish hour drive back down to West Virginia in the snow and ice. Nazareth Farm is in Center Point, WV (but in Salem according to the US Postal Service…I don’t understand it), which means it’s essentially in the middle of nowhere. (Mildly relevant tangent: I actually got lost trying to get some eggs from a neighbor, and then on the way back, still egg-less after 40 minutes of driving, I accidentally ran over a turtle because it was just sitting there and I thought it was a rock until the last second but it was too late. And the greatest misfortune is that I had the windows down at the time, and I would never wish for anyone to ever have to hear that sound. It might sound silly, but it was rather traumatic because I have a pet tortoise at home.)
“What is Nazareth Farms?” Well, no matter how many times my parents call is Nazareth Farms (other people say it too, but I know they’ll still love me even if I throw them under the bus), it’s Nazareth Farm. Singular. There is only one Naz Farm, so I don’t know where the extra “s” keeps coming from. Anyway, more importantly, Nazareth Farm is a “Catholic community in rural West Virginia that transforms lives through a service-retreat experience.” They host high school and college students and their chaperones for week-long retreats that emphasize the four cornerstones of prayer, simplicity, community, and service.
West Virginia has one of the lowest average household incomes in the U.S., which is primarily a result of the coal industry exploiting both the people and the land for the past several generations, creating a ripple effect that continues to cause negative effects, especially for those who currently live there. Nazareth Farm’s mission is to provide home repair services to those who can’t afford a regular contractor. Those who benefit from the Farm’s services only pay for materials, as the labor is done by volunteers. Many times the volunteers will also spend time with the homeowner (if they have an interest), as many of them are elderly and/or not in a great state of health and don’t have much company on a regular basis.
So in the third week of January, one of the coldest weeks of the year, Cornell, Ithaca College, and Wyoming arrived in the snow. We did chores around the farm, worked on various home repair projects (all indoors that week since the temperatures were exceptionally frigid), learned about Catholic Social Teaching and the history and culture of Appalachia, and practiced hospitality within the community throughout the week. I personally had the joy of chopping wood to heat the Farmhouse (had never done that before), drywalling in two homes (never done that either), painting the interior of another, and holding down the fort as “home crew” for a day: cooking, cleaning, writing lunch notes, leading prayer, and finding ways to make everyone feel welcome and at home at the Farm. It’s nestled in a hollow near Salem and home to a few permanent staff members and lots of animals, including three dogs (the mischievous and fluffy Oscar and Ava, and Jasper who belongs to the director), a few cats, and several chickens.
Near the end of the week the volunteer coordinator, Torie, suggested that I apply to be a sojourner. “Sojos” are essentially a mix between long-term volunteers and short-term staff. They are not paid nor are they required to pay the fee that volunteers must, but they are still encouraged to make a donation, and they are given more responsibility than a volunteer and tend to stay on a worksite as opposed to rotating like the volunteers do, and they can stay at the Farm anywhere between 4 weeks and 3 months. My first response was not an immediate yes, mainly because I still didn’t have a job after graduation at that point, so I wasn’t sure if I would have much time between school and work, if any at all, but Torie said that if I ended up having to start a job over the summer then I could just let them know and try to work around it. So I figured that even though my future as a whole was uncertain, that didn’t necessarily mean that my summer had to be as well. So with much pushing from Pat, I filled out an application and sent it in.
I remember when I found out that I was offered a Sojo spot. I felt immediately more at peace. I was so restless not knowing where I would be post graduation, so having this one small part of my future figured out and having something to look forward to in order to get me through the last few months of college greatly reduced the anxiety I felt about all the uncertainties.
The way my summer ended up panning out, I got to spend four weeks on the Farm, June 16th-July 15th. These dates ended up being two staff weeks (the first and last) and two group weeks (in between). I wish I could’ve been there for more than two group weeks, but I had a great time getting to know the students who came.
During the staff weeks I typically was assigned odd jobs, which I was totally ok with because that meant I got to do something different almost every day during those weeks. This included making “dump runs” (going to a worksite, collecting any scraps in a truck bed, and driving then to the dump), collecting leftover hay from a neighbor for the animals, organizing the supply barn (clearly I am not well-versed enough in tarps to know the difference between a “large” and a “huge” tarp), weeding and harvesting in the gardens (picking basil was my favorite), and cooking and baking in the kitchen.
During the two group weeks I was assigned to a new work site where we were going to build two ramps at one house: one from the porch to the front yard and one from the yard to the road. West Virginia is in the Appalachian Mountains so nothing is ever flat. The staff member running the site the first week was Josh, a seasoned ramper at that point. That week we had a large group of high school students from Chicago and Maryland (and I think somewhere else but I can’t remember). It seemed that many of them had never been hiking, camping, or in nature very often, and that many of them were not accustomed to doing manual labor. In some ways this made the week a little difficult, but it also proved to be incredibly fruitful for the students, many of whom we witnessed come out of their shells, even if it was just a little bit, and others who had a spiritual encounter through nature for the first time.
The second week I was on the same work site, but with Mike as the site leader (who also happened to be my amazing prayer partner during my stay at the Farm), and we had an unusually small group (6 students and 3 chaperones) from Indiana. This was also a bit of a challenge at times, but beautiful in its own ways because the group became very tight-knit by the end of the week.
As for the ramp, by the end of the two weeks we had almost finished the ramp from the house to the yard, named “super ramp” because it ended up being almost 100 ft of ramp! And that didn’t include the ramp from the yard to the road. I also successfully learned how to set posts (probably about 30 of them for the whole ramp), so maybe one day it’ll come in handy.
Besides working on sites, there was lots of time during group weeks for getting to know the students, playing games like ships & sailors and the vegetable game, hosting community night each Tuesday, taking part in Communion services, learning about the Appalachian culture, and testing our night vision (with the help of flashlights) during energy fast. During staff weeks there was a great deal of dog petting/grooming, ukulele/guitar playing, watching thunderstorms from the porch, long walks/hikes around the hollow, testing recipes, playing ping pong with the neighbors and swimming in their pond, and creating masterpieces in the woodshop.
One of the best parts about the Farm is that it showed me how to live a simple, practical, selfless, and productive life, and to live in community, despite the fact that sometimes, as an introvert, the last thing you want is to be surrounded by other people. The staff, sojos, students, and chaperones were amazing, the puppies fluffy, the neighbors like family, the lessons unforgettable, and the faith palpable. I know that when I return, however near or far in the future that may be, with open arms (and possibly some mysterious chickpea loaf) I will be welcomed home.