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Dear Friends,

This is the letter I’ve been trying to write for over a year. Every time I sit down to write, however, I’m stuck. I can’t remember who knows what, or when I gave the last update, or whether I was joyful or in despair the last time we talked, and how that affected what we shared.

And so I’m writing it all here, in something much-too-long-for-a-blog-but-long-overdue. For all those who have asked how we are, or what we’ve been up to, or how we’re doing, or all the latest. This is it.

I really need to start at the beginning.

So: I never wanted to leave Alabama. I didn’t want to give up my house, and I never for a minute wanted to be anything other than a college literature professor. I had a beautiful house, wonderful friends, delightful students, and I was almost entirely content.

Almost. The lack I felt most keenly, believe it or not, wasn’t a husband or children, although I certainly desired to marry. Rather, the thing that kept heart from being entirely at peace was my inability to practice deep hospitality. Certainly, my house was often full of students, or of neighbors and their children. But these were all my people – similar to me in worldview, race, income, and culture. Their visits brought me deep gladness, but I know my Bible and my Homer well enough to say that you can’t measure your hospitality by how often you welcome your friends. It is your treatment of the stranger that counts.

Sometimes I would sit in my living room, watching live-oak shadows and sunshine tangle through my windows, and suddenly I would imagine Jesus walking in my door.

“Hello,” I’d stammer, awkwardly.

“Hello, dearheart,” he’d say. “I’m here because I need this back.”

“Need this?”

“Yes, this: your house, your books, the yard. I need you to sell it and give everything to the poor. Or we could swing open the door and let them come move in with you. There are lots of ways….”

At this point I’d usually shake the picture away and try to think of something else. I didn’t appreciate this intrusion. It was a painful reminder of years before, when I had volunteered at a breakfast for the homeless in Waco. After months of getting to know the regular attendees over scrambled eggs and strong coffee, I’d found myself in an agonizing position. One of the homeless men, Michael, began asking if he could come to my apartment and watch a movie with me, or even crash on my couch.  Although I knew it would be unwise to host him alone in my apartment, I also recognized that his fundamental needs—his need for friendship, community, and rest—were entirely legitimate, and could never be met by a shelter bed or a soup-kitchen line. My little household was not resilient enough to carry Michael’s burdens, and I was not bold enough to call out to Christ’s Body, the Church, to help me carry them.

Into this “divine discontent,” enter Steven, my farmer-prophet. I fell deeply, madly, unlike-any-other-man in love with him. I fell in love with his eyes, his grin, his honesty, his arms, his tenderness, and his work: using farming to build communities, restoring creation while restoring homes to the widow, the orphan, the castaway.

People are still shocked when I tell them that Steven proposed, and I said yes, only 7 weeks after we met, but I knew even earlier that when (not if, but when) he asked, I would say yes.

When Steven proposed, he had been working for years toward the opening of Community First! Village, and had already committed to God to live there for at least a year.  He had explained this on our first date, and so I knew that when I agreed to marry him, I was agreeing to quit my job, move to Austin, and live in an RV.

I didn’t want to do any of these things. Had there been any reasonable way for Steven to move to Mobile instead, I would have seized it. But there wasn’t. I had to make a choice.

To make that choice, I did what my parents had always taught me to do: I turned to the Bible. I desperately sought for a verse that said, “Follow your bliss,” or a parable about the wise servant who practiced self-care, or an epistle enjoining the faithful to seek first their passions. But of course I found none of that. Instead I found wedding feasts filled with outcasts. I found households that were somehow churches, hostels, and families all at once. I found tentmakers instructing apostles and dead being raised to life. I heard God speaking through His prophets,

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

[…]

if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

(Isaiah 58:6-7; 10-12 ESV)

I knew I could share my bread with the hungry, and welcome the homeless poor into my own home, better with Steven, and at the Village, than I could alone. And so I made my choice: we married and moved into an RV at the Village in July of 2015. When we came to Community First! Village, we were committed to a year, but open to the possibility that God might call us here longer.

That was four years ago. When I arrived, I thought I would write along the way about my experiences here, but I quickly realized that the intensity of life at the Village would require time and wisdom before I could tell my story well. I thought we would have a baby sooner rather than later, and that I would spend my mornings walking the baby and building relationships with neighbors. But when I found myself humbled and without words (who am I to tell these stories?), and when I found myself bereft and without babies (two miscarriages in our first two years of marriage), I threw myself into the work of this place alongside Steven. Mobile Loaves was extraordinarily generous in welcoming me to the staff and helping me find ways to serve. I can say, with humility and wonder, that the work has been fruitful: together we founded an Inn, a Symposium program, a soap-making micro-enterprise, and an apprenticeship program, which I still run. (And, at last, a baby has crowned all this work, and I have those morning walks and sweet talks I thought would define my days here).

It has been a beautiful journey, but also a hard one. I’ve spent many miles grieving the things I gave up in order to be here: university teaching above all, but also my house, my dog, and the hope of my parents living nearby. I no longer have access to a university library, which makes good research nearly impossible, and I feel my scholarly muscles atrophying. Living in an RV is hard, and I’ve cried at least once because I don’t even have enough counter space to roll out a pie crust. Some of my sorrow has been legitimate mourning; much of it has been self-sorry tantrum-throwing. One of the dear friends I’ve made here once said to me, “I feel like I’ve met you in your winter, and I’m just praying that God will let me see the glory that’s going to come with the spring.” Another friend said I was one “acquainted with sorrow,” and I don’t know how you could live at the Village and not be: when you come to love men and women who have endured such trauma, who continue to battle addictions or labor under mental illness or wonder what has happened to the children they lost. To be acquainted with sorrow – to walk daily by the graves of neighbors who once shared your meals and told you stories, to be the one who calls 911 and says, “No, they’re not breathing. No, no, they’re cold to touch.”

Even so, there has been so much goodness. Meaningful work among amazing people. Laughter around campfires, drum circles and hymn-sings, work together in gardens and workshops. Growing cotton and hearing stories about what it meant to grow it and pick it years ago. Dancing at weddings and chasing errant donkeys and welcoming guests. So many walks, so many meals, so much celebration. When I take my baby on a walk through the Village, she comes back home covered in rose petals our neighbors have sprinkled over her. And do you remember Michael, the homeless man who wanted a friend to watch a movie with him? So many times, year after year, I’ve thought to myself, “I could have brought Michael here. He could have been at home, and we would be home alongside him.”

Indeed, it was the goodness, much more than the sorrows, that made us realize God wasn’t calling us to stay at the Village forever. My time here has convinced me that radical hospitality is not a special call given to some Christians, but one of the hallmarks of God’s people.  I have also learned, in a thousand large and small ways, that extending this hospitality requires participation in a robust, resilient, complex, dynamic household of faith. Our churches ought to be such communities, but how can they be, when their members only see each other once or twice a week? We need households that shape our everyday life, allowing us to welcome someone not only to Sunday worship, but to Monday supper and Wednesday work and Friday movie nights.

And so, in the summer of 2017, we began inviting others into prayer and conversation about establishing such a household. We called this project “the Abbey,” because we wanted to create a community rooted in rhythms of prayer and work, just as the first monastic abbeys in England were. In the months that followed, two families, in particular, began to dream and plan with us about what this might mean.

These conversations were the reason, in early 2018, that Steven left the staff of Mobile Loaves & Fishes so that he could move back into farming with the poor – the call that led him to work with MLF and help establish the Village in the first place. Additionally, each of the three “abbey” families had at least one member who felt called to farming in some way. Rooting our work in farming made sense as we sought both the ministry and the economic foundations for our community.

This move first took Steven to the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, where he helped establish New Leaf Agriculture, a farming program for refugees who have settled in Austin. Steven was hired to get the program off the ground, and by the time it was well-established, we knew that we were pregnant again, and began praying for something full time (MRC had been a ¾-time position) to provide more margin as we prepared for the baby (and with the baby, a shift to either part-time work or resigning for me). That full-time role came in the form of a position with a research farm associated with Texas A&M. This enormous farm primarily grows commodity crops, but Steven was hired to develop a market garden – in other words, he would grow vegetables on about 5 acres, and find markets to sell them. I welcomed this as such good news – we had just finished paying off Steven’s student loans earlier in the year, and now we would have a season of two full time incomes to save towards land for the abbey’s own farm down the road.

This position, however, did not last long. Steven’s training and experience is in organic farming, and when he was hired the research farm agreed to let him grow half of his program by conventional meals (i.e. with pesticides) and half organically. As time went by, however, and Steven began to ask to grow all organically. His boss felt that he was not supportive enough of the farm’s culture, and fired him.

For me, this was a devastating blow. The two months Steven was with the research farm had been the first time I’d felt at ease financially for our entire marriage. I was incredibly angry and embarrassed. To be honest, I still don’t understand why God opened up that position and then took it away – I don’t have a tidy way to fit it into the story God is telling.

Perhaps losing the job was “a severe mercy,” for while it would have been a steady income, there was no way to make it a site for ministry. Losing it provoked us to do the thing that had seemed years down the road – begin a farm specifically for the abbey, which could serve to connect the abbey families, central Texas churches, and the poor among us.  Just as Steven’s job with the research farm ended, a friend who owned land northeast of Austin offered to let us farm some of his land rent-free. And so, we took our savings and started a farm. I wish I could say I did this boldly and with great faith, but in fact I was terrified and angry that we were starting it just as I was preparing to give birth. I loved the idea of the farm and the abbey dream it was advancing, but in my flesh I simply wanted security and stability as I made a nest for our daughter.

Despite my misgivings, the farm began with a beautiful service of prayer and blessing, as we shared with our friends our hopes for the farm – we hoped that it would be the foundation of the abbey – a community of prayer, creativity, and stewardship that can empower its members to extend radical welcome to guests of all kinds.

The farm bore fruit in community quickly. All three abbey households were deeply engaged, churches sent volunteer groups, and when we announced that we would be selling our produce through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription model, the response was strong and steady. If all went well, the next steps would be finding a way to physically move our households and the farms to the same location, and to find how the farm could serve as a ministry to the poor.

The search for a place to grow, live, and welcome has had many chapters, possibilities, hopes, disappointments, and variations. I won’t try to summarize them all, but after lots of prayer, listening, and exploration, the doors seem to be opening for land and ministry in San Marcos. In fact, we have the possibility to move the farm to a piece of land that would be incredibly well situated to be a ministry to underprivileged populations in San Marcos. In the not-too-distant future, it could also be a place where we could establish housing for a community made up of rich and poor alike, carrying what we’ve learned at Community First! into a new city and new season.

As we’ve sought the farm’s new home, we put the CSA on pause at the end of the spring semester, and Steven has been working miscellaneous jobs (mostly landscaping) in between caring for the baby (on the days I’m in the office) and working on proposals for this (hopefully) next season of farm-community-ministry. It’s been an exhilarating season, but also an exhausting one. Money is incredibly tight as we live on my part-time earnings. Both our cars died in the first three months of the year, and we’ve been driving a friend’s loaner car (bless them!) for months. However, soon we’ll need to buy our own car, which means taking on a monthly payment.

Through all this, God has provided everything we need, right on time. We didn’t need to purchase a single thing for the baby, as our beloved community at the Village and our church surrounded and supported us. Friends have sent financial support, telling us they believe in the ministry of home we are trying to establish. We are living on God’s manna economy, rejoicing in our daily bread and praying for faith to believe that tomorrow’s bread is safe in His keeping.

Throughout this journey, there have been many times that I’ve bellowed at God, “I don’t want to start a whole community! I just want a home where I can raise my babies and welcome others. I just want tranquility.” And then I remember all the missions lessons of my childhood. We learned about “foreign missionaries” who were called to preach the Gospel overseas, and “home missionaries” who embodied that good news on their native soil. “Home missionary” is a wonderful paradox – one who is sent home, or perhaps, one whose call is to bring the gospel home. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house… And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.”

And that’s where we are, beloved: in a hopeful, liminal, exhausting, thrilling season. I pray with all my might that soon, very soon, we’ll have a way to invite you to join us in it.

Ever homeward,

Bethany

P.S. Ways to Pray

Ask that God would provide us with a good car at a fair price. Ask, if it is His will, that someone might feel led to give us a car.

Ask for God’s continued guidance and protection as we look to establish the ministry of the abbey in San Marcos. Thank God for the influential partners He has already sent us, and pray that we would be faithful, grateful, and humble as we move forward.

Ask that God would give us wisdom about when to move from Community First! to San Marcos. Moving would allow Steven to invest more fully in re-establishing the farm and beginning to lay the foundations for the community and ministry, but it would mean that I would be commuting an hour back to the Village twice a week for work.

Pray that the Holy Spirit would go ahead of us as we prepare to formalize the farm ministry as a non-profit and begin fundraising for its budget. In particular, for Steven to really dive into this work, he needs a full-time income.  Ask that God who help us know how to invite as financial partners in this work, and that they would be empowered not only with their money, but with their hearts and minds as well.

Pray for prudence, generosity, and clarity. I’ve been heavy-hearted and discouraged for much of 2019, and I want to enter our next season with courage and joy.

Continue to pray for Community First! and all that is happening here. As we prepare to move, I am already grieving the loss of daily community here, especially for our daughter. Ask that our departure would be a sending out, and that my continued role on staff would keep us deeply connected to the life and work of the Village.

 

 

 

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