Greetings Neighbors and Strangers,
This is a story of longing for home in a displaced time.
If you’ve read some of these letters, this sentence might already be familiar to you. The line may end up as the subtitle of the book I’m writing on food gifting. It makes a serviceable handle for these weekly letters as well. With such an orientation, you can probably imagine that I don’t stray very farm from the Farm.
Just over a year ago I downgraded to a gifted flip phone with a poorly-working keypad, meaning that I would no longer send text messages. I can remember clearly the fear of isolation and loneliness that arose. It was time to begin knocking on my neighbors’ doors. Many of them not only answered my knock but invited me inside, and even accepted my invitations to come to the Farm for something I called a Gratitude Feast. After eleven months of weaning from the phone I can report no increase in loneliness. Quite the opposite.
Last Monday I pushed off from here in the rusty hatchback that I also received as a gift, headed north towards the Canadian border, where I would turn the phone off. I was headed to the fourth and final session of a school that I am a part of called the Orphan Wisdom School. God(s) willing, I would return here one week later with an increased capacity for home.
At this school session, our contemplations circled ‘round the encounter between Jesuit missionaries and the Huron peoples of present-day Ontario—specifically a surviving written account from 1635-6 called The Huron Relation. The book’s author, Jean de Brebeuf, vacillates between praise and condemnation. In an unguarded moment, he admits:
The Huron have some remarkable moral qualities. We notice, foremost, a great love and bond for each other, a bond which they are careful to foster by marriage, gifts, their feasts, and continual visiting. When they come back from fishing, hunting and trading, they share a great deal of their goods with one another. If they have caught something special….they stage a feast for the whole village.
In church a few weeks ago we contended with a parable from the gospel of Matthew called Laborers in the Vineyard, which begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Jesus goes on to tell a story in which the vineyard owner hires more laborers in the middle of the day and again in the late afternoon. At day’s end, each worker receives the same payment. As you might imagine, this outcome displeased those who began work in the morning. They protest, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” The master of the house replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last.” In the preceding paragraph, Matthew recounts Jesus’ well-known and thorny warning, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
In his Huron Relation, Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf is clearly perplexed by the degree of generosity he encounters. He writes, “One is astonished to see so much blindness in regard to the things of Heaven in a people who do not lack judgement and knowledge in things pertaining to earth.” Upon hearing the parable of the vineyard workers, the Huron may have recognized the master of the house easily, as the landscape that was their home. Instead of money, their daily wages came in the form of the fish, game and garden crops that kept them alive.
When people ask me why I no longer sell things I always have to pause for a moment before answering. They are asking me for a sentence or two, not a whole book on the subject. The simplest answer I have found is this: If I were to raise a lamb, butcher him and sell you the meat, our transaction would rest upon the assumption that the meat was at first mine, and then upon payment, became yours. At some point I stopped being able to see food, or the landscape from which it emerges, as property, or belongings. If I had been in the business of making clothing or housing rather than farming, the same moment of reckoning could have just as easily arrived. No longer able to say that the life held in a lamb’s body belonged to me, it seemed more accurate to say that I properly belong to them—the lambs and the landscape from which they emerge.
The word longing becomes belonging by adding the prefix be-, which functions to intensify that which it precedes. It means “around” or “on all sides.” In Jesus’ parable, the master of the house says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
This is a story of longing for home in a displaced time.
What if home differs from the market in its central, guiding aspiration? If the market deploys private property in pursuit of fairness and justice, home is recognizable by its ample servings of generosity and belonging. The currency of homemaking is the gift.
Stephen Jenkinson, the master storyteller who works alongside his wife—the master chef, muse and hostess Nathalie Roy—to co-create the Orphan Wisdom School, offered the following, profound observation in the teaching hall last week: The first contact recorded in The Huron Relation may have unleashed consequences upon the European imagination that have thus far been under-considered. Jean de Brebeuf seems astonished to find a people who have no knowledge of Jesus and yet have a clear and admirable capacity to share life with one another. The Huron’s way of living embodies Jesus’ radically subversive reminders without needing heaven and hell for motivation. Said another way, The Huron Relation records a Jesuit missionary’s encounter with a people who never forgot their capacity for home.
And then, from the back of the hall came a question. “Might the missionaries have considered that Jesus was incarnated where and when he was because that was the place and time of greatest need?”
Stephen thought for a moment and then replied, “Maybe behind closed doors they would have dared to entertain such a possibility.” But missionaries were foot soldiers of empire, and such questions wouldn’t have gone over well back at central command.
The whisper to be heard through the cracks of Brebeuf’s first contact account: it might have gone another way. The story of America might have unfolded very differently if the arriving European settlers—or refugees—sought guidance from the people who had made home here ongoingly for thousands of years. Brebeuf writes,
Their hospitality to any and all strangers is noteworthy. In their feasts, they give the best of what they have prepared to the stranger and, as I have already said, I do not know whether anything equal to this can be found elsewhere.
By elsewhere, Brebeuf is referring to a Europe constipated with tyranny and committed to the colonial project. He continues,
I think I have read in the Lives of the Fathers that a non-Christian army was converted on seeing the charity and hospitality of a Christian town whose inhabitants vied with each other in welcoming and caring for these strangers.
By the Lives of the Fathers, Brebeuf is referring to the communal lifeways of the elders of the early Christian Church. Brebeuf is wondering about a time before his religion, inspired by Jesus’ radical course-correction, was adopted by the Roman empire. Brebeuf continues, “The non-Christians rightly supposed that such kind hearts, who were so considerate of everyone without distinction, must have the true religion and adore the true God, the common Father of all.” The calcified religion Brebeuf carries with him on the ship from Europe doesn’t seem to have the capacity to make room for the Huron’s ability to love their neighbors, or to love him. It is heartbreaking. Instead, his collision with that degree of generosity springs a leak in his monolithic and universal story. He can be read throughout the account attempting to patch the leak.
At this point in the school session, Stephen suggested that the subsequent and ongoing spread of industrial capitalism and secularism in both Europe and North America could be an under-considered consequence of that first contact—between a people who had never lost their capacity for home and a story too brittle to extend hospitality to the unwelcome stranger. A story with no room at the inn.
If you’re trying to read between the lines for where I come down on these questions, you won’t find any side-taking here. Upon my arrival at the School last week, one of the other scholars—an Episcopal priest—approached me in greeting. She told me that she had been reading these newsletters and offered to talk with me about the church whenever I was ready. Given the missionizing story I’d just read, an invitation like that still makes me a bit nervous. I asked her if we could share breakfast together the next morning.
With steam rising from our bowls of oatmeal, she began. “I want you to know that I don’t call myself a Christian. Rather, I can tell you that I am a Christ follower. If I wasn’t a priest, I’m not sure I would be able to keep going to church.” She described to me her work of attempting to make room in the church for the strangers knocking on the door. She’s not sure she can do it, and yet the possibility of walking away breaks her heart wide open.
What if God’s in Everything?
Going to church again amounts to one articulation of longing for home in a displaced time. I think of it as an hour-long bible study and choir practice with a small group of the older folks who grew up in the town to which I have just recently arrived. You might see the parallels to Brebeuf’s journey, and you wouldn’t be wrong, except that his example has made me acutely aware of the courage required to allow my story to remain malleable, to resist letting people’s fervent love of Jesus scare me away. After some twenty-five years, it was not easy to go back to church for the first time, to imagine that the Jesus story might have something to offer my work at the Farm without overtaking it. I found the legacy of imperial Christianity repulsive, but finally I was ready to admit the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
In my work here at the Farm, I have gotten to know some outrageously beautiful humans. Allison Arnold has agreed to serve on the board of the nonprofit that will shepherd the work. When she and I first met one year ago, we found ourselves sitting across from one another at a harvest supper in town. She saw my name tag and asked, “Is your last name Wilson? You’re an amazing writer.”
“That’s kind of you to say. What does the writing stir in you?”
“It’s so full of spirit,” she replied. Now we were getting somewhere.
“Would you describe what that word means to you?” I asked.
Allison proceeded to tell me about the Methodist Church she attends—and labors diligently to keep afloat—in the neighboring town. As she talked, I could feel a familiar discomfort rising in me. I had to let her know that I wasn’t a Christian.
“I don’t often use the word because I assume people won’t know what it means, but if I had to define my relationship to the word spirit, I would say that I am a practicing animist.”
Allison looks me square in the eyes and says, “I know what animism is.”
“Please do tell, because I’m not sure I can describe it very well.”
She said, “It just means God’s in everything.”
I was undone by her response. There was no dissonance for her. Allison’s capacity to make room in her story for the language I used for God(s) allowed me to step back into the church. As a practicing animist, I might say, “God is in everyone” in an attempt to stretch my mind to extend personhood to nonhumans, and Allison and I have a grand time discussing such linguistic puzzles.
The Food Church
It was a sunny day in March just before lambing season when I finally screwed up the courage to attend a Sunday service. Just before I crossed through the heavy wooden doors, a memory returned to me from my early twenties. After finishing undergraduate school, I decided I would spend a summer as an apprentice on a farm while I applied for graduate programs in anthropology. Instead, I applied to a six-month training in organic vegetable production, moving with just my bicycle and rucksack of clothes to the windswept coast of California. In the town below the farm where I studied, I stumbled upon an anarchist bike shop. But it wasn’t a shop at all. It was a gathering place—for lack of a better word—full of gleaned and gifted bicycle parts. When open, various community members offered to help anyone who showed up build or repair a bicycle—all for no charge. I had never heard of anything like it. But it was the name that really stunned me: The Bike Church. I smile now as I imagine that group of anarchists in one of their early visioning meetings when one of them suggested that name. Likely half of the room got up and walked out. Brittle stories have no room for the unwelcome stranger. If it wasn’t a shop, what was it? Where is nothing for sale? Their answer: a church.
An addendum to the Bike Church memory came flooding in as I headed home from church on that warm March day. Upon discovering The Bike Church in my early twenties, I thought, “Someday I’m going to start something called The Food Church.” I never said those words aloud back then. It took going back to church to remember that’s where I had been headed for twenty years.
This is a story of longing for home in a displaced time.
That’s plenty for today. Thank you, sincerely, for taking the time to read or listen.
If you are willing to share this story, that will embolden the possibility of the book making it out into the world and sustain the writing ongoingly.
Photo at top provided by Adam Wilson.