Personalism by Lorraine
Our first summer at the farm, we introduced visiting groups to the Catholic Worker principles, and the one I felt least clear about was personalism. I knew that we tried to respond to individuals and their needs personally instead of bureaucratically, but I felt there was more substance to simplicity and manual labor and non-violence. Since then I’ve read about the roots of personalism, how Peter Maurin brought Emmanuel Mounier’s philosophy from France and how basic it was to the foundations of the early Catholic Worker movement. Personalism was a response to the dehumanizing aspects of communism and capitalism, a recognition that all people are made in the image of God and a refusal to see them or treat them as objects to be used or dismissed. This understanding, however articulated, is the basis for all our work and is fundamentally different from prevailing attitudes in health care, education and economic systems.
Many of the people we encounter don’t have access to basic health care and those who do find it often confusing and alienating. We encounter elders who are on too many medications, prescribed by different doctors without sufficient thought for the whole person and the interaction of the drugs. Children who visit sometimes can’t eat because of aching teeth. They either have no dental coverage, and therefore no care, or their insurance is only accepted by a dentist too far away for them to reach with unreliable transportation. Insurance policies ask us to choose primary care physicians, and then the local health center assigns us one whom we are told we won’t actually ever see. I was recently required to fill out a questionnaire by my health insurance provider ostensibly so they could better “manage” my health care. One question asked what prevented me from making “healthier” choices, but the multiple choice answers didn’t include the alienation I feel at having no health care professional who knows me and has time and interest to hear my questions and concerns. The program then electronically congratulated me for healthy choices relating to diet and exercise, informed me that I was “at risk” because of my age and gender and because I was not being routinely tested for a wide range of problems.
Testing seems to be the preferred management tool of the education system as well. We started tutoring area children in 2001 at the request of Sr. Sharon of Rural & Migrant Ministry, and since then we’ve worked with students from second grade through junior high. Some of the children have been tested and diagnosed and received special education services; others have not. Most were lacking basic ability to read the instructions on their homework and some of their textbooks. They also lacked basic understanding of numbers foundational to the work they were required to do. Even the ones receiving “special” help do not get the one on one attention they need. Some are disruptive and labeled as “at risk” while others learn to get by and guess well enough to cover their lack of understanding which only grows from year to year. The result is that they feel like failures, describe themselves as stupid, or else flare defensively when they make any error, blaming it on anything or anyone else. Given the students’ desperate attempts to come up with a “right” answer and the school’s need to achieve acceptable
scores on the tests, there is little opening for actual learning. We know people who work at the school as caring and responsible, but the children we encounter are systematically discouraged and labeled as failures if they don’t make progress in any of the available programs.
All around us we see the dollar used as the measure of worth; whatever isn’t marketable is dismissed as worthless. People often don’t seem to know how to categorize us because we live here and work and have no income and no titles—are we bums or saints or misguided idealists or opportunists? Working with a consulting forester to do a timber sale at the farm gives an interesting illustration of the follies of the economic system. One forester told us that the amount of wood we use for firewood each year was unsustainable given our forest. That puzzled us until we realized that he was only counting the trees large enough to be “marketable” as firewood in the areas of the woods deemed valuable enough to be managed for timber harvest. From that perspective the huge maple that crushed our van in 2005, the dying trees in the hedgerows between the fields, the blowdowns along the woods road to Unity Acres, the misshapen logs left by a neighbor who landed logs on farm land, all become invisible. We also realized after the trees had been marked for harvest and the value calculated that the market value of the hemlock logs was negligible, but that we needed boards to build a small barn and the cost of the boards at the lumber yard would be substantial. So the loggers will cut those trees and we will saw them into boards on the farm to use here.
Measurements may be intended to increase accountability or improve management, but they often distort reality. Medical care doesn’t promote health when it breaks people down into body parts or sees them as statistics to be dealt with by specialists and loses sight of the whole person. The narrow focus on testing in education obscures the errors that are opportunities for learning and overlooks abilities that aren’t readily quantifiable. Equating the worth of a forest or a person with the market value distorts the reality and ignores true value. I remind myself and invite you to look again at the alternative way of personalism. “If I treat [a person] as a subject, as a presence—which is to recognize that I am unable to define or classify him, that he is inexhaustible, filled with hope upon which alone he can act—this is to give him credit. To despair of anyone is to make him desperate: whereas the credit that generosity extends regenerates his own confidence...” (Emmanuel Mounier, quoted by Mark and Louise Zwick in The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins)
Recent efforts by Zachary
We had a rather unusual winter this year. We did not have cold or snow to speak of till mid-January, and then in early February we had about ten feet of snow in a two week period. We spent most of our time during that period shoveling roofs and plowing snow. We do not have much room left in the parking area anymore, as the snowbanks have been moving in, but we are not supposed to have much new snow for a while now. We shoveled three trailer roofs, the farmhouse and most of the outbuildings. The pole barn roof had between five and six feet of snow packed on to it on the downwind side of the peak by the time we got to it. It took all day for Joanna and me to do that one building. The snow came most of the way up some of the downstairs windows for a while, but now it has packed down somewhat. The goats are not able to get out into their yard very much, as the snow from the roof has impinged upon their usual haunts. The snowbank there is eight or nine feet high in many places. One of the rental trailers had a water line freeze one evening during that time, but it took less than an hour to fix it. The trailer on the hill has a very long driveway, and we ended up plowing part of it for them sometimes when they were not able to get it done.
Also this winter I have been building some children’s furniture for the Interfaith Works Center for New Americans’ waiting room in Syracuse (scroll down for more information). They had an earmarked donation to buy furniture, and their director asked us if we would make it for them. We were able to buy cherry and maple lumber from a local business for benches, tables and an easel, and wide pine boards to make bookcases. At the time of this writing the furniture has all been assembled and is awaiting a final sanding followed by finishing. I hope to deliver the furniture around the beginning of March. I have enjoyed making the furniture, and it was very good that the work was commissioned in the winter when I had time for it.
We have finally signed off on a timber sale. Our consulting forester brought the contract earlier this month. The actual cutting will occur at some time in the next two years. This sale is not very lucrative, but it will improve the woods for the future. Some areas are overcrowded, which results in poor growth, and others are deficient in small trees and saplings. The loggers will be following the DEC’s Best Management Practices, and will be under the periodic supervision of the consulting forester, who will make sure they do things right. The loggers will bring us out four ten-wheeler loads of the marked firewood trees, and we will also have access to the wood they leave behind from tops and crooked logs on the landings and marked cull trees which they will cut but are not worth their time to take away. The loggers will also be bringing us out a number of hemlock logs from a lot on the far side of Trout Brook. We are planning to either hire someone to come with a portable sawmill or preferably to get one of our own. It may be possible to buy a used bandsaw mill for about what it would cost us to get someone else to process the logs we will want sawn. At the time of the last newsletter I wrote that we had taken some logs over to a nearby mill and had them cut there. Rumor has it that the man who owns that mill has sold the property to the Amish and is retiring, so we need to find some other way of getting our logs sawn. It is possible that we will be able to sell enough hardwood lumber over time to pay for a mill. I am looking for advice about mills, both in general about how to determine the condition of a used one, and specifically if anyone knows of a mill for sale in the area. Our intention is to use the hemlock lumber to erect a small barn just to the east of the farmhouse in which we could store the hay, the tractor, and some other things which are currently stored in the pole barn. The pole barn offers very little protection from blowing snow and rain, and is therefore not ideal for things which need to be kept dry. We hope to put in the foundation for this building sometime this summer, but we may not be able to proceed beyond that point for a while, depending on when the trees are brought out to us.
What St. Francis Farm Means to Me by Becky Kennedy
I remember the first time I met Joanna from St. Francis Farm. My three granddaughters were living with me, the girls were aged 2, 7 and 8. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of their care and found there were not enough hours in the day to do everything that needed to be done. Joanna would come to our house and watch the girls while I went to appointments and meetings. Joanna always brought interesting games and things for the girls to do. They looked forward to her visits and I looked forward to having a few hours to rest and restore my spirit.
Later I met Lorraine and Zach through the After School Program that was run by the Rural and Migrant Ministry in Richland. My two older granddaughters received much needed help with their homework and socialization skills. When I asked the girls what they remember about the After School Program they said the neat board games, especially the game where they got to be different persons from different historical periods. At the end of the school year we had a get together at St. Francis Farm. Joanna gave us a tour of the fields and pointed out & named the wildflowers and plants that grow here in our area. It was amazing to hear her knowledge of our local plants and their uses.
Another way St. Francis Farm helped me was when college student volunteers repaired my house. My house is 125 years old and while it is charming and I love it, it sure has lots of needed repairs and things that need to be done. I am retired and live on a limited income so when the volunteers from St. Francis Farm painted woodwork, painted porches and did general fix up things, it was heaven sent help. Several high school students helped with much needed roof repairs. Zach led a group of volunteers that tore down my old garage. The garage roof had caved in during a bad snow storm and the building was unsafe and an eyesore. Zach and the volunteers were able to tear the building down in a couple of days. St. Francis Farm was able to use some of the wood and materials from the garage and I got rid of a real eyesore, it worked out good for both of us.
Lorraine has so much patience and understanding of the difficulties some families face. She is a great listener when a helpful shoulder is needed. We had a lot of discussions about how to have a Christmas season without the emphasis on consumerism. I was able to move away from feeling that I had to buy so many things for everyone. The girls and I made Christmas gifts and had a great time doing the crafts. Lorraine has been a real source of inspiration for me.
What does St. Francis Farm mean to me? It is a little gem right here in Oswego County, tucked away up past Richland on Wart Road. Lorraine, Zach and Joanna are an example of three people living a simple but meaningful life and of three people that have made my and my granddaughters’ lives better.
Center for New Americans
We enjoy our developing relationship with the refugee resettlement program in Syracuse run by InterFaith Works, formerly the Inter Religious Council. On February 26th we delivered the furniture and met some of the staff at their Center for New Americans. This winter we were able to send handmade warm winter gear donated by the Needlers to the Interfaith Works Center for New Americans along with puppets made by Toni Hall, who has now started making puppets specifically for their program. We first met Hope Wallis last spring and she has visited the farm (where she lived for 5 years in the 1980’s) several times and has brought refugees to visit. We look forward to more visits in the coming green time.
CENTER FOR NEW AMERICANS
Hope Wallis, Program Director
The mission of the Center for New Americans is four-fold. We:
• Assist refugees in beginning new lives in America
• Work as a resource and cultural center for the Southeast Asian population in our community
• Assist our communities in being a place of welcome for refugees and immigrants
• Help refugees and immigrants in developing their own self-help skills, projects, and associations
What is the “essence” of our work?
The Center for New Americans is a safe and welcoming place for refugee and legal immigrant individuals and families whom we embrace as our neighbors and help establish new lives in our community. Our caseworkers assist clients with a variety of needs such as arranging for housing, utilities, furnishings, and food; enrolling adults in English learning classes and children in school; ensuring that necessary medical care is received; finding employment; and providing help understanding U.S. culture. Beyond this aspect of the resettlement process, we assist groups in developing their own self-help associations and in the fulfillment of projects of their choosing. In 2005, we worked with four communities in this capacity: Vietnamese, Somali Bantu, Sudanese, and Bosnian.
Who do we serve?
The Center serves refugees and legal immigrants and those who work with and come in contact with them. A refugee is someone who has proved to both the United Nations (UN) and the United States Department of Homeland Security that they have experienced life threatening or nearly life threatening persecution in their home country or face a credible fear of experiencing such persecution if they return to their home country because of their national origin, religion, ethnicity, political opinions, or membership in particular social groups. An immigrant is someone who is not a US citizen or national, but has been admitted legally to the United States for longer than a temporary stay. The countries from which we are currently receiving refugees are: Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Burma, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Columbia, Congo D.R., Burundi, and Ethiopia.
Who Is My Neighbor? by Joanna
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’, and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”
“You have answered correctly.” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?”
(Luke 10:25-29, NIV)
This summer I have been invited to speak at an annual nationwide gathering of Quakers. The theme of the gathering is “Who is my neighbor?’, a question that is basic to our work at St. Francis Farm. We are not helping professionals who offer our expertise to clients, we are people who try to be present to our neighbors. Neighborliness means understanding the other person as a center, a bearer of God, rather than thinking primarily of his effect on us. Whatever we cling to or whatever we fear becomes an obstacle between our neighbors and ourselves. When we think they will offer what we covet, or that they will take it away from us, we are blinded and treat our neighbors as objects.
When we cling to possessions, status or ‘security’, we cut ourselves off from our neighbors who have less. It is hard to keep buying the things we want if we personally know some of the people who are harmed and exploited in making those things. It is hard to defend our consumption as basic and necessary when we know people who live with much less. I still struggle with this. Part of what brought me to St. Francis Farm was my attempt to respond faithfully to the charge in Leviticus 19:16b, which the NRSV renders “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” It was clear to me that my way of life was based on buying things made or grown by people who worked in conditions that were degrading and sometimes dangerous. I realized that I was called to live more simply, do more of my own basic work for myself instead of requiring others to do it for me, and be present to the people who are usually invisible to comfortable members of this society. And I came to St. Francis Farm, and lived and talked and ate and sang with people who had been injured growing the food we bought. Now when I buy food I can’t help wondering who was hurt in growing it. It would be easier not to know. But then I would have missed the friendship and the stories of Miguel and Diego and Agustin.
Being good neighbors requires us to be aware of our limitations. It may be easy to spend a week in a new place repairing housing or working with children, to work hard and enjoy the gratitude of the people we have helped, and then to go home feeling generous, powerful and good. But living with people day after day, week after week, month after month is another matter. It becomes clear that we can’t simply fix their problems. The family with the leaking roof don’t really have a sturdy house on which to put a new roof, or the resources to move to a safer place. The children struggle with difficult memories, schoolwork that they haven’t understood for years now, mixed messages about what it means to grow up. Our neighbors don’t always choose what we think is best for them. Our choices don’t always make sense to them either. They see us when we’re tired and frustrated, when we make poor choices, when we have to say no, when we need their help or forbearance. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be much to feel good about at the end of the day. Then we can choose to pull away and start a new program in a new place where we can feel good again, or we can settle down to the hard work of knowing and being known. To do this we have to remind ourselves over and over that the other person is beyond our understanding and our control, that their wounds and their gifts are greater than we can imagine, and that all we can do is to be present to them. This is hard work, but it is the only way I know of building community.
Perhaps the thing that most hinders me in being a good neighbor is the fear of being alone. I want friendship, approval, closeness. I want the other person to think well of me. I don’t want to confront them or let them see my weaknesses. But if I refuse to do these things I am basing my relationships on a lie. And my false self cannot enter into real relationship with my neighbor, or with God.
It is hard to let go of our defenses. But the truth is that these defenses are illusory. When we seek military security, we end up endangering ourselves and the rest of the world by creating enemies and amassing ever more powerful weapons. When we seek economic security we buy into a system that ruins the natural resources which sustain all our lives. When we cling to our certainties and will not listen to dissenting voices we become increasingly isolated and fearful. When we cling to other people our neediness often pushes them away. When we avoid speaking uncomfortable truths in order to preserve fellowship, we feed resentments and confusions that make it less and less possible for us to live as members of one body. We are not capable of holding onto anything that will make us truly safe. The only true promise I know is that the Spirit is real and enduring, and in it we are all one. When we let down our defenses and open ourselves to our neighbor and to the Spirit, we enter into the eternal Life.
To be convinced of the sanctity of the world, and to be mindful of a human vocation to responsible membership in such a world, must always have been a burden. But it is a burden that falls with weight on us humans of the industrial age who have been...the humans most guilty of desecrating the world and of destroying creation....
If we take the Gospels seriously we are left...facing an utterly humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given in Jesus’ teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and particularly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?
--Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance
Community Service Task Force Update
Repairs and renovations are under way at the apartment complex which was Scotch Grove and is now Rose May Manor. The new landlord has kept coming to the meetings of the Community Service Task Force (CSTF) to tell us about the progress he’s making and to voice concerns about the cost of the work and the difficulty of keeping some units affordable for low-income people, given the inadequacy of housing assistance programs.
At our last meeting we agreed that conditions at the complex are no longer our first concern. We took time to look at the larger picture and talked about the root issues that don’t seem to be addressed by existing programs—poverty, transience, discouragement, lack of understanding between classes, lack of constructive channels for the energy of young people. We had to acknowledge that we don’t know what to do about many of these issues. We agreed to keep meeting. There is a value in gathering people who have been working on some of the same problems from different perspectives, giving them a chance to know one another and to share ideas, resources and concerns. We will be involved in some new projects. One is a youth center to be opened in a building which the village is in the process of acquiring. The hope is that young people will take some of the responsibility for getting the space ready and deciding how it will be used, and that in the course of working and playing together there they may build relationships with adults in whom they can confide. The other is a project called Bridges out of Poverty which attempts to build understanding and positive relationships between people of different classes and to foster understanding of the systemic causes of poverty.
Deacon David Sweenie is planning to bring a group of migrant workers here for the Spanish Apostolate’s Lent retreat from March 9-11. We have a new summer group scheduled. St. Mary’s Youth Group from Hagerstown, MD will be with us from 6/23 to 6/29. We don’t have any spring break groups scheduled, and we could especially use help with fencing, gardening and other spring chores during April and May.
Zachary is taking a Training for Facilitators workshop so that he can help lead Alternatives to Violence workshops in prison and elsewhere.
We’ve been enjoying fresh greens from the sunroom/greenhouse all winter, despite some problems with insect pests. It appears that we will not have goat kids this spring, and we’re overwhelmed with goat milk; we have been taking soft cheese to the North Country Christian Church’s soup kitchen, and we’re getting better at making hard cheeses. Our last attempt at growing shiitake mushrooms was a failure, but we are trying again with more information and mushroom spawn from a different company; we’ll also be trying oyster mushrooms and stropharia, which are native to this area.
Thanks to the people who give us good things to share! Families working on simpler Christmas celebrations appreciated the craft materials and needlepoint kits which we were able to pass on. Your gifts of money, volunteer help and prayers make our work and presence possible.
We’ve just updated the St. Francis Farm website. There are some important changes on the groups page, and we’ve added a page for those interested in visiting and volunteering. As we
look ahead to busy season we hope to find people to help us plant, pick, weed, can and build. The snow is deep now, but soon the weather will be more welcoming for visitors to come and walk on the trails or sit by the pond.
ST. FRANCIS FARM
136 Wart Road
Lacona, NY 13083