It has been a long time since I posted. Now I have an especially compelling reason to do so again, as I’m starting a one year internship at Koinonia Farm in Americus, GA. I’ll let you read about the farm on their website and use this blog to reflect on my experiences here for any interested parties, friends and family back home. I want to thank all my supportive upper valley friends and my loving daughters, who have made this new beginning possible. I love you!
The one year commitment started on January 31, 2015. I drove my ’97 Honda Civic down (it was very full!) to Georgia again, having visited the farm the beginning of December 2014 for a week. That visit, plus what I’d learned from their representative at the Twin Oaks Communities Conference in September, and their website convinced me that a year here would be a wonderful way for me to begin the exploration of living in an intentional community.
I’ve been practicing group meditation and mindfulness with the support of the Heart of the Valley Mindfulness Practice Center in Norwich, VT. This Buddhist group, which follows the teachings of Tiche Nhat Han (who we just call Thay), has been one of three spiritual communities I’ve frequented, along with the Prayer of the Heart centering prayer group in Thetford, VT and the Center for Transformational Practice in White River Junction, VT. So only one of the two groups which I call my extended spiritual family identified formally with Christ, although Thay references the teachings of Jesus quite a bit in his books and dharma talks.
So this first trial in living a communal life will be a great way for me to immerse myself in the Christian roots of my Grandfather Kano. I need to see if I feel called to a longer term commitment to service through the traditions and language of Christianity. I already know that I’m inspired by the teachings of Jesus as I understand them from the gospels, what I’m exploring is my relationship to this “experiment” as Clarence Jordan (founder of Koinonia) called it, in creating a “demonstration plot of the kingdom of God.” There are other “New Monastic” Christian communities using this model, and I already know this one is wonderful, but is this or another of them the best choice for my new home in community? I’m excited to be here to start to inform my heart in that process of discernment.
As I arrived here with the other 3 men I had already been told were also starting their internship, I was delighted to learn that a 4th person was going to be able to share the experience with us as well. Alanah has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and had thought it impossible to do the internship program for which she had been accepted, but a new plan was forming to allow her to come to orientation week, return home for further doctors appointments and then be back on the farm sometime in March, God willing. So by the end of March my internship group will be 5 people strong. Meanwhile we pray for her healing, and I’m sending her distance Reiki some mornings for a few minutes during the silence at the start of our chapel service. Please add your prayers to ours!
The first week was dedicated to orienting us to the “New Monastic” life, Koinonia style, which we would be trying on for the coming year. We were taken on tours by each of the department heads of animal & garden farming, pecan farming, hospitality, bakery (where the products, mostly sold through the mail are made), and community outreach. We had sessions on community life and spiritual life here at Koinonia and we started to get into the rhythm of going to chapel every weekday morning, devotional worship and prayers at lunch and dinner and the moments of prayer when the bell is rung at 10 am, 3 pm and 8 pm each day. We also learned about a process called “examen” that everyone living here uses to share our experiences with others once a week. The week culminated with each of the new interns sharing a 20 minute summary their spiritual life stories with the rest of the community on Friday afternoon, followed by a party and campfire.
One aspect of the new monastic life here for interns is that we sign a covenant that includes the promise not to date or start any new romantic relationship for the year. If one of us does feel attracted to a person in that way, we are to avoid one-on-one interactions with them in order to honor this agreement. The reasoning is that the internship program requires our full attention and a new relationship typically also takes a lot of time and energy; one or both would suffer if attempted together. We also agree to work through disagreements directly and gently and refrain from negative chatter, rumors and gossip. All very sensible and at times challenging things to honor!
I’ve been particularly interested in the state of the annual garden and will be excited to see what the “kitchen garden,” which is planted permaculture style, looks like in the spring and summer months. I actually got started in the garden just a bit back in December when I visited and have continued to get more involved over my first intern month. We have been harvesting lots of turnips and a bit of kale and working to plant peas. Carrots were also planted just before we arrived and we are starting work to prepare beds (photo right) for potatoes. Tomato and other seeds will be ordered so we can start some things in the green house as soon as we can.
My apartment, which I share with fellow new intern Steve, is in the south east corner of “Jubilee house” right next to the main garden. Each apartment has it’s own outside entrance and an inside entrance into a central common room with two good sized tables, shelves full of games and jigsaw puzzles, musical instruments including a piano and a couple of couches. The screened in front porch will be great for hanging out, once we start to get warmer days again. Most apartments have mini-kitchens with hot plate, microwave, toaster oven and coffee pot.
We are responsible for our own breakfasts every day. Monday night is reserved for house dinners informally organized in small groups of your choice. Friday and Saturday night dinners are left overs from community meals or trips to town to eat out. Sunday lunch you are on your own and Sunday night is a pot luck to which friends from the wider community are invited. The rest of the meals, Monday – Saturday lunches and Tuesday – Thursday dinners are prepared in the main kitchen and eaten in the main dining hall. Short devotional services follow all community meals.
Every weekday morning starts with a 20-30 minutes service at the chapel at 7:50am. We start with about 5 minutes of silence and then our director Bren reads from the old testament, followed by a few minutes of silent reflection and a hymn. Then we stand for another short reading from the gospels, followed by a 5-10 minute talk by one of the resident members or interns, usually related to the gospel reading. The service ends with one more hymn, followed by a morning check-in and announcements circle and it is off to morning work assignments with the department head to which each of us are assigned.
I love the variety of work. Here is my schedule from my first week, after the orientation was completed week one, which is typical:
While the schedule is quite packed, the atmosphere is pretty relaxed and easy going. We get coffee breaks at 10am and 3pm, right after the bell has rung for a moment of prayer. Many of us head to the coffee shop, a ferro-cement dome-roofed building at the edge of the main campus. There we often find bags of chocolate, peanut brittle and other treats that did not make the high standards of size or shape for product sale but are still just as tasty! Typically 3-10 people are there on break, providing another time for fellowship and comparing notes on the days work or the currently assigned reading for the study facet of the intern program.
We are starting our study by reading about the early years after Koinonia was started. We take notes inspired by the reading assignments in shared journals, which are handed from person to person each week. Each of us will respond in writing to the notes made by the previous person and add new notes for the next. This process is in addition to our weekly study sessions on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, at which we discuss the readings and answer questions posed by Elizabeth, one of the stewards (long-term committed members) who is our study facilitator. The founder, Clarence Jordan is quite the inspirational minister, biblical scholar, and author who often traveled to preach. We are learning to appreciate this man and some of the other key members of the early “experimental demonstration plot for the kingdom of God” as we fondly call Koinonia.
Wednesday mornings we have breakfast (prepared by we interns) together with Bren, followed by a simplified version of the traditional “examen” practice This is a process of sharing the experience that challenged us most, and another experience which brought us closest to God in the past week. Sharing these “desolations” and “consolations,” as they are called, is a great way to get to know each other better and support each other as our spiritual lives unfold in community. After we listen to a person share, the floor is opened for questions and comments. Bren does a nice job of facilitating and it seems our intern group is fairly willing to open up and share in this fairly intimate process.
For the past 2-3 years I’ve been in the process of switching to eating almost all organic food. As my daughter Rose says, I’ve become a “food snob” of sorts! Now that I’m used to eating quality, highly nutritious and delicious food, I no longer enjoy what I call “dinosaur food,” because it is grown with so many petroleum based chemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides that by some accounts, it takes 10 calories of oil for every calorie of food grown! This strong preference for organic has even taken much of the fun out of going to restaurants, because 20-30 minutes after I’ve eaten I just don’t feel that great. Organic food leaves me feeling solid and satisfied, whereas the “conventionally grown” stuff leaves me feeling a bit hollow and unsettled. I’m sure some of this difference is due to my understanding and feelings about the different sources and impacts of the growing process, perhaps more than the nutritional effects of the extra minerals, vitamins and protein, but I do believe both are in play. I’ve learned from my practice at the Heart of the Valley to eat many of my meals mindfully, without reading, listening to music or watching video at the same time. Thay encourages us to look deeply into our food to see the non-food elements that have gone into it’s production and preparation. Doing this with “death food,” (as I’d really like to call it, but it would be too impolite), would cause me to lose my appetite (at best) or become depressed (at worst)!
Production of this food is killing the planet: dead zones in the ocean are growing, soil is being depleted and desertified, rain forests are being cut and burned to make new farms, insecticides are killing the bees and research shows the main ingredient in the herbicide “round-up” (when consumed with aluminum, a part of our diet from naturally occurring sources) is probably causing a startling rise in the number of cases of autism in children. As soils are depleted, they release carbon into the atmosphere, significantly contributing to climate change.
So I was disappointed, to say the least, when I learned that Koinonia has not yet made the switch to using organically grown ingredients in it’s community meals. The intention is there, but it has not yet been implemented consistently. Evidently they had made some progress in the past, but the intern that was helping to lead this cause left when his program was over and they slipped back into buying conventionally grown food from the local supermarkets. By the time I got here, there were no USDA certified organic products in sight. The good thing is that there is plenty of meat, eggs and milk grown here on the farm. The raw milk is amazing and makes wonderful yogurt! While the animals are technically not organic because we use chemically grown feeds and some locally available chemically grown hay, at least they all have wonderful, happy lives. I’m happily eating these.
To a person that wants to eat local and mostly organic, Americus is a food desert. The grocery store that carries the most is Harveys. They have a handful of organic products including 3 types of cheese in 8oz packages, white semolina spaghetti and some other pasta, baby-cut and juicing carrots, 2 lbs bags of organic flour (for $3.76), apples and a few others. Surprisingly, their little organic island display has many Red Mill items that are not organic, even though that brand has organic versions of those products! The only other current option to Americus residents is to join the “Picky Eaters Buyers Club” which allows you to order from the UNFI website, requesting a case split when you don’t want to purchase the large amounts that are required for most items. If enough other members buy from your case, it will be purchased, with any additional packages offered to others after delivery, during “market day” when folks come pick up their orders. Koinonia also orders from UNFI once a month and I’ve been told used to get much of it’s food that way, so I’m hopeful that process will restart soon.
In the meantime, after eating the chemically grown food, (plus the farm raised meat with I am happy to eat) at the community meals for two weeks, I decided I just was not comfortable continuing. In the following examin, I shared this as my “desolation” for the week. Ever since, I’ve been taking my own lunch sandwiches and leftovers to the community meals and going through the buffet line only for the farm raised meat and occasional dish that was made mainly from the produce from our winter garden: turnips (and their greens), seminole pumpkins, kale and collards. Obtaining and making most of my own food has been time consuming, but I still feel good about the decision. I don’t judge the farm for slipping back into buying from the mainstream stores, because they have so much they are doing and are still developing workable systems for everything that can be sustained with a somewhat transient workforce of interns. Some day they will have enough stewards (long term committed members) to head up all the most important leadership roles in the spiritual, educational and operational work of the farm, but they are not there yet.
My own spiritual life here has been very rich. The readings we are assigned stimulate very interesting discussions that inform some things I’ve been exploring before I arrived, such as belief in reincarnation vs a single life followed by heaven (or hell) and why prayer for another’s healing works so well (in many controlled studies) when God already knows what we want and need before we ask? Some new insights are making it into the book I’ve been writing for the last few years, with the current working title “Faith to Practice.”
I’ve had no trouble fitting my twice daily sitting meditation into my schedule. Now I’m helping another person to start a daily meditation practice and we are going to sit together each morning for 30 minutes before the regular chapel service! I’ve given him a short tutorial on the use of the EM Wave biofeedback device to help him find a technique that keeps his heart coherent. As a meditation evangelist who loves group practice, this is one of the most exciting developments since I’ve arrived!
I’ve been having a wonderful time in the garden, where I usually get to work whenever I’m assigned to help Brandon, who is in charge of the farm animals and vegetable gardens. We are still planting only cold hearty crops like radishes, mustard greens and kale, but by the time these seedlings are fully mature, it will start to get hot enough that they will bolt (shoot up and go to seed) and their beds could be replanted with summer season crops that can stand the heat of southern Georgia.
It remains to be seen how I stand up to that heat, come summer! In the meantime, I’ve been happy to miss the brutal cold of this winter up north. I would have loved to use my snow shoes in all that snow though, when temperatures allowed!
Thanks for your interest (you made it to the end of this fairly long post!) in my experiences here at Koinonia. I’m going to try to post once a month or so. If I post on another site some months, I’ll at least post a link here to let subscribers know.
If you can make it down to Georgia, I’d love to have visitors! Just contact Elizabeth Dede by calling the farm at (229) 924-0391 between 9 am – noon or 1 pm – 5 pm. We have plenty of space for guests. Come immerse yourself in a loving community where we all do our best to follow Jesus!