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A ‘farmastery’ reaches out to its neighbors with strawberries and goats

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (RNS) – On a warm, sunny morning in a farm country, a group of 40 preschoolers and their parents spread out across several rows of crops to pick strawberries under the crowns of green leaves.

Later, the children sliced ​​the berries they collected and added bananas, kale and yogurt to make smoothies before heading out to feed chickens and goats. They then walked through a wooded path (spotted a turtle!) and took turns going to some swings hanging from a tree. The morning ended with an outdoor lunch, prepared by a dietician and chef.

The outing on Wednesday morning (May 29) was part of a wellness program called Grow It, one of several offered to young families living in the Triangle region of North Carolina, at Spring Forest, a farm and a new monastic community, or ‘ pharmaceuticalry’.

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The 23-acre farm is nestled among lush green meadows and pine trees, about 5 miles north of Hillsborough, a historic town best known as a haven for artists and writers. In 2016, Elaine Heath, an ordained United Methodist and former dean of Duke Divinity School, settled here with her husband, Randall Bell, and founded a small community known as the Church at Spring Forest.

Heath developed the idea of ​​a shared life of faith while teaching in Texas at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. But the idea has come to full fruition on this farm, which grows food, supports refugee resettlement and provides outdoor retreats for those in healthcare.

“The main purpose of the farm is to promote community circles,” says Heath, who serves as the community “abbess,” traditionally the female superior in a community of nuns, but here the pastoral leader.

“Fostering community has always been important, but especially now when our culture is so polarized,” she added. “Gathering people around food, growing food, preparing food, eating food, sharing food – that breaks down all these barriers and assumptions that people have.”

The farm grows 3 hectares of fruit and vegetables and 3 hectares for livestock. It sells vegetables and eggs through its CSA, or community supported agriculture, model, in which people buy shares before the growing season and then receive a weekly box of produce. (Although the farm is not certified organic, it uses organic methods, meaning the land is farmed without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.)

But it is also organized as a community of faith, part of the new monastic movement that began thirty years ago among lay Protestants who looked to Roman Catholic and especially Celtic Christianity for inspiration on how lay people could work, eat and worship as a community.

Spring Forest has four family units living on the farm, but a total of sixteen people who consider themselves part of the core community, even though some live miles away. These 16 are committed to the rules of life of Spring Forest: prayer, work, dining, neighbors and rest.

The entire group meets Monday through Friday at 8 a.m. for a 30-minute Zoom meeting where they share their concerns and read the prayers they have written. There is an in-person worship service once a month on Saturdays, so as not to compete with area churches that hold services on Sundays. The farm does not have a physical church building and the service usually takes place outdoors, followed by a meal.

In addition to the regulars, there are a handful of divinity students from Duke and Perkins who serve as interns. (The church is part of the United Methodist Church’s “Fresh Expressions” initiative.)

Despite the deep Christian commitment of its core members, Spring Forest sees itself as working with people from other faith traditions or without a faith tradition.

Grow It, the Wednesday morning program for children and parents, has no faith component. The program focuses on a group of mothers and children, refugees from Afghanistan, who have settled in the area. Volunteers from the farm pick them up in an old church bus and take them back home. Spring Forest also offers transportation to a Friday English as a Second Language class at a nearby church.

Shaima Muradi, a Muslim woman originally from Afghanistan, coordinates the refugee action and provides a translator and contact person. She said the mothers appreciate the opportunity to let their children run around outside, connect with nature and eat a nutritious lunch. “These families have no knowledge of the community whatsoever and once they come they feel so comfortable, they love it, and there’s no pressure, we’re all happy here,” Muradi said.

Heath was helping her Perkins students organize a shared house for a group of African refugees living in poor rental housing in Dallas when she first became involved with alternative faith communities. She especially credits a former student, an immigrant from Kenya named Francis Kinyua, now a UMC pastor in Nebraska, with helping her start Spring Forest after he introduced her to regenerative agriculture ideas around a life of work and prayer.

The farm on which Spring Forest sits was once home to a black family whose home was burned down by racial violence in the 1960s. For that reason, Heath dedicated the area of ​​land around a chimney that was left behind as a place of healing for various types of trauma, including trauma to the earth.

Joan Thanupakorn, who lives in Durham, was at the Grow It event on Wednesday with one baby in a baby carrier strapped to her chest and another walking through the woods with her father. She and her husband have taken on the challenge of spending 1,000 hours outside this year, or about three hours a day, she said.

“It’s so much fun to put a few hours in,” Thanupakorn said. “And there aren’t a lot of cheap things in the area, so it’s nice to have something that’s affordable.” (Grow it’s free.)

Piotr Plewa, a visiting scholar at Duke University, came with his son Max. He said he enjoyed interacting with refugee children as well as the lessons on agriculture.

“Here children can see that they can pick up a strawberry from the ground and eat it,” says Plewa. “There are people who think that a fruit is only tasty if you buy it in the store.”

Those are the kinds of lessons Heath likes to teach children.

Heath, whose main job on the farm is caring for the goats, said this is the kind of teaching that is at the heart of Christianity, and one she prefers to practice rather than preach.

“We are creating a deeply contemplative community that is also very active in the world and there for our neighbors,” she said. “For me, Christian discipleship is really about creating communities and helping people love well.”