*cino Work, Education, People, Three Rivers

Come and see: Seth’s reflection

The compost bins still need to be built. And the basil plants need to be pruned and weeded. The starter house in Huss needs to be constructed so seeding can begin this winter instead of late spring. And that food co-op we keep talking about hasn’t gotten underway yet.

And classes start in a week.

This statement sums up a portion of my emotions as I prepare to leave Three Rivers, MI for Grand Rapids, ending my summer internship with *culture is not optional. (Actually, at the moment I am sitting in a coffee shop in Kalamazoo, a momentary limbo between my summer and fall homes.) There is much to do — at the Huss Project, community garden, and the downstairs bathroom I forgot to clean — and just as I feel myself getting something of a grasp on my work here in Tres Ríos, it is time to move on, to turn the page and begin something new. On the other hand, these feelings of anxiety that are triggered by this sense of incompleteness — like planting, watering and caring for a garden, but leaving before the harvest — remind me of other lessons I’ve learned this summer.

On a sunny afternoon in early June, roughly a month into my summer in Three Rivers, I stood in the middle of the community garden behind the Huss Project staring tensely at the small space beginning to show signs of fertility. As the agriculture intern, it was deemed my responsibility to lead the caretaking of the community garden — now in its fifth year of production — and the weight of this duty was beginning to feel like an anvil on my chest. After expressing a mellowed-down version of this unease during a Monday staff meeting, my good friend (and boss) Rob put his arm around my shoulder and briskly walked me out to the garden just a few yards away. I sensed the urgency and deliberateness in his pace, but was unsure of what was coming next.

“Seth, look around. This garden exists as part of a gift economy. It is entirely the result of gifts from others. As a caretaker of the garden, you are in debt to no one and no one is in debt to you.”

This simple declaration was one of many pivotal experiences this summer that significantly shaped how I understand the world and our place in it as human beings. When most people ask what I’ve been doing this summer, I do a rapid mental fumbling for the most accurate description until I revert back to “community development in Three Rivers, Michigan,” a statement too broad and feel-goody to mean anything, at least to me. The truth is I can’t give a simple description of my experiences and work this summer with *cino; it would be like trying to recreate a Picasso using only the primary colors, and not being allowed to mix them. I am reminded, however, that there is great virtue in trying despite the knowledge that what one is undertaking will inevitably fail to achieve the expectations set for it.

Perhaps the most transformative lesson this summer for me has been experiencing the power of storytelling to change and shape us. To tell a story, especially a personal one, is to place oneself in a defenseless, vulnerable state. It is to bare a piece of oneself and open it up to criticism or comfort from another. Also, to listen intently and openly to stories of others also means to make oneself vulnerable, in this way by being transformed by the experiences — joyful and devastating — of the storytellers. Honest storytelling and compassionate listening are like flames that burn away our prejudice and fear, creating newly vacant space for empathy, understanding and love to foster.

My friends at *cino believe in the power of storytelling. I know this because they practice storytelling often, both formally and in the mundane of the everyday. They tell their own stories: of where they come from; of their fears, ambitions, desires, heartaches and joys. They tell the stories of others: those that have inspired them; those that have confronted and convicted their spirits; stories that make them laugh, cry or sit in devastated silence. And just as much as they tell stories, my friends intently and earnestly listen to the stories of others. They listen to kids’ stories of triumphs, failures, love and rejection. They listen to the stories of those outside of their supposed tribes: those who live in a different neighborhood or come from a different tradition; those who have more or less money than they do; and those who drink different beer than they do. Additionally, they make it a regular practice to listen to the stories of those they are closest to; as they have found, there is always more to a person than what we already know or think we know. They even go so far as to hold events during which they tell such stories, which always include good food, as is their style.

After three and a half months working with *cino, I hold many stories of Three Rives, MI and the people there I now call friends. The best summary I can give of these experiences is they have deeply rooted themselves in me and transformed how I live in ways I am tremendously thankful for. Because of my time with *cino, I find myself quicker to forgive and slower to hold tight-fisted grudges, both with others and myself. I have experienced good work as a joy in itself and have seen with my own eyes alternatives to consumerism, capitalism and monetized relationships. I forever will cherish the pure joy of good food grown on healthy land that has felt the care and attention of one’s own hands and is shared in the company of good friends.

Rather than delve further into how *culture is not optional and the community of Three Rivers, Michigan, have changed me, I instead extend an invitation to you that my friends at *cino have adopted as a type of pedagogy for inviting others to experience a life of abundance and peace: Come and see.

Above: Seth plays soccer with neighbors at Community Fun Night.

Read More →


The value of contemplative activism

The *cino community gathered again last week to discuss the ninth core value of the summer, contemplative activism, and how it continues to shape *cino’s work and our lives. Our time together began rather untraditionally with the viewing of a stand-up clip by comedian Louis C.K. in which he rants on the stupidity of why self-proclaimed Christians, of all people, royally screw up the natural world (NSFW). We then took a sharp turn away from the cynical, navigated our way towards thoughtful, practical and hopeful, and arrived at two pieces written this past spring in response to the crude oil pipeline put in across land owned by The Hermitage, a silent retreat center in Three Rivers, as well as other natural space. The pieces, one by Peggy Deames and the other by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, highlight the importance of lament in our responses to injustice.

As a student at a mid-size public university, I often witness angry marches around campus in protest to local or global injustices. Some seek to raise awareness amongst the student body, others want university officials to be held accountable, and some seem to just want attention. By no means should the value of public activism or civic duty be diminished; however, the term “contemplative activism,” as we at *cino have come to understand it, helps to distinguish between different attitudes when acting in response to injustice. As our friend Kate pointed out, oftentimes, angry protests with picket signs and coordinated chants merely serve the purpose of “screwing up someone’s day” — whether that be a city official, corporate CEO, or rival dodgeball team. Very rarely do they offer alternative solutions to the supposed problems being proclaimed; additionally, those protesting almost never explicitly acknowledge their own participation in the cycles of injustice being criticized.

This brings us to the responses to the oil pipeline addition this past spring in Three Rivers. Those who gathered at The Hermitage expressed their obvious feelings of anger, dissatisfaction, sadness and fear for “what will be done next?” But they also expressed their sorrow for a culture that is dependent upon the extraction and shipment of crude oil, and in doing so, acknowledged their own dependence on the very thing they lamented. Other than the few folks within walking or biking distance to The Hermitage, most of the folks present drove there in vehicles powered by oil-based gasoline. They recognized that to reign down righteous anger on the companies (or even more ignorantly, the workers) responsible for the pipeline would be a failure on their part to see the small puzzle piece this incident plays in a larger picture of ecological desecration fueled by a consumerist culture in which they are immersed.

This is where the value of contemplate activism is shown. By laying down our stones (or picket signs) and, instead, offering up our hands in lament, we stop drawing boundaries between the “persecuted” and the “persecutors” because we begin to see that such strict labels are never as simple or permanent as we may like. Additionally, by letting go of bitterness and hate, we open ourselves up to empathy and understanding, which creates space for entirely new possibilities for creative collaboration alongside those we may have otherwise called our enemies. Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma gives us an example of the hopeful and imaginative envisioning that is possible when we practice this new form of activism:

I envision a picnic with those who come to work on the pipeline in Three Rivers, perhaps on a grassy slope overlooking the spectacle of de/construction. It will be about more than just lemonade and sandwiches, offering the nourishment of hospitality to those who’s migratory lives have been as disrupted as the soil along the line. Call it idealistic, precious, cute — but counterspeaking contradictions in such ways puts us in good company with each other and with a mysterious Word, lonely no more in our present taste of the life to come.

Read More →

Education, People

The value of Sabbath rhythm

The setting at which we at *cino gathered this Tuesday reflected the core value we intended to discuss. We assembled around our neighbor’s pool on a hot and sunny afternoon, cooled ourselves in the water, enjoyed cold beverages, and eventually made our way to dissecting what it means for us to live in a Sabbath rhythm.

The reading our discussion centered around was a piece done by Norma Wirzba entitled “Time Out” that was published in The Christian Century on July 12, 2005. Wirzba tells of his grandfather, a farmer in Poland, Germany and southern Alberta, a man who he remembers as always embodying a type of “Sabbath rhythm” that shaped not only when he worked and when he rested, but how he worked and rested. Wirzba writes that “Sabbath observance was not simply a moment of his week. It framed his attitude, focused his desire and helped him shape the pace and direction of his daily walk. It inspired and enabled him to greet life with care and delight.” This rhythm, this pace, that his grandfather practiced was done in the pursuit of menuha, an ancient Jewish term that can be translated as tranquility, delight and peaceful repose. One memory Wirzba recalls of his grandfather pursuing this menuha in his daily routine was the practice of hand-feeding the farm’s chickens freshly cut grass after lunch. The free-range chickens had more than enough grass to feed themselves as they roamed the yard, but this routine grew out of “his sense that they were creatures deserving of their own forms of delight.” He did not let the demand of work or pending danger of storms or droughts bully him into not showing care and attention to each creature on the farm, all of which he considered a gift.

The story of Wirzba’s grandfather differs sharply from many of our own experiences and understandings of Sabbath rhythm. For many of us growing up, Sabbath rhythm meant little more than taking a break from the tasks at hand, whether that meant not working (or working less) on Sundays or eating a snack after school. Wirzba’s understanding of Sabbath rhythm, which is shaped largely by his grandfather’s example, suggests a rhythm and pace that doesn’t merely re-boot us for the ensuing workweek, but transforms how we understand our week. Our time of rest is not merely a collapse on the couch; it is a reflection and celebration of the gifts always available to us. By slowing down during even one day of the week, we can train ourselves to intentionally slow down throughout the week: when doing dishes, driving to work, talking to a friend, feeding the chickens. Wirzba suggests that when we do this we open ourselves up to “the sort of attention and affection that would lead to sympathetic engagement with others,” a practice radically different from those of the profit-driven mindset of consumerism.

As our conversation came to a close, some of us hopped out of the water to grab another drink while others began an enthusiastic game of 3-on-3 pool basketball. Water and laughter flew through the air as the rest of us dramatically commentated the impassioned game, which ended with a beautiful game winning, behind-the-arc shot from David Stewart (“Ka-POW!”). As we sat (or swam) in each others’ presence, it became clear that this time together was not merely a break from checking off the endless to-do’s we all had on our plates. Rather, this was a time we worked for. No, we were not sending emails or organizing fundraisers or pulling weeds. And I’m okay with that. In fact, I consider it a gift — and essential practice to our culture — to sit in a peaceful place and simply enjoy the company of friends.

Read More →