A look back at the Hanson’s study trip to A Rocha Canada’s Brooksdale environmental centre in the summer of 2016.
How do you sum up a summer in just a few sentences? Or how do you describe a formative experience with only words, when words, and even pictures, can only go so far? You can’t. But what you can do is sketch an outline, a few broad strokes of the literary brush that paint a rough image, or distil the basic essence, of an inspiring intercultural encounter, an encounter with myself, with others, with the rest of creation and with God.
At the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide’s (CCCW) Encounter scheme induction day in June 2016, the first reason that I identified for going to Canada was to ‘learn about the running of a Christian community farm’. And this we did. Yet it happened in a surprising way: expecting a rather packed itinerary, on arriving at A Rocha Canada’s Brooksdale environmental centre, in the Greater Vancouver area, at the end of June, we discovered a rather more relaxed approach.
We were encouraged to settle in gradually, unpacking and unwinding, and then, maybe, towards the start of the next week, sometime, we’d get round to sitting down and figuring out what it was we wanted to get around to doing, eventually. As someone who spends a lot of time organising everyone and everything, and who has a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, it was refreshing to organise no one and nothing, to simply observe the workings of a Christian community farm in the beautiful surrounds of the Pacific Northwest. And from that we learned. We learned that to do more, you sometimes have to begin with doing less.
The second reason that I had identified for our visit to Canada was ‘to learn how to engage with low-income and asylum-seeking families’. Too often community farms and similar projects – whether faith-based or secular – slip into the easy rut of becoming and remaining comfortably white and middle-class. Yet is is often this very demographic who are most able to access good food and the outdoors already; those who struggle to access these necessities often struggle to access community farms too.
Yet the revolutionary that we follow showed us a very different way. Jesus Christ crossed boundaries of race, religion, gender and class to encounter real people in real situations and manifest the kingdom of God amongst them. And if Christian community farms are going to match social diversity with biological diversity then they must adopt this approach too. At Brooksdale, we learned that the best way they’d found to do this was to partner with organisations already engaging with low-income and asylum-seeking families. It was a useful reminder of an important life-lesson: there’s no point reinventing the wheel.
Learning about running a food business, and how that dovetails with running a charity, was the third and final reason for our Canadian adventure. This is because our own plans in Northern Ireland involve setting up a cooperative business – that integrates care farming, community-supported agriculture and conservation education and engagement – alongside a creation care charity that inspires churches and Christians to consider agricultural and environmental issues as part of their mission and discipleship.
We learned that it’s not always easy to balance charitable and business goals. But we also learned that it can be done, and that the two approaches can complement each other. It also confirmed to us the importance of starting-off slowly and taking one organisational step-at-a-time; in our case setting up the enterprise element before the charitable, including with a pilot year to iron out the many business practicalities, before scaling-up in year two. It turns out community farm planning can learn from the old military adage: ‘amateurs worry about strategy; professionals worry about logistics.’
Based on the goals I set at the Encounter induction, our Canada trip was a resounding success. We learned about running a Christian community farm, about how to engage low-income and asylum-seeking families, and about how to balance business and charitable activities. But we also learned other important lessons about how to achieve these goals: by doing less and not more, by working with others, by going slowly.
The most important lesson of all that we learned, though, was one that we had not sought out. Despite wanting to set up a Christian community farm, as confirmed introverts we were distinctly more comfortable with the ‘Christian’ and ‘farm’ components of the project, rather than the ‘community’ bit. But the intentional and integral community we encountered at Brooksdale changed that. We encountered a beautiful relational balance between individuals of all types in community with themselves, with each other other, with the rest of creation and with God. We’re still introverts but now we’re introverts unafraid of community. And we’ve learned again one of the most important lessons of all: that God made us to live in community and that life is too short to live it alone.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Text © Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide