The Farming Priest

September 7, 2011 — Leave a comment

Yesterday marked one week since the Tour de DioMil rolled out of the parking lot of St. Simon the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Port Washington. For the vast majority of our pilgrimage around the perimeter of southern Wisconsin, we have ridden on roads which are well off the “beaten path”. We have ridden past scores of silos, barns and farmhouses. We’ve been surrounded by fields of soybeans, corn, alfalfa and barley. We’ve seen plenty of cows, sheep, goats and even an occasional alpaca. On our rest day in Monroe yesterday, several of us got a real treat, though – instead of riding past a farmer’s fields, we actually had a couple of hours to walk through some.

 Most people, when thinking about the stereotypical Episcopal priest, wouldn’t expect to find one miles from any established town, gleefully telling his guests about the process of having a farm certified “organic”, trudging through an alfalfa field explaining hay production with a big grin, and finding a new pumpkin on the vine with the joy of a kid tearing through wrapping paper on Christmas Day. Neither would we typically expect to find a priest in the U.S.voluntarily living in circumstances others in our society (even some of his farmer neighbors!) would describe as “rustic”. But the Reverend Brian Backstrand and his wife are committed to such a project that is, as he tells it, a daily learning experience.

 Why spend the time and energy doing such hard work at an age when many of his colleagues are contemplating retirement to a condo? Brian simply says, “I can’t imagine doing anything else — there’s a certain fulfillment that comes with being able to see what you’ve done in a day’s work. When I’m out here, close to the land, I feel close to God.”

 Presently, the Backstrands are kicking around the idea of building a small cabin on the edge of their property to be used by folks who would like a place of retreat or would like to spend time on the farm learning about organic agriculture. This project is probably a few years into the future. The more immediate plans are to raise a few steers and finish some of the tasks on their own living space.

 The real education for me happened when we took the tour of the living space, which is powered by solar energy. We heard all about their rationale for an “off the grid” power source. I learned about how such a system actually teaches the users to become aware of the amount of power being consumed on a daily basis. I couldn’t help but think about how often my biggest concern is finding enough electrical outlets for my various gadgets, and the way I can arrogantly assume power will always be available in an endless supply. As I peered into the big battery chest under the Backstrand’s stairwell, I was reminded that our sisters and brothers of St. Mark’s in Jeanette,Haiti (The Haiti Project!), depend upon the power of portable generators and solar panels on a daily basis.

 As I reflect upon all of the work the Backstrands are doing at their farm, I sense this work is also having an impact on the parish they’re serving in Monroe. The congregation of St.Andrew’s is smaller, but they are patient. One parishioner told us on Monday evening at dinner, “We are growing…maybe not in leaps and bounds…maybe not in big numbers, but we’re growing deeper in relationships, deeper in our commitment to the Lord and deeper in our desire to reach out in Jesus’ name.” This is the sort of growth which takes patience and hard work – two essential characteristics necessary to the vocation of farming.

 Jesus told his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few” – but he never said the harvest would fall into our laps. We can’t simply ride by the fields and admire the crop.  We have to work the land, tend the plants and when harvest time comes, get out there and gather it. After the last day and a half in Monroe, I have little doubt that Fr. Brian and the people of St. Andrew’s are willing to do the work necessary to reap a harvest for the Gospel.

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