Jonathan Warkentine interned with Oakleaf Mennonite Farm during the Summer of 2014 through the Ethics and Servant Leadership program at the Emory Center for Ethics. He offered the following reflection as a summation of his experience:
Oakleaf Mennonite Farm is probably not what you think.
To begin with, “Mennonite Farm” is an interesting suffix. “Oh,” said one of the volunteers, when I explained that no one working the farm that day was actually Mennonite, “so this whole place is a scam.”
I didn’t know what to say. “My dad was Mennonite,” I offered, hoping he was joking.
But really. Where are the cows? Where are the buggies and hand-fashioned furniture? Where are the chin beards? Why am I not required to wake up at 4:30 to milk and do chores? I had a lot of expectations when I signed up for the job, based mostly on my interactions with Hutterite communities near my dad’s hometown, which had strong ethnic Mennonite roots. I had also driven past a few Amish communities in my day, and was aware of the stereotypes. None of those really apply to Oakleaf, nor the Mennonite community here in general.
But the Mennonite community in Atlanta, like the Mennonite community worldwide, is undergoing a radical shift. Eight out of nine Mennonites are African or South American. Whereas my grandmother once defined herself as an “ethnic” Mennonite, that understanding of the term is rapidly losing its meaning as Mennonite ideology leaps like wildfire over cultural, racial, and geographic boundaries.
If I could hesitate to call Oakleaf a Mennonite place, surely it is still a farm? That is a liberal application of the word. Most of my friends are pretty disappointed when they come by: “It’s a big garden, with animals,” they’ve told me. Well, it’s true, fortunately; any larger of an operation would threaten to destroy the beauty and the magic of this place. We are not industrial farmers. We are certainly no Monsanto. We do not take God’s command to “till and keep the earth” to mean stabbing it with what Steinbeck called the “phalli of the seeder,” or otherwise trying to squeeze life out of our soil with machines, allowing steel or even gloves come between our fingers and the dirt from which our fingers were formed.
No, “garden” is certainly a more fitting definition. It was in a garden, after all, that God intended man to spend his days, basking in His presence. The garden was the backdrop for God’s words, “it is good.”
Yes, Oakleaf is quite decidedly a garden.
But even the term “garden,” along with “farm,” and “Mennonite,” can be a misnomer. That is partly because it is impossible to capture what goes on here in a neat little package of nouns and modifiers. Even sentences and paragraphs have trouble wrapping themselves around what, for lack of a better word, I would just call the “entity.” And yet even the word “entity” implies partitioning – a thing or being complete and whole in itself – exactly what we try not to be. Oakleaf is the farthest thing from self-sufficient or self-contained; it spills liberally into the adjacent community – into the soil of our surroundings.
When I first arrived at Oakleaf, I had tremendous difficulty separating Berea Mennonite Church from the farm, self-described by Berea as a “ministry” of the church. After two months here, it seems almost like Berea is a ministry of Oakleaf. What is a church, after all? Is it a building with a steeple and a pastor, or is it body unified in purpose and spirit – a family? Is it a place where you can expect music and a passionate speaker, or a place where you can find love, acceptance, and communion with God and His people? Is it a place that the poor must seek out, enter, and beg at, or a place that anticipates the needs of the poor and is unconditionally in pursuit of their fellowship?
The ancient Israelites worshiped a God that was so holy they would shut Him away in the deepest recesses of the Temple, stoning even a goat if it happened to touch a mountain God occupied. Both this restriction and this fear were done away with at the cross; the curtain to the Holy of Holies was torn in two, releasing God’s presence. The Christian Church, however, has been stitching that tear back together as quick as anyone would pull up an open front zipper. We at Oakleaf painstakingly pick it back apart; re-releasing God’s presence is a full time job.
At Oakleaf, I have learned to pray – not in a pew, but on my knees in the dirt, my hands folded across the stems of vegetables and weeds. At Oakleaf, I have learned to worship – not with “mere words” or movements of my lips, but in the movements of my life, in my attitude and approach even to living. At Oakleaf, I have been baptized – not in water, but in the cleansing stream of work. At Oakleaf, I partake of the sacraments: the blood and body of Christ poured out for me I partake, pouring my sweat and breaking my body (figuratively) according to the example set for me.
These past few days have been a whirlwind of activity as volunteers transformed everything I thought I knew about this place. A new barn, a new chicken run, new pasture, new fences, new garden rows – everywhere I look I see the industry of human beings. As I write, my fingers cramp from the day’s labors, and I can barely feel the keyboard through my callouses. I’ve been a little too occupied, perhaps, with emphasizing the difficulty and novelty of my work – it’s hard not to when it enchants you – but I think the real key to understanding and appreciating the labor that goes on here is its results. A week ago, a man with no home and no food came to us, and we heaped vegetables upon him, because we recognize that “spiritual food” is not a complete meal. Later that same day we donated the entire day’s harvest from our garden to a local co-op, Urban Recipe. The barns, the fencing, the chickens – all bring much-needed income to fuel Oakleaf’s ministry. The work that goes on here is not, to borrow from physics, scalar, or meaningless; it is vectorial, possessing both magnitude and direction. We are moving, moving toward the New Creation – even if that movement does not involve a buggy.
So what did I actually do while at Oakleaf? I’ve mentioned some of my encounters with the community and some of my work in the Neighbors’ Garden, but the brunt of the work I did this summer I have not yet described in detail.
When I saw Oakleaf Mennonite Farm listed as a potential EASL site match, I did not choose it thinking “Gee, that looks like the easiest one on here.” Actually, quite the opposite thought was running through my head: whereas the other site matches seemed to involve a lot of paperwork and navigating bureaucracy, Oakleaf seemed to promise hard manual labor. After four semesters cooped up in the classroom, that was exactly what I wanted. I was not disappointed.
After a missions trip to Chicago, during which I picked trash for several days straight, I began to realize how rich and fulfilling – and how desperately needed by the world – is the life of service. I knew that picking up trash in Chicago was not exactly saving or transforming someone’s life. At the same time, I recognized that if I was put into a position where someone’s life was in my hands and I had not cultivated a spirit of service and humility, there was no reason to think that I would make very much of the opportunity. I was, I think, very concerned about my own moral development.
Yes I expected rows of cows and getting up early to milk them. I also had vague hopes to make some furniture this summer. I was excited to be given a chance to interview, and when I went for the tour I admit I was a little surprised to find what I did: a community garden, rows of crops that belonged to a separate, private farmer, some sheep and goats, and chickens. Even if Oakleaf had defied my preconceptions, it did not defy my expectations. I wanted the opportunity to disappear into the world of dirty, under-appreciated labor (which was much appreciated by the Berea community!), and at Oakleaf I was handed that opportunity.
I did a lot of weeding my first couple weeks, and picked a lot of strawberries. Looking back at my log, I spent over 30 hours weeding the Neighbors’ Garden one week. I trimmed hedges, cleaned coops, fed and watered animals – anything unglamorous and unexciting, and I was doing it. What is more, I loved doing it. I needed a break, a break from the scrutiny of school and work, constantly stressing and pushing my mental and physical limits, and Oakleaf gave it. That is not to say that I was not pushed, or that I did not grow, or that I was not stressed; there were certainly times when that was the case. As a whole, however, my time at Oakleaf involved a lot of stillness, quiet contemplation, and simple manual labor. How healing, how transcendent these days of dirt and sweat have been; how they have transformed my thinking and my spirit; how my mind has been renewed and sharpened!