Friday, June 09, 2006

Our Experiences at the Agape Community

A spirited 35-mile bicycle jaunt from Northampton (after visiting Mark's friends Mike, Gerry and their two kids Devin and Ryan) brought us back into the semi-remote forests of central Massachusetts. Fifteen miles of the gorgeous Norwottuck rail trail (never more than a 2% grade) popped us out onto quiet side roads where you could still hear the birds and bees flying and buzzing along side of you as you rode (though we were just fast enough to out-cycle the mosquitoes). About a dozen miles on a generally kind state highway of meandering hills brought us to the surprisingly pretty town of Ware, Massachusetts, tucked away in a tight valley filled with church steeples and surrounded by hills of green. Another 7 or 8 miles of quiet, paved, farming and ranching roads brought us to the Agape Community.

Val, Brayton & Joe (garden behind them)

We arrived just as it began to rain for nearly two days straight, to a warm welcome from Brayton and Joe. Suzanne, Brayton, their daughter Teresa (in the summers), and their current year-long intern, Joe, make up the live-in community at Agape. Ahhh, we both felt, what a relief to have to relate to just three people --- Suzanne was out of town during our visit! We briefly helped Joe, a 20-something from Florida, with some garden work (The unusually mild winter this past year in Massachusetts was still brutal for Joe who feels that anything below 70-degrees is a challenge)! Then we retired for the day, with a few minutes rest and then a 30-minute evening prayer/meditation.

Agape is a lay Catholic community, very much like the Catholic Worker, whose lifeway I'm used to and can appreciate, located on 32-acres in a very remote section of central Massachusetts, 25 miles from Amherst. We stayed in a bedroom in one beautiful six-bedroom house was constructed 28 years ago by Suzanne, Brayton and their community. Another, much more energy conscious straw-bale / passive solar home, was built about a decade ago. The land also includes a quarter-acre garden plot, a wonderful hermitage up in the woods, and hardwood trees and wild animals roaming through.

Agape has all the elements we are looking for in community: shared spirituality, ecological sustainability and social justice activism. We were so deeply impressed as well with Brayton and Joe and Teresa as people (though we didn't get to visit with Teresa as much, her town-run-for-pie will ever be fondly remembered!). I think the thing which struck Val most was their extraordinary humility. Here we were, these two brash outsiders, coming into a life they've lived for years (or at least months), saying, “Have you tried this? What about that?” And our suggestions and ideas were listened to with such warmth and respect. The throughline of spirituality with the way in which visitors are treated, the way work is shared, the way vision is expressed and selves challenged, simply felt so right-on. Integrity is the word I keep coming back to. They struck us as people of just tremendous integrity.

Folks at Agape are involved with anti-war actions and witness. They hold regular retreats for college students to learn about the practical lessons of this matrix of community. Brayton and Suzanne teach local classes on their lifeway. And an excellent twice annual newsletter is sent out to supporters of Agape, providing thoughts on peak oil, U.S. foreign and domestic policy, other pressing matters of the day, through the lens of practical spiritual reflection.

Three times a day there is a prayer meditation service, before breakfast and lunch, and then after dinner just before bedtime. I especially loved the morning meditation to help me center my day. Doing this alone requires discipline I usually don't have and practicing prayer together is much more powerful and meaningful. Just the four of us together during prayer and meditation three times daily was simply refreshing and meaningfully rich. Short passages from the New Testament were read, time for personal reflection was given, and then there was sometimes a shared song with a guitar accompaniment.

Large 6-bedroom house built 25 years ago, garden in foreground

Our time there was very peaceful and refreshing to our spirits. We spent our second day cleaning up their basements (it was pouring rain outside) and doing some fix-it work on their bicycle fleet. [Note to bicycle owners everywhere: please store your bicycles inside a dry space to prevent rusting and corrosion.]

We prepared dinners and lunches together: very simple vegetarian fare, utilizing lots of greens from the garden and small greenhouse. We enjoyed lots of rich, deep conversation about community, politics, spirituality.

A fairly large community of people help build and sustain Agape. Prior to living on the land in community, Agape Community was an urban creation in Boston, formed of two families—Brayton and Suzanne, and another couple. When Brayton and Suzanne and others supporting their vision felt they really needed to be living in immediate relationship with the land, they amicably parted from the other couple. Since that time, they've had many temporary members of their community, but no one prepared to vow to living the life, day-in and day-out, as Brayton and Suzanne have. Still, their community is an essential part of all the outreach they do to the surrounding community, their ceremonies, celebrations, witness and mission.

In terms of sustainability and living rightly on the land, the people of Agape do try to tread lightly. They make a conscious effort to use as little as possible and live simply; the injustice inherent in the global economy is ever-present in their minds and actions. Their green efforts include, in addition to the strawbale passive-solar house, a diesel 'grease car' that is powered on vegetable oil obtained from a local eatery (Brayton actually apologized to us for driving as we hopped on our bikes to leave!). They heat their homes with wood from the land. The garden provides the bulk of their summer and fall food.

They did have a tv and vcr/dvd player that we utilized to watch a wonderful new documentary called “The Power of Community” about Cuba's recent history dealing with an imposed peak-oil situation. A gifted and highly-educated population aided by a mostly benevolent government have created stunning micro-economies where most people have a direct relationship with growing their own food (80% organic). Pesticides and fertilizers have been almost eliminated. Farmers are among the most respected professions now and they also make the most money! Walking and bicycling are back in action (Cubans were addicted to cars and buses). While the initial shock of a drastic reduction in foreign imports and subsidies (along with the illegal and cruel U.S. embargo against Cuba) were difficult for most Cubans, the resulting changes have been quite the blessing in disguise. Cuba is almost no longer dependent upon foreign countries. For our friends that love the city but yearn for an alternative-city-life, check this video out or go and check Cuba out.

The video was happily received at Agape because people in Cuba were clearly getting more in touch with the land, the food they eat and creating closer more intimate relationships. We had a marvelous time with them, learned a great deal, and will carry the spirit of their place and purpose and selves with us as we continue on our journey.


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