The Common Good
August 2011

Growing Together

by Melissa Aberle-Grasse | August 2011

Koinonia Farm has seen a renewal of community life -- and a new, sustainable approach to the land.

Outside the community dining hall at Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia, a bell sits on a rough-hewn post like a hat on a welcoming host. For almost 70 years, visitors have been welcomed there every weekday for a community meal. Today, there's a new vitality at Koinonia; it can be heard in the bell's ring five times a day, as well as in the voices of cattle and sheep, children and construction crews. While deeply rooted in their tradition, Koinonia's members are creating fresh structures in community life -- and they have a new approach to the land based on permaculture, a design system for sustainable habitats.

In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan, along with Martin and Mabel England, started the farm as a "demonstration plot for the kingdom of God." Koinonia endured violent hostility for its pacifist stand in the 1940s and for fostering close relationships between African-American and white neighbors in the 1950s and '60s. In the '70s and '80s, members' work led to forming international ministries: Habitat for Humanity, Jubilee Partners, and the Fuller Center for Housing.

But in the wake of a 1993 decision to make structural changes to function more like a typical nonprofit corporation, Koinonia experienced a decade of challenges. The change had sound reasons, including the hope to include more African-American neighbors in long-term employment, but the community struggled for leadership and focus. The core ministries were sustained, but Koinonia lost money and had to sell nearly half of its 1,100 acres.

In 2004 a small group of Koinonians began the journey to return to their origins as a Christian intentional community. Their movement toward renewal was kindled the previous year when they hired Bren Dubay as the organization's new director. She still sees it as proof of God's sense of humor: How did an Irish Catholic from Texas come to lead a community founded by Southern Baptists in Georgia into its new era? It was also good sense: Dubay brought skills in fundraising and administration, as well those of an artist and spiritual director. When she came, Dubay insisted on two things: "We're going to pray together, and do the math." Particularly in light of Koinonia's financial losses in the 1990s, she has led in establishing a transparent and accountable annual budget.

She also quadrupled the times of daily prayer. "We have a 'senior partner' here," Dubay likes to remind folks. Patterns of prayer keep the members in touch with God and with each other. On weekdays, the first bright clang of the bell at 7:30 a.m. announces a half hour of silent prayer, followed by morning devotions in the red-roofed chapel. The bell now also rings at 10 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m., each time inviting those listening to remember God and their common intentions.

Not long after the late afternoon prayer bell, there's a frequent sight on the farm: Brendan Prendergast, in hat and suspenders, holding a coil of electric wire, calling, "Come on cows!" A herd of cattle -- brown, red, and white; full-grown and calves -- trot and shuffle past him to their next grazing site.

Koinonia's new farm design, which emphasizes livestock integrated with growing vegetables and its historic pecan and fruit orchards, came about through prayerful listening. Within a year or so after Prendergast, his wife Sarah, and their daughter Ida came to Koinonia in 2006 (another daughter, Kellan, came along in 2007), the community heard his passion for the land and commissioned him to manage the farm. Over the next year, Prendergast observed and reflected on Koinonia's farm: Its 575 acres had a single-product focus of pecans, but there were also blueberry bushes and muscadine vines, woods, creeks, and about 80 acres of fields with depleted soil.

Prendergast expressed interest in using permaculture, a system that is able to incorporate many sustainable agriculture methods; its principles and ethics are highly adaptable, focusing on the possibilities of whatever ecosystem resources are at hand -- people, time, and money as well as soil, water, and climate.

Already, with the help of many hands and minds, key permaculture principles can be seen at Koinonia. For example, every element -- including animals, plants, and even building structures -- has several functions, and each function is linked to other elements. In the vegetable garden, veggies intermingle with small trees, shrubs, and vines. Climbing plants provide flowers and fruit that attract bees (from the farm's hives), while saving space. Shrubs and small trees provide a structure for vines as well as giving shade from sun and shelter from wind; their roots loosen compacted soil. Vegetable varieties are interspersed with each other, mimicking nature, which helps repel damaging insects and attract beneficial ones.

Inspired by the work of farmer/philosopher Joel Salatin in Virginia, the new farm design focuses on holistic methods of animal husbandry with the goal of producing organic, pasture-raised meat, dairy, and eggs. Cattle, sheep, and chickens are grazed in carefully managed succession to complement one another’s needs and functions. Cows eat certain grasses, sheep prefer others; the chickens consume insects that plague the cattle. This cycle promotes healthy animals and gives the plants time to grow or reseed themselves. The animals help break up the soil, which is also fertilized by their manure -- which is why they’re sometimes seen grazing the orchards or the garden.

Prendergast has begun to establish a herd of Pineywoods cattle, a breed well-adapted to the Southeast but now relatively rare. The hope is to create a stable ecosystem for other endangered species that were once native to this area. With newcomers born on the farm nearly each month, the farm currently has more than three dozen cattle, four dozen sheep, about 10 pigs, and dozens of other animals -- chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and goats.

Another permaculture principle is to meet challenges with small and slow solutions. Pecan production provides more than half of Koinonia's income, so changing this focus overnight isn't viable. Currently Koinonia is experimenting with techniques that will reduce the use of chemicals in the pecan orchard.

Permaculture, named and popularized in the 1970s in Tasmania, Australia, by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, has long been credited with successful farming methods in developing countries -- from rice-duck farming in Vietnam to a recently established permaculture center in Marda, Palestine. Permaculture is "information and imagination-intensive, not energy- or capital-intensive," writes Mollison.

Koinonians easily resonated with the permaculture approach. It's "kind of going back to the way we used to do things -- fewer chemicals, more natural methods," Norris Harris, Koinonia's chaplain, who also helps manage the pecan orchard, told Sojourners.

At the same time, permaculture requires "an experimenter's mind -- even if you try hundreds of things that fail, there’s always a possibility," says consultant Wayne Weisman, who this October will lead a permaculture design course at Koinonia (the fourth to be hosted there).

Experimentation, too, is in keeping with Koinonia’s ethos: As Lenny Jordan, son of Clarence and Florence, notes, "Clarence emphasized that Koinonia was an experiment in Christian living. An experiment adapts to new conditions, so it's not surprising that Koinonia has a new form. There’s a fresh vitality here."

To share ideas and resources, Koinonia is partnering with other farmers, a concept modeled by Clarence Jordan. The farm has established partnerships for raising sheep and processing blueberries. Members have helped lead seminars about sustainable farming and Christian community at nearby Fort Valley University and at Emory University in Atlanta.

But permaculture is only part of Koinonia's renewal. What Koinonia is doing these days, members emphasize, starts with who the community is, expressed in its mission statement: "Christians called to live together in intentional community, sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service, and fellowship."

After a year of listening and discerning that began in 2004, a small group of Koinonians committed themselves to return to the community-based vision of Clarence Jordan. Together, they've developed a new model of membership that consists of "stewards," the core members who commit long-term to the community's covenant; "apprentices" and "novices," those on a path toward being stewards; "service partners," non-communal members who participate as much as they can in the common life; and "community interns," those who come to participate in community life for three months to a year.

Currently, there are six stewards, several apprentice/novices, and nine partners. Among them are both recent arrivals and long-term Koinonians such as Norris Harris and Kathleen Monts; 20somethings and seniors; and, happily, many children and youth.

The internship program provides a guided experience of Koinonia’s life. Amanda Moore, the intern "shepherd," sums up the purpose as "know God, know thyself." Many interns are "seekers" -- looking for fresh meaning in their own lives, healing wounds related to the church, or a new vocational direction. Others come just wanting to enjoy life on the farm for a while. Most are profoundly changed by their time at Koinonia, some sharing intimately of themselves for the first time.

"Each week, the interns and I practice 'examen' -- sharing consolations and desolations of our week. It's a beautiful spiritual exercise that helps open the eyes and ears of the heart," Moore told Sojourners. "Being willing to sit with another person in their pain is something we Americans seem to fear. This type of intimacy requires a lot of our 'self'; it requires that we not hold another person at arm’s length, but walk side by side through life."

Since 2005, more than 60 interns have participated, and at any time they can be found working at farm chores or in the office or with another of Koinonia’s ministries, such as the Koinonia Community Outreach Center that offers health, education, and counseling services to people in the Americus area.

"There's something about this land, this air, this water -- you feel like you’re on holy ground. There's something that opens up in people," says Dubay.

Hospitality -- welcoming God in the form of a stranger -- continues to be central to the life and ministry of Koinonia. In 2010, Koinonia hosted more than 1,000 visitors. A new meeting house (a renovated guest house and dining room) is under construction, with the hope that it will be completed in time for the 70th anniversary in 2012.

This year, Koinonia will hold its sixth "school for conversion," a weekend seminar exploring intentional community and its intimate connection with the church. Koinonia also continues its tradition of active peacemaking, especially through a connection with Tree of Life, an interfaith group working to be a bridge of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Jesus sounded the call to a new Way in the first century; Clarence Jordan echoed it in the 1940s, writing, "We seek a new Spirit, a spirit of partnership with God and people everywhere." Today, people at Koinonia are re-creating that call in the land and in their lives.

Melissa Aberle-Grasse writes and teaches English in Atlanta.

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