By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY – At least for Dave Armstrong, it was a no-brainer.
As Avila University’s director of Campus Ministries and Mission Effectiveness, he had been leading students on mission and retreat trips to Nazareth Farm in Appalachia for a decade.
When the opportunity presented itself just last August to bring the work-and-prayer experience to inner city Kansas City, he seized it.
On May 1, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Armstrong, Avila University President Ronald Slepitza and provincial leadership team member Sister of St. Joseph Helen Flemington were among the dignitaries to open Jerusalem Farm and welcome its first directors, Jordan and Jessie Schiele – and one-year-old son Nathaniel – to Kansas City.
It happened fast, Armstrong admitted at a Mass celebrated by Father Bob Stone for the nearly 100 guests, crammed into what will be the dining room of the urban farm.
All three Schieles had arrived just two weeks earlier with other Nazareth Farm volunteers in tow, but much work had already been done on repairing the nine-bedroom former convent on Garfield Avenue, building and filling the first compost bins, and tilling and planting what this summer and fall will be Jerusalem Farm’s first crop of organic vegetables.
There will soon be chickens – just like many of their northeast Kansas City immediate neighbors already have. And there will be work to be done, mirroring the work done in and around Salem, W.Va., in repairing the homes of the area’s poor.
But will it work? That’s where faith comes in, said Armstrong.
“Our mission is to be in right relationship with God, ourselves, others and the earth,” Armstrong said. “We come as humble neighbors. We don’t come to speak. We come to listen. The challenge is not in recognizing who our neighbor is. The challenge is being the neighbor to others.”
Jerusalem Farm will operate on the same four “cornerstones” of Nazareth Farms, which has been a host to literally thousands of college students looking for a better way to spend spring break than on a beach.
Those cornerstones begin with prayer. Every day begins and ends with community prayer. There is also prayer before every meal, and prayer while working. There is also professionally led spiritual retreat, in Kansas City led by Sister of St. Joseph Rose McLarney.
The second cornerstone is simplicity. There are no cell phones, no laptops, no television. Jordan Schiele also promises that the convent that last served the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who staffed the former St. John the Baptist parish and school that is now the Don Bosco Center will be one of the “greenest” houses in Kansas City. Everything will be recycled and reused, and there are plans underway to install solar panels to provide the building’s heating, cooling and power needs.
The third cornerstone is community. Jerusalem Farm will be open to individuals and groups, especially organized college and high school student groups, for retreat and manual work experiences that could be scheduled for a day, a weekend or a week. During that week, members will bond through prayer, meals and work without the electronic distractions of the outside world.
The fourth cornerstone is service. Jerusalem Farm will offer simple home repair services throughout the neighborhood, offering free labor, whatever scrap materials and tools they can collect, and asking the homeowner only to pay for other materials as needed on an affordable monthly payment basis.
Armstrong said he has led more than 20 groups from Avila on Nazarath Farm retreat and service experiences over the last decade.
After a retreat there in August, he learned that the Schieles, project coordinators at Nazareth Farm, were planning to leave to establish a Catholic Worker house in Detroit.
Armstrong wanted to find some way to bring them to Kansas City, but had no idea how.
“Two weeks after I got back, I got an e-mail from Jude Huntz (chancery chief of staff of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph) that said Don Bosco was looking for a new use for the convent,” Armstrong said.
He got busy.
“I talked to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (sponsors of Avila University). I talked to Ron (Slepitza). I talked to Sister Rose. I talked to Jude. I said, ‘What do you think of this idea? To bring the mission of Nazareth Farm to an urban area,” Armstrong said.
That was the easy part, he said. Everybody in Kansas City said go for it.
The hard part, he said, was convincing the Schieles.
Armstrong had all the plans in place by October, when he led another group of Avila students to a work-retreat at Nazareth Farm. As soon as he arrived, he presented the plan to the Schieles.
“Jordan said no,” Armstrong recalled. “I said, ‘You talk about it and think it over.’ I knew we needed them to put this together.”
They talked some more, and Armstrong asked that they sleep on it, and they would talk again in the morning. They didn’t have to.
“Jessie told me that first night that they were coming to Kansas City,” he said.
It would be a bold move for seasoned veterans. But Jordan is 26. Jessie is 23. By the standards of the secular world, they know that what they are doing is not your normal career and life path. But it is one they have to take.
The couple met as Americorps volunteers in 2008. Bitten by service to the poor, they soon settled into Nazareth Farm and were married two years later and knew how they would spend at least their young adulthood if not the rest of their lives – in service to the poor, connected deeply to Christian faith.
“I was majoring in non-profit management at a community college, so I wound up in the same place I would be if I were in college,” said Jessie, a native of Gaylord, Mich.
“It is very clear to us that this is what life is supposed to be,” said Jordan, a native of Sacramento, Calif.
The couple immersed themselves in studying the full range of Catholic social teaching – the papal encyclicals, the pastoral letters from national conferences of bishops from around the world, as well as the writings of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
“Life doesn’t have to be spent in such an institutional setting,” Jordan said. “We will be spending our time not just on making money, but on things that time should be spent on, in relationships and community.”
And that is why Jerusalem Farm is going to work, Slepitza said. He says the Nazareth Farm experience, located just across the city from the Avila Campus, will be a core part of the Avila education experience.
“I see it as an opportunity for students to engage their neighbors,” he said. “We will all learn what it means to be in relationship with each other.”
Sister Helen said it was also a no-brainer for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s leadership team to endorse the Jerusalem Farm project, and just as appropriate to celebrate the first Mass on that site on a major feast of St. Joseph.
“This is our charism,” she said. “This follows the work we have been doing for 175 years in the United States. It’s all about the dear neighbors and how we are serving them and how we are all growing in faith and love.”
Ben Cascio, executive director of the Don Bosco Center, said the center’s board had an easy decision to make.
“When Dave and Jude first came to me to talk about this, it was like a miracle,” he said.
“There is a huge need for this in this community. The more I thought about it, the more excited I got. The very best we offer are very simple and very pure. I knew this was good from the beginning.”
In his homily, Father Stone said that the students taking advantage of the Jerusalem Farm experience will receive far more than they will give.
He recalled leading a student group and adult chaperones to a service experience at a huge homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., within sight of the U.S. Capitol building.
“The first thing they did was walk through a group of homeless people waiting outside the shelter. They were afraid,” he said.
“By the end of the week, the students knew most of the homeless by name, and they took down the address of the shelter so they could write to them when they got back. And remember, teenagers don’t write letters.
“They were seeing that they were people just like them,” Father Stone said. “That’s what God calls us to do. That’s what the call for peace and justice in the world is all about. We are all brothers and sisters, and we need to realize that.”