Editors’ Note: We’ve devoted a set of articles to examining Catholic religious communities today. Despite the impressive variety of these communities, some common themes emerge: the importance of a shared prayer life; the difficulty of adapting to new circumstances; the relationship of community to place. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The Varieties of Religious Community Today.
“Welcome home.” This is the greeting all visitors receive at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic intentional community dedicated to service, hospitality, and simple living. As I arrive at the community’s forty-seven-acre homestead atop a mountain in rural West Virginia, the community members pause their work to greet me with a hug. It’s June 2021, a year into the pandemic, and a hug, especially from a stranger, still feels like something from a bygone era.
The Bethlehem Farm community consists of twelve long-term members, called Caretakers, who live communally on the homestead—once a Catholic Worker farm—where they grow their own food, teach sustainable ways of living, and serve their neighbors by doing low-cost home repair. Volunteers also live on the farm, some for a week as part of a high-school or college service trip, others for a longer period of time as one of the “Summer Servants.” With four cornerstones of living—service, prayer, simplicity, and community—the Caretakers of Bethlehem Farm seek to live the Gospel in every part of life. They commit to being radically accepting toward one another, gentle toward creation, and generous in their service.
In its vision statement, Bethlehem Farm calls itself a “contrast community”—borrowing Cardinal Avery Dulles’s concept of a “contrast society.” Dulles wrote that the first such community—the disciples—was “intended to attract attention.” Moreover, “it had a mission to remind the rest of the people of the transcendent value of the Kingdom of God, to which the disciples bore witness. It was therefore important for them to adopt a manner of life that would make no sense apart from their intense personal faith in God’s providence and his fidelity to his promises.”
What is the contrast Bethlehem Farm wishes to draw? How does it intend to be different from the rest of society? What are people looking for when they come to a place like this, and do they find it? More than anything, I wanted to know: Is an intentional community like Bethlehem Farm actually a sustainable model of community life that more Catholics should emulate?
On most days, the community gathers at 7:30 a.m. for morning prayer in the main residence—a two-story lodge with a big common area and fifteen dormitory-style rooms. With comfortably worn couches, board games, a couple of guitars, and lots of books, it resembles nothing so much as a summer camp. On the walls are an image of Óscar Romero, crosses of different sizes and styles, posters about solar power and invasive mining practices, and a hand-drawn cardboard sign with the words “Be Gentle.” The bookshelves contain hymnals, encyclicals, books on prayer and spirituality, but also novels and children’s picture books.
People begin to trickle in—the Caretakers, the volunteers, and a family staying on the farm for a retreat. It’s Wednesday, the day the community holds a Eucharistic service. Designated a pious house by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Bethlehem Farm is permitted to conduct the service without a priest. Colleen, one of the community’s founders, leads the service. She and her husband, Eric, started Bethlehem Farm in 2005, and they live in the community with their children, who are playing around us as the service begins. As we sing “All Are Welcome,” we can hear the chickens clucking just outside.