Although I spent two years in seminary—and thus, in church services with a lot of men—I wasn’t prepared for the demographics inside the church at the Saint Elisabeth Men’s Farmstead. Okay, it’s the Men’s Farmstead, so I knew the sisters would be a minority, but when I walked through the doors of the church, I couldn’t see past the interior narthex doorway: the church was packed with men. About two hundred men, as a matter of fact. I actually did not have the nerve to shoulder my way into the nave and venerate the central icon, although more men kept arriving and doing just that, after which they either found a pocket of space in the crowded church or wended their way back to the narthex, which was also quickly filling with people. There were no pews, of course—most of the men simply stood in the increasingly dense crowd—although a few benches lined the back wall, where spaces opened up for those arriving on crutches or with faltering steps.
Indeed, as the farmstead men filtered past me in my corner of the narthex, the difficulties of their lives showed plainly in the faces and forms of many. From tired eyes, weathered skin, stooped shoulders and shuffling gaits, one could feel that many of these men carried immense burdens from their pasts. At the same time, they were a diverse group: young, old, burly, delicate, with manners and motions hinting at different levels of education, training, and health. Still, overall there was a sense of roughness only slightly smoothed, of weariness groping for a support. In the Orthodox world, the pillars of piety are often older women, and now I found myself in a congregation not only consisting almost entirely of men, but of men one would
not normally expect to find in church. And this character of dubious material and surprising fruitfulness is at the heart of the Men’s Farmstead.
The Men’s Farmstead is one of the oldest ministries of the Saint Elisabeth community, having been founded almost concurrently with the sisterhood itself, in 1998. The mission of the farmstead is to provide a stable and supportive environment for men struggling with addictions, homelessness, prison convictions, and a myriad of other problems. Of the two hundred men living at the farm today, a few consider it their permanent home, but most of the men come and go, unable to settle down entirely to a rural lifestyle. But the sisters hope that even a short period at the farm can prove beneficial, and as long as a man wants to return and abide by farmstead rules, they welcome any prodigal.
The farmstead itself seems symbolic of the struggles of the men themselves. Over tea after a morning Divine Liturgy, Archpriest Andrew Lemeshonok recalled that the 300 acres of which the farm consists were in such bad condition in 1998 that no one else wanted them. One of the sisters shared stories about trying to plow, only to unearth buried cars and tractors. The viability of such land seemed highly doubtful, and the chances of success in helping such marginalized men were no better. Many people might have called Fr Andrew and the sisters crazy for undertaking a revitalization of the land, and of the men. Probably many might still consider their efforts hopeless and a waste of time, money, and energy. But with God, nothing is impossible.
Today, the farm hosts a number of projects: the dairy has over 100 cattle; the forge produces wrought iron for the monastery and sells to the public; outbuildings host studios for leatherwork, laser printing/cutting, and woodcraft. A small café sells hot drinks, sandwiches, and pastries. Down a dirt track lies a network of barns and cottage-like structures: here, the farmstead ran a petting zoo of sorts for a time, and hopes to renew that activity, because it often welcomes youngsters. In the summer, the sisters offer hypotherapy to handicapped children from the city boarding homes, using the farmstead’s carefully reared and trained horses.
Since I don’t speak Russian, I couldn’t converse with any of the farmstead residents on the various occasions I had to visit. But while I noticed the weary, worn, and rough aspect of many, I also observed kindness, gentleness, and yes, happiness. On one occasion, as a few other visitors and I enjoyed a cup of coffee in the café, a rather decrepit-looking man shuffled over, and insisted on giving us all Russian candies. Well, they may have been candies, but to me they looked more like the widow’s mite. On another occasion when group of women toured the dairy, we all noticed the loving relationship the men in the dairy had with the cows, allowing the huge animals to lick their coats and wipe their noses on the men’s sleeves (gross—but, I have to admit, also sweet). Afterwards, our group’s car could not crest the hill of the dairy in the snow, and as we climbed out to lighten the weight of the vehicle, we heard a shout; and suddenly, five men were pushing that SUV over the ice. Many of the men I met in the workshops were very proud of their skills in leatherwork and woodcutting, and justifiably so. And although we interrupted work in the forge on one visit, the busy craftsmen graciously stopped to give us a demonstration and discuss the items the forge produces.
I am sure that there are many stories of apparent failure from the Men’s Farmstead: men who have not been able to sustain a change in their lives, and projects on the farm that have failed to thrive. But as I stood, overwhelmed, among the two hundred residents in the farmstead church (decorated, incidentally, with icons of the Casting Out From Eden, Cain and Able, the Tower of Babel, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus), I couldn’t help but think: if even one man among these hundreds turns from a life of chaos and self-destruction to one of hope and love, then this is a success. Christ seeks out the one lost lamb from the ninety-nine that have not gone astray. The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. And ultimately, how different are “the rest of us” from these men trying to start over? We all need to repent and struggle to change; some of us just have an easier time hiding the extent of our sins. The farmstead, then, is for all of us, I think. May the Lord continue to reclaim our lives and make us fruitful.