When a couple of Mormon missionaries were going door to door, they didn’t expect to confront an angry famer with a shovel. But when they met my mom, their lives changed. So did Mom’s.
My earliest recollections of community organizing here in West Fulton took place when the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons were going door to door. Whoever was caught out in their barnyard took the fall for the neighborhood, while whomever managed to be in the house would initiate the first call that would then travel up and down the road, warning everyone to hide indoors or hunker down in the barns. The culture of rural farm life was that we didn’t bother anyone. In exchange, no one should bother us.
As kids, my brother and I would hide in the upper barn, watching through the cracks in the boards while the dogs ran and barked ferociously around their cars, until the proselytizers would turn around and leave, but not before one of them would work up the courage to roll down the window just enough to push a pamphlet out through a crack. We’d watch it flutter to the driveway as they pulled away, then collect it for the fire bin.
When I was home one weekend from college, I was caught at the door. With no escape, I gestured wildly with my hands and spoke in heavily accented broken English to fabricate a story that I was a foreign exchange student from Andorra, and that I didn’t speak their language. Meanwhile, Mom and my sister crawled over to the phone to alert the neighbors. Darned if those Witnesses didn’t come back a week later with a translator.
Another time, it was Mom who was caught out in the open. We were working in the garden when the car pulled in the driveway. I crouched down behind the broccoli as I watched her put down her tools. Leaving her gloves on her hands, she stormed out of the garden and went to head off the visitors.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” a man began as he stepped out of the car. “We came today to bring you the word of God.”
She stared at them, saying nothing, her powerful arms by her side, her head cocked, waiting for the man to continue.
“Ma’am, tell me,” he continued, mistaking her silence for encouragement, “when was the last time you felt close to our Lord? When was the last time you spoke with Him?”
“As a matter of fact, I was just speaking to my god,” she met his gaze directly, “although he or she may not be your God. We were having a conversation out there in my garden, when you came and interrupted us.”
The man began to speak, holding up the pamphlet.
“Now, don’t even get started with me,” she squared herself. “God is here. In these hills, in this ground, in that garden, and I was praying. In my way. Maybe it isn’t the way you pray. But I’ll thank you to leave me to do it as I see fit.” With that, she turned on her heel and stomped back to her garden without another word. The message from our farm was clear. We won’t preach to you. You don’t preach to us.
Following that exchange, all was quiet on the proselytizing front for a while. Until about 15 years ago. I was still in grad school. Bob had a day job, and the work of dragging chicken pens, washing eggs and moving fence was wearing thin on mom and dad both. In a moment of despair, Mom sat down at her computer and typed up a sign.
Help wanted. No pay. Apply within.
She hung it up on the outside of the kitchen door, which she uses as her personal venue for self expression. It was taped just below one of her other signs, which read something like, “Take your F-ing shoes off before stepping foot in this house!”
Satisfied with her creative efforts, she climbed into the truck with dad and they drove off to deliver a load of lambs. When they came home, another piece of paper was wedged into the doorframe.
The note was simple:
We’d like to help. — Chris and Tom, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
They left a phone number. Mom didn’t call. She crumpled up the note and threw it away. She forgot about it. Chris and Tom didn’t. A car pulled in the next day. Mom was caught out in the barnyard, shovel still in hand. She didn’t have time to run and make the warning calls. I made the calls, then crept upstairs to my brother’s old room to eavesdrop out the window. Two young men in ties and crisp white shirts stepped out. Mom squared herself. Whether she intended to or not, she cut a menacing figure. Once more, she was ready to send them packing with their ideology.
“We’re here about the sign on your door,” one of them spoke. “We want to work for you.”
“That sign was a joke,” Mom answered gruffly.
“You wouldn’t have said it if you didn’t mean it,” he replied. “I’m Chris. This is Tom.”
“I’m not interested in your religion.”
“We’re not asking you to become Mormon,” Tom said. “We want to work on the farm.”
“This farm doesn’t make enough to pay hired labor.”
“We’re not asking for money,” Chris answered. “Please?”
When she didn’t answer, he continued. “Look, we have to do two days of volunteer service. And we’d like to volunteer here.”
“This is a for-profit farm. Don’t you need to work for a not-for-profit?”
“We think we should volunteer where we’re needed. Didn’t your sign say you needed help?”
Mom was cornered. She thought for a moment before responding. “No preaching,” she barked.
“No preaching,” Chris responded.
“No Bible talk.”
“No Bible talk,” Tom said.
“And lose the shirts and ties.”
“We have other clothes.”
“You can wash eggs.”
At first, Mom and Dad didn’t trust them to do anything more than wash eggs. But with all that had to be done, those eggs were piling up. And Chris and Tom showed up on time, every week, and washed eggs. They broke a lot of them, too.
The Mormons began asking more about how Sap Bush Hollow worked. As promised, there was no discussion of Bible verses or church attendance. But my parents found themselves having to answer many questions about the ideology of sustainable farming, about the proper care and stewardship of the land and of the creatures who walked it.
Dad began making sure he put a big lunch on the table each day they came. They ate heartily. A friendship grew.
Soon, we came to value their work. Mom and Dad wanted to send them home with meat and eggs in thanks. They refused, insisting there was to be no payment. “Take the meat, or you can’t come back,” Mom tried an alternative tactic. They accepted the food.
Chris and Tom began coming around more. They were technically young men, but in their hearts, they were still boys. They showed up for chicken killing days, taking gruesome delight in the dismembered heads and feet. They gathered as many as we would allow them, to bring back and play pranks on their church friends. They got dirty, played with the dogs, and gave Sap Bush Hollow a bank of stories about their adventures. They joined our family for Thanksgiving.
But soon after, our family learned of our biggest conflict with the Mormon church. Missionaries have to move on. They only stay in each location a few months. We were heartbroken. But Chris and Tom saw to it that the next generation who came through found out about Sap Bush Hollow. And those missionaries made sure the next ones came. And for years, our Thanksgiving table had two extra seats for the Mormons, and Mom and Dad grew quite skilled about sharing the hows and whys of what we do with people who had no experience with agriculture.
And then it ended. No one ever told us why. They just stopped coming. Maybe the church elders disapproved. Maybe the new crop of missionaries hated farm work. Maybe they realized someone else needed them more.
No one has come to the door proselytizing in years. Nevertheless, our family still talks about those Mormon Missionaries. We laugh about their fascination with chicken heads. We remember how many eggs got washed, how many eggs got broken, and how many times we had to explain the way things worked on a farm. At the end of every reminiscence, the same two questions are asked: “Who was in volunteer service to whom? Who was the missionary?”
I’d have to say, in the case of Tom and Chris, it was the Mormons in service to us. Their presence on our farm helped us to step up to our own spiritual calling.
We’ve learned that the wall that divides farmers from the world must crumble. We can’t hide in the upper barn and peak out through the cracks in the boards. We can’t crawl on the floor to find a telephone and warn the neighbors to run inside and lock their doors before someone knocks. If we are going to take our place in creating a better world, farmers have to share what we do. Unlike the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we don’t go door to door or stop people on the street. We don’t generally recite scripture. We don’t ask that people ascribe to any particular faith. We stay put on our land, or at our market stalls. But we, too, are missionaries. We preach the gospel of living in place, of honoring roots, of serving the land and her creatures. It has been a challenge for us, coming from an inherently introverted agrarian culture, to reach out and open up about how and why we do what we do. But we are learning. And thanks to a few egg washing missionaries, we are getting better all the time.
This essay was written by Shannon Hayes of Sap Bush Hollow Farm –radical homemaker, farmer, homeschooler and author — whose weekly Tuesday Posts are supported solely by the sale of her books and family farm products. To receive a link to each Tuesday Post in your email, enter your information in the space at the right of this page (scroll up). To support Sap Bush Hollow Farm and these writings, please check out the hand crafts and farm products in our online store, or come see us at the farm, or at The Round Barn Farmers’ Market in Holcottsville, NY (the Catskill Mountains). To buy books, check the titles in our online bookstore, or check out the ebook titles available directly from the author here. All Shannon’s titles are also available through the major online booksellers, as well as through your local independent bookstore.
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