Day #1 of my 3-day Northern Tier immersion experience was all that I’d hoped that it would be- I got to spend the day with several different parishioners of the church who showed me some of their life and ministry in this tiny town tucked up in the mountains about an hour north of Williamsport.
I’d been to Mansfield on four or five other occasions: during the walk-abouts, on one of my first visitations (I did my first Confirmation here, as bishop), and I’d been up North three other times for our every-other-month Clergy Council meetings… but all of those occasions took place inside the church.
This time, I didn’t even get into the church.
The program that the parishioners and The Rev. Rowena Gibbons planned for me went straight to the core of the passions of the people- and, as we walked through the day, Jesus was right at our side. And so was Joan Berresford, parishioner at St. James and my tour guide for the day. I’d first met Joan during the bishop election walkabouts and it was wonderful to see her again and for her to lead me through the day.
We started at Partners in Progress, a program that supports individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities in vocational training and supportive coaching. St James’ parishioner Roxanne Heaney-Rumsey works at Partners in Progress and she met us at the door of the large warehouse-like facility. (I hear that it was once an old grocery store). Partners in Progress is about ¼ mile out of town on a commercial strip. Roxanne described the different programs offered at Partners in Progress which include an on-site workshop where about 40 individuals work with staff to assemble various machine parts- “piece work,” as we know it. Roxanne introduced me to Mike. Mike calls himself the “King of Mansfield,” and, somehow, I didn’t have any trouble believing that. He was endeared to me immediately as he explained in detail, the two dozen steps that he took to assemble, inspect and crate up the widgets that he was working on that day. He showed me the notebook where he kept track of his daily progress. On Thursday, he put together and boxed up 460 widgets. Pretty impressive. The tone of the workshop was industrious, gentle and buoyant. Staff circulated through, offering encouragement and assistance, and the employees chatted with each other as they worked at their stations in the large room. I learned from Roxanne about the move towards greater integration of the disabled individuals in the community- working towards finding them jobs in the fabric of the life of the town, as they were able…striving towards a fuller picture of society and recognizing the goodness of the diversity of the town when all are gathered. Something led me back to Genesis 1: “And when God saw all that (God) had done- diversity in creation- God said, “It is good..” (paraphrased) I was so delighted to meet Roxanne- one of my CPA Facebook friends- and we chatted as she took me next door to the Thrift Store run by Partners in Progress and staffed by a mixed group of disabled and typically functioning folks. Of course I did not leave without filling a small bag with some thrift items from the housewares section. (Sorry, hubby.)
After lunch my guide, Joan, drove me out of town and up into the hills to the farm of Robby and Kathleen England. Robby and Kathleen live in some of the most beautiful rolling hills and pasture land in our commonwealth and they raise Border Leicester sheep. About 150 of them, in fact. When we got out of the car, Kathleen was standing on her porch inspecting hanks of yarn that she had just dyed and that were drying, outside. Robby emerged from the barn, and, when he opened the door, the sounds of bleating baby lambs and classical music made its way to us. Apparently the barn is filled with classical music night and day. It reminded me of babies who listen to Mozart. I stood in the bright sunshine, taking it in. A cat wound her way around my ankle and a big, happy yellow dog came over for a pat. All of my “farm fantasies” were immediately activated. (My home library includes several books on “chucking it all and moving to a farm/homesteading, etc.” It is my favorite escape fantasy.) In spite of the next hour or so in which Robby and Kathleen described their life and work (Robby also works at the hospital in the lab , has a weaving studio and is a musician)… I was not disavowed of the wonder of farm life. Robby and Kathleen only worked to enhance it, actually. Grandson Eric was also on site and a patient host as we made our way in and around the farmhouse looking at woolens, blankets, shawls…all produced by this exceptional family.
And the lambs. Oh the lambs. None of the three ewes who were still expecting were in active labor in the hour that we were there, but we were led through the barn and saw babies just a day or two old, including twin orphan lambs and a jolly set of black triplets who climbed over each other to reach Robby when he stepped in the pen.
I got to hold one of the triplets… and to feed another a supplemental bottle of formula. Robby and Kathleen talked with tender practicality about the joys and difficulties of raising livestock. And I asked a million dumb questions. They were kind and patient with me. Kathleen showed us her shop where she and her knitting partner display their amazing woolen goods. And, oh, they are writing a book. Amazing.
My fascination with the lambs and farming (and Kathleen, Robby and Eric’s good nature) made me ½ hour late for our next appointment - a tour of Mansfield University. The school sits just at the edge of the downtown and is built into the hill. The campus is built on three or four tiers, nestled into the mountainside. I am told that one must be “part billy goat” to go to Mansfield University. My tour guide was David Steinbeck, English professor at the university and member of St. James. As he showed me the impressive physical plant he spoke with deep and quiet passion about the craft of teaching… something that he had returned to after years as an administrator. David loves teaching. And I suspect that he is a fine, fine teacher, based what he told me. But even more, by the way that he said it- and how he lit up as he talked about his work. Mansfield University is a small school- part of the Pennsylvania state school system- and known for its exceptional music program. I know that there is a good connection between St. James and the school’s music department; St. James’ provides a venue for student recitals and welcomes students to participate as musicians in their worship services.
The balance of my afternoon was spent in a second story yoga studio (Main St. Yoga) in a restored building (Joan told me that it was once a department store) in a yoga class with The Rev. Rowena Gibbons on the mat next to me. I was reminded how wonderful an hour of gentle stretching, meditation and movement can be for the body, mind, and soul, and was grateful to Rowena for sharing this part of her daily practice with me. Yoga? In Mansfield? Yes, siree. There were about 15 of us in this room- all seasoned and regular participants. There is a healthy vibe in Mansfield.
We took nourishment at a brew pub down the street where we met a table-full of parishioners for an excellent dinner. Our friends Robby, Kathleen, Eric and David were there... as well as 6 or 7 other folks from St. James. The food was excellent: I had a vanilla porter (a good dark beer that would stand up to any Guinness that I’ve ever had) and a baked kale salad with roasted tomatoes and tofu. There was lamb on the menu but I just couldn’t.
The end of the day included an hour’s visit to a dress rehearsal for a concert at the university. Three of St. James’ parishioners were in the chorus that included alumni and current students and they were joined by both a chamber ensemble and a bluegrass band. It was fantastic. The seasoned and acclaimed director, Peggy Dettwiler, led the group through a modern requiem and then a wonderful bluegrass mass that included old spiritual and Southern Harmony melodies. It was a joy to see these folks involved in creating art and beauty… and so passionately involved.
I headed for the Penn Wells hotel in Wellsboro knowing that any blog entry could not do justice to the beauty, passion and grace of the day.
I met my pillow with gratitude for what had been a full and wonderful day.