Archive: Circles in the Heartland

March 1, 2001
By Sr. Miriam Brown, OP

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This month's story is a gift from Sr. Miriam Brown, OP, who directs the Center for Land and People in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. For more information you may call the center at 608-748-4411 or send blessings through your own spiritual practice and through supporting local farmers.

We do everything in the round in the Churches' Center for Land and People. We are a rural-oriented organization in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois, bringing together churches, organizations, and individuals to learn and act together. When we gather it is farmers and gardeners, pastors and lay leaders, educators and service providers, advocates and organizers - creating circles of circles, with blessings for all and a center that is sacred. We are quite ordinary and extraordinary. We bring our gifts, speak our truths, listen deeply, work toward better understanding, and get sent out renewed and better able to give positive energies to our world.

Our world is rural. Our midwestern rolling land and lush fields hide from the untrained urban eye, the devastation of industrialized agriculture and corporately controlled food systems. Our family farms are dying and our counties are battling the environmental and social impact of "get-big-or-get-out" factory farming. Our world needs relationships, needs discernment, needs hope and voice, needs to hold onto a sense of the sacred.

The CCLP circles provide a place for that. Into our circles come the disenchanted, the discouraged, the angry, the grieving - and the committed, the spiritual, the determined, the hope-givers, the builders of community. Together we share the circle. We hear the stories, gather the wisdom, tender the hearts, stimulate the hope. The language of business is not spoken here, that too pervasive language of efficiency and competition and dis-regard. Only the language of the heart and spirit, respect for the land, and commitment to justice. Our sacred center holds.

We do this in many settings. Our board is predominantly representatives of church denominations and religious orders. We begin in a circle, Bible and newspaper clippings in the center. We pray and share for a long time before we pull out our agendas and reports. Our working committees in Ethics/Earth Stewardship and Rural Spirituality begin the same way - real stories that members bring to the circle to hold tenderly - or indignantly - and search for responses together.

Our conferences of one hundred twenty-five or so are planned for the same dynamic: a mix of people seated at circular tables, the tables together creating a circular role. With ritual and song the assembly's "center" is set (perhaps candles, Bible, milk cans, flowers, pumpkins) and it remains the focal point through out. In the closing ritual of sending, the participants move together from their tables to an open space in the back of the room to create a standing circle. Some have picked up the ritual pieces and brought them along. The circle is closed with words of thanks, petition, and blessing for going forth.

This past summer, June 21-22, 2000, we had a two-day conference called "Come to the Table." With all gathered singing the hymn "Tables of Plenty," five members wove through the tables with the symbols of what we value: home, farm, church, city, government, placing them as our focal point for the days. Reflecting on Jesus' new way of having the people sit face to face in groups, then announcing the feast despite seemingly limited resources, our circles began with sharing their small loaves of bread. They named both what they needed and what they offered to this gathering. The circle of respectful listening and sharing was formed and carried on throughout the conference.

We are glad to be called to Call the Circles in the heartland.