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Farm the Land, Grow the Spirit

Summer Institute at Stony Point Center

Farm the Land, Grow the Spirit

by Vicki Garlock

They come from all over the world. Each one offers a unique story, and each is interested in a multi-faith approach to social justice, non-violence, and earth care.
— Kitty Ufford-Chase

Stony Point Center (SPC), just north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley, is a multifaith retreat center offering an inclusive community and radical hospitality. Sanctioned by the Presbyterian Church (USA), Stony Point Center offers guest rooms for individuals and groups, locally sourced food, and meeting rooms nestled in the Hudson River Valley. Their multifaith residency program for young adults, called the Summer Institute, is a jewel in the crown.

Welcoming Young Adults from Around the World

Each summer, a dozen or so young adults, ranging in age from 19-29, live in community at SPC. The program aims for a mix of international and American attendees and a mix of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Over the course of its most recent sessions, attendees arrived from California, South Carolina, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts, as well as Pakistan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, and Nigeria. With two sessions, lasting about 4 weeks each, some participants reside at SPC for almost 10 weeks. Serious about their faith, excited about social justice, and concerned about the earth, they come because they are interested in living and working peacefully and productively in our increasingly globalized world.

Of course, participants also arrive with their own unique skills and motivations. One young man started a food recovery program in his home country during Ramadan and organized second-hand clothing drives. A Palestinian woman, who grew up in a refugee camp, is a film-maker and photographer documenting the daily struggles she witnesses in her homeland. Summer Institute is there to support these ongoing efforts and plant the seeds for new ones. Having just completed its seventh year, the Summer Institute is now seeing its first return visitors who can share their real-world experiences about multifaith justice work while receiving a much-needed boost of energy.

So what exactly do these dynamic individuals do during their stay on the SPC campus? According to co-director Kitty Ufford-Chase, this year has marked a sort of turning point in the program. “We realized over the years that one of the best things about this program is just the time these amazing young people get to spend with each other – learning from one another as they share their skills and passions. This year, we finally feel like we achieved the right balance of organized activities and letting them just be in community.” Ufford-Chase goes on to explain that, in the past, the day was often filled with organized activities facilitated by faith leaders in the different religious traditions. Now, less is more.

Seminar-type classes still happen. After all, the faith traditions have lots to offer when it comes to social justice, non-violence, and earth care. Participants are also given scheduled time in the farm/gardens at SPC where they grow organic fruits and vegetables, raise livestock in an ethical way, and use sustainable agricultural practices. “A critical piece of our program is seeing the cycle of life – learning how to plant, how to harvest, and how to grow,” says Ufford-Chase.

Learning from Each Other

But SPC has also come to appreciate just how much learning happens outside of their planned programming. The participants explore whatever languages happen to be represented and discover the range of beliefs within each faith tradition. They are also given time to simply support one another. For example, one participant from Aleppo, Syria wanted to organize a vigil in front of the UN building in NYC after being devastated by the news that her hometown was under siege and that humanitarian aid took almost two weeks to reach her hometown. Her fellow Summer Institute participants were able to support her emotionally, assist her in planning the vigil, and take part in the actual event. None of this was part of the official schedule; it happened because of real-world events and the passion of the young adults.

The Inclusive Table is another rich by-product of SPC organizers offering more “free” time. Four women, realizing the powerful unifying properties of food, decided to write a multireligious, multicultural, socially responsible, and agriculturally sustainable cookbook! The recipes provide guidelines for serving a complete meal that is a match for a particular season.

Most incredibly, the Summer Institute is free! More than a decade ago, the Allison House, home to the participants during their stay, was donated to the SPC. It came with an endowment to support both property maintenance and residential programming. The combination of this generous gift and the overall mission of SPC helped launch the Summer Institute.

Reaching across the SPC Community

The Summer Institute is just one piece of the visionary work happening on the 35-acre property. Stony Point is also home to the Community of Living Traditions, a multifaith intentional community where learning about the faith practices of “the other” is an integral component of life there. The residential community offers programs like “Bibles and Bagels,” “Torah and Treats,” and “Qur’an and Cookies.” Early on, the Summer Institute was kept separate from these other happenings. Now, Summer Institute attendees are encouraged to participate if they wish, which means the SPC can add “multigenerational” to their growing list of radical hospitality initiatives.

The SPC community also offers opportunities that are less about religion and more about social and environmental justice. Summer Institute participants are welcome to attend. For example, guest speakers visit the campus as part of the Salon program. Time is set aside for residents to delve into political issues during Table Talk, and end-of-life issues are explored during “Death Cafés.” With an Art Space, a Meditation Space, lodges for individuals, conference spaces for groups, and the headquarters for a repertory theater company on-site, the SPC creates a place for anyone and everyone interested in living sustainably in a peaceful world. Throw in playing fields and nearby state parks that offer boating and hiking and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a better place for a program like the Summer Institute.

Information on Summer Institute 2017 will soon be available on the SPC website. And you can find SPC on Facebook or Twitter.