A Lutheran monastery in Michigan, a construction workshop led by Buddhist nuns, a produce auction in the heart of Amish country, and a network of urban community gardens in Columbus: these are a few of the places I’ve been these last few months. This internship provides great opportunities to travel, connect with people, and learn new things.

Here are some highlights from a few of these trips.

St. Augustine’s House—Oxford, Michigan

Saint Augustine’s is the only Lutheran monastery in the United States. The monks who live at the monastery host guests and long-term residents in their guest house situated in a secluded stretch of Michigan woods. There are spacious common rooms, quiet hiking trails, an expansive library, delicious meals, great conversations, and a breathtaking chapel.

The monks at Saint Augustine’s follow the Benedictine tradition. They have seven daily offices of prayer and the Holy Eucharist, observe periods of silence throughout the day, and study the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict to guide their spiritual lives.

When I arrived at St. Augustine’s for a week’s retreat, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As a Baptist-born boy from southern Virginia, I’d never visited a monastery.

The monks did, in fact, wear brown robes and observe periods of silence, but they also wore jeans and sweatshirts and chatted during other parts of the  day. They were very friendly, told great jokes, and had amazing life stories. (One of the monks has degrees in Russian and Industrial/Organization Psychology, and worked in the culinary world all over the United States before joining Saint Augustine’s. All of the monks are wise, witty, and welcoming.)

And the chapel—the chapel is breathtaking. Guests aren’t required to attend the seven daily prayers and the Eucharist, but they are welcome to attend any or all of them.

Unlike many monasteries, Saint Augustine’s welcomes guests to sit with the monks rather than in a separate section of the chapel. Father Richard guided me through their prayer book, which chronicles the daily order of service for Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Holy Eucharist, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. After listening to the monks chant their prayers for a while—it’s a stirring, haunting, gorgeous sound—I joined in as best I could. By the end of the week, I looked forward to rising for nearly silent candlelit Vigils at 5:10 a.m. and chanting, singing, and reflecting throughout the day surrounded by music, incense, stillness, and the quiet rainy Michigan woods.

In my free time, I hiked, read three books, perused the library, swam in a nearby lake with other guests, and took quite a few naps. If you’re interested in visiting Saint Augustine’s House, check out their website and Facebook page. It’s a great place to rest, relax, and dip your toes into life at a monastery.

Earthbag Building Workshop—Chesterhill, Ohio

One of my latest internship projects is part of a larger effort by the farm to build an interfaith chapel for the Athens community. Apart from small construction projects with my dad and my Eagle Scout project, I haven’t had much building experience. This project is changing that.

In short, the farm chapel will have a secluded rear courtyard, small timber-frame chapel, and open front courtyard. Building the rear courtyard is my project. And we’re not building the courtyards out of just any old thing: we’re using earthbags.

I’d never heard of earthbags before either, so don’t worry if you’re a little lost. Earthbag construction is a relatively new sustainable construction technique that utilizes soil tamped into durable feed sacks to make sturdy earthen walls. The technique was first pioneered by Iranian architect Nadir Khalili, took off in the dry American west, and is slowly expanding.

I traveled to Sunshine Hill Farm in Chesterhill in early September for an earthbag workshop. The workshop was led by K.C. and Cleo, two Buddhist nuns who built Great Determination Buddhist Hermitage using earthbag construction techniques. With their energetic and insightful guidance, workshop attendants and volunteers built a small “hobbit house” for Sunshine Hill’s owner, Kathy Layman. People came from all over the state, from Rural Action and AmeriCorps groups, and as far away as Detroit, Michigan to learn and lend a hand.

In short: labor intensive. In short: rewarding, cost-effective, and challenging. In short: fun.

Coming together with such diverse groups of people to build Kathy’s house with earthbags was exhilarating. We traveled to several other earthen houses in the area to learn more about sustainable living.

I went back to Kathy’s farm a few weeks ago to learn how to plaster the earthbag walls with papercrete, an adobe-like wall covering. Laura, my fellow intern, and I spent a sunny morning mixing papercrete, plastering the walls, and taking photos. Laura even brought out her juggling gear and juggled for Kathy, the Buddhist nuns, and other volunteers. We finished off the day with lunch and great conversations: Laura about juggling and her video projects; the nuns about Buddhism and their adorable dog, Hiro; and all of us about how much we loved eating candy bars for dessert.

For more information about Kathy’s farm (she hosts small groups for workshops and retreats), visit: http://www.sunshinehillfarm.com

For more information about K.C. and Cleo at Great Determination Buddhist Hermitage, go to: http://www.greatdetermination.com/

Franklinton Gardens—Columbus, Ohio

Part of me is still very much a city boy, so I was more than a little excited when we traveled to Columbus last week. The trip was part recreation and part education: we visited the North Market and its eclectic delis, bakeries, and international vendors for lunch; galleries and shops in the Short North Art District for window shopping; and Franklinton Gardens to meet the intentional religious community there.

The gardens, like Good Earth Farm, are the work of an intentional religious community. Unlike Good Earth, the gardens are small urban plots spread among several intentional-living houses around the Franklinton area. We met with members of the Franklinton community and visited their garden plots, community market, and community bike shop. Learning about their work in the city was inspiring. Franklinton is a very poor neighborhood and Franklinton Gardens works to build healthy relationships, share food, and strengthen the community.

For more information, check out: http://www.franklintongardens.org/

After visiting Franklinton Gardens, we stopped by The German Village. I fell in love with The Book Loft, a 32-room bookstore with over 800,000 books on the shelves.

800,000 books. I bought four of them.

Katsinger’s Deli just up the road was a delicious end to the day—latkes, knish, and key lime pie.


Rural, urban, or in-between: the world over, there are people in need, there is food to grow, and there are meals to share. Every trip I’ve made this summer involved sharing meals. It’s brought all sorts of people to the table together. Sometimes the conversation flows, sometimes there’s silence, and sometimes there isn’t enough applesauce for the latkes. Always, though, there’s the centrality of food and community.


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Robert Meissner

2012 Summer/Autumn Intern