Racial Justice Resources

The theology of barn-raising


Together we can build something beautiful

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

An Amish barn-raising. Getty Images

My mother has a fascination with cemeteries and the stories the ancient gravestones tell. I, however, am captivated by abandoned barns.

The weathered façades speak to me of harsh winter storms and scorching summer heat. Inside, the posts and beams that have been notched, pegged and dovetailed together by calloused hands tell a story of when animals filled the stalls, hay reached high into the rafters and grain overflowed in bins.

The dank smell of earthen floors and the musty sting of aging wood whisper of a time when people cared about the abundance and/or the scarcity within one’s barn — for by caring about one’s barn, you were caring about one’s livelihood, one’s happiness and one’s heart. You were caring for community.

When I see an abandoned barn, I often think of Amish barn-raisings I’ve heard about while serving a church in Maryland, which was only a hop, skip and a jump away from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Men would come with their tools eager to help a neighbor. Women would set the tables with a never-ending supply of food.

There’s a group of Amish now making a home in upstate New York, just up the road — and over the hill and some 30 minutes north of me. (Nothing is ever close when you live in rural America.) They bought the many foreclosed farms in the area a few years back.

While stopping one day to buy some freshly baked bread, I asked an Amish mother about these legendary barn-raising feasts. She went into her house to get a piece of well-worn, yellowed paper. It was her great-grandmother’s food list required for a barn-raising. My eyes grew wide envisioning the 115 lemon pies, 500 fat cakes (doughnuts), 3 gallons of applesauce, 50 pounds of roast beef and so much more that was on that list. And here I thought Presbyterians were the experts at hosting dinners.

As a pastor, I haven’t experienced anything closely resembling a barn-raising feast, which is a shame, because we are missing out on more than just ham loaf and snickerdoodles. We’re missing out on a chance to not only build community, but to also repair it. Because the reality is this: There are storms in all of our lives that do their best to weather the clapboards of our hearts. We need one another to help repair the splintered pieces. We need to come together to not just break bread, but to listen, learn, carry the burdens and restore what is broken.

I came across an article once where the author wrote, “We don’t need barns full of stuff; we need people to hear our story in its rawest form and who still see us as a beautiful soul no matter how much ugly we’ve experienced or felt or even been. We need people to support us when standing alone isn’t possible.”

I knew a woman who had an 18th century bank barn built into the side of a hill. It was home to her horse and two of my remaining six chickens. I had a pesky fox in my yard and one flimsy chicken coop, and so I felt better if my feathered friends lived with her. The chickens soon became an excuse for me to visit often.

Then one day, she told me she was moving. She needed a fresh start. She had served her country and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her tough exterior and argumentative nature didn’t make it easy for her to make friends. She longed for a chance, though. Few gave it to her. I chose to be that friend, even when it was hard to do. I stood by her, and by doing so I was there to catch her tears when she finally felt safe enough to let them fall.

We’ve long since lost contact with one another, but I find myself driving by that barn and wondering how she’s doing. I pray that she has found a community that sees the beauty of her rough exterior. I pray there is a place at the table for her to enjoy a bountiful feast of grace. I pray that there are “barn-raisers” in her life, lifting her back up. 

I love old barns. They remind me that we all have weathered clapboards holding our fragile lives together. That’s why we need more barn-raising in the church. We’re called to love one another and to be builders and restorers of this love. We’re called into community. There’s work to do. The table is set and the shoo-fly pie is on it. Who’s going to share a piece with me?

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today. She attempts a recipe or two from her Mennonite cookbook for church dinners, and hopes to experience a barn-raising someday.

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