Good Works Teen Agricultural Internship

By Madeline Cowan

When Good Works staff member Doug Schmaltz first met with Garrett Smith (a fellow Summer Intern) and me to discuss the incoming Teen Agricultural Interns, he told us that one of the teens, Mike, had identified himself as being on the autistic spectrum.  Doug mentioned that we might encounter some difficulty in keeping Mike on task in the course of our work.  In spite of this, I was thrilled.  Some of the best people I’ve had in my life have struggled with autism, and so I was excited to have the opportunity to spend time with Mike in the weeks to come.  Ultimately, my relationship with Mike was one of the most meaningful parts of my summer.  He reminded me that it is good to be transfixed in wonder by the glory of God’s creation, to be unabashedly curious, and to be uninhibitedly passionate about loving people.

Witnessing Mike’s emotional investment in the crop yield of his potatoes in the Good Works garden was a source of joy to me throughout the summer.  Each time we had a guest in the garden, he delighted in informing them with a bursting, jubilant pride that his little plot could yield up to three hundred pounds of potatoes by harvest time.  Each day, as soon as we got into the Good Works garden, he would run over to his section to inspect the leaves for bugs or weather damage and to appraise the extent to which weeds had crowded up against the stalks within their protective mounds of soil.  He was so dedicated to the success of his potato plants that it was difficult to get him to understand that some tasks that were integral to the health of the garden did not involve his potatoes.  Through Mike, I was reminded that God calls us to follow Him by tending the earth and growing food to feed ourselves and those that we love.  Those menial tasks that we must perform in the daily pattern of living can take on a worshipful significance if they are executed with awe, commitment, and earnest trust in God’s provision of fruitful returns.

Mike also demonstrated the importance of genuine relationships with others. For this I was especially grateful.  I tend to be most comfortable when I allow myself to be emotionally detached from the people around me.  I prefer to be with others for the sake of entertainment, because anything more opens up the unsettling possibilities of hurt and humiliation and the unpleasant reality of the hard work of caring for another.  The act of trading stories has always seemed to me to be the right thing to do at best and a way to pass the time at worst.  It is easier to hollow out a space between myself and the other than it is to reach out to touch their heart in an exchange of truth.  Over this past year I’ve met a few people who have forced me to reconsider this way of being; Mike was one of them.  Whenever he made a light-hearted joke that involved someone from the group, he always followed it immediately with, “Just kidding!” to ensure that nothing was taken the wrong way.  He wanted the person to know that although a certain situation in which they were involved could be viewed as humorous, the person himself was not to be belittled.  When we went to our neighbors’ houses to help them with gardening, Mike was a model for the rest of us on how to visit.  He would ask questions not merely to fill the awkwardness of the longer silences, but because he had a genuine interest in getting to know our neighbors and their stories.  He wanted desperately to befriend them.  For Mike, entering into these relationships through conversation was a precious gift afforded to him by Doug and by the individuals that we visited.

Mike was the only member of our group who habitually shared during the thankfulness portion of summer lunch, a Good Works tradition that involves sharing something we are grateful for at the beginning of meal times.  Every day it was the same – Mike was thankful that he was able to serve people in the community who needed his help.  This wasn’t contrived.  The joy that filled him when we met with our neighbors was written on his face, and I saw our neighbors respond to that joy first with confusion at the intensity of his interest and ultimately with gratitude for his recognition of their worth.

In the spirit of Good Works’ ethic of inefficiency, Mike’s occasionally frustrating struggles to focus during monotonous tasks like weeding and mulching were ultimately compensated for many times over by his great gift of demonstrative love.  I am grateful to God for Mike’s friendship and for the humbling lessons he taught me about what it means to spread the love of Jesus through one’s actions.  I’m not sure what Mike’s spiritual beliefs were, but in reflecting on the way he conducted himself throughout the summer, a quote from St. Francis of Assisi comes to mind, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”