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 | By Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

Farm Visits with Father

Father Kevin Wojciechowski learns how to be a “Good Shepherd” ministering in the Thumb

When Father Kevin Wojciechowski was assigned to Holy Name of Mary Parish in Harbor Beach, he knew it was going to be a major shift.

A Davison native who attended seminary in Detroit, served his pastoral year in Bay City and then ministered in Saginaw, he began talking with his brother priests who had served in the Thumb.

“The advice I got from some of the older priests was, ‘Go to their farms,’” he said.

So that’s what he did.

“Pope Francis uses that phrase, ‘The shepherd should smell like his sheep,’” he said. “It's like an incarnational way of ministry, instead of waiting for people to come to me, I myself go to the people so that I can see what's going on in their lives.”

Sometimes, that means to “take on the smell of the sheep” rather literally.

Hands-on learning

Since last summer, Father Kevin has visited six farms, a mix of livestock and crops. During the visits, families offer a tour of the property and explain what they do. Father Kevin pitches in with the daily work. One sugar beet farmer brought Father Kevin on a ride to the dumping grounds where they deliver the harvested beets to be transported to the Pioneer Sugar plant in Sebewaing. At the time of this interview in March, Father Kevin was looking forward to joining area farmers for planting season in spring.

“There was just a ton about farm life that I didn't know about beforehand. I'm learning a lot of terminology and parts of the process of what happens with these animals and with these crops that I hadn't known previously,” Father Kevin said.

And there is a lot to learn.

“Every farmer, like any businessman, is proud of his farm,” said Tim Roggenbuck, a lifelong parishioner of Holy Name of Mary Parish, formerly St. Anthony Parish, Helena and Our Lady of Lake Huron Parish, Harbor Beach.

Tim and his family welcomed Father Kevin to their 320-acre farm outside Helena in February to bottle-feed lambs, shovel the barns, feed cattle and tour their property. Father Kevin learned about the feed nutritionist who visits to ensure the livestock are getting the best nutrition for their needs and the crops the family grows, including corn, winter wheat and black beans.

“He was quite interested in everything,” Tim recalled. “It was a lot of fun. I thought it was awesome; it’s just nice to spend the afternoon [showing him around the farm.]”

More than a job

Father Kevin also realized something he has in common with farmers:  their vocations are not merely jobs.

“[The] priesthood is my life. I don't just ‘clock out’ and then I can take a vacation from my priesthood. And it's the same thing with them. Before the sun rises until after the sun sets— their farm is their world. … My coming out to their farm was more than just letting me see just a day on the job. I'm being welcomed into a massive part of their life.”

He said this has led to a greater appreciation for the hard work farm families do. While he noted that his eyes were certainly opened to just how rigorous farm life is, he also witnessed beautiful and wholesome aspects, such as the unity that can come about when an entire family manages a farm together and the deep appreciation for the natural beauty of the world.

“There's just something about being rooted to the earth that just helps you to be more of a person in tune with reality in general, it seems,” he said.

For Tim, who has been a farmer and a practicing Catholic his whole life, agriculture has been intertwined with his faith.

“We rely on the good Lord so much,” he said. “It’s increased my faith immensely.”

Knowing their sheep

Tim explained that being a farmer adds a dimension to parables in Scripture, such as Jesus referring to himself as the Good Shepherd. As someone who raises sheep, Tim certainly knows what Jesus means when he says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

That’s the same image Father Kevin keeps coming back to:  the Good Shepherd. He’s noticed that with families raising livestock, the kids can tell him the name of each and every animal they’ve named. They are familiar with their livestock, and vice versa. The sheep hear their voices and come to them.

“They know their sheep and the sheep know them, in a certain sense,” he said. “That is a good reminder for me that I can't stay kind of locked up in … the office all day. I have to make that effort to really get to know my sheep if I'm going to be a good shepherd for them and properly nourish them and care for them the way that they most need.”

This also helps Father Kevin be more effective in his preaching.

“Actually seeing their life and maybe the things that they're grappling with or the things that they're drawn by helps me to realize— as a preacher— how to take the Word of God and apply it to their concrete realities,” he said.

The “Farm Visits with Father” have also helped Father Kevin build relationships with parishioners. From the moment he moved to Harbor Beach, parishioners have been inviting him to their homes for dinner, and these visits are no exception.

“Their hospitality has been incredible,” he said. “I'm just grateful that they open up their homes and open up such an important part of their lives to just let me be able to walk in and be a part of. It's very humbling.”

“I want to be rooted in this community,” he continued. “I want to convey that …  I care about you [the parishioners,] I want you to get to know me as I get to know you. And then we can together bring growth to the parish.”

He’s learning about the land that has been passed down through generations of families, some of whom are still operating the farms. He considers how the land and family farms are entrusted to each generation, not unlike how the Faith is passed on and entrusted to each new generation. It is up to each person, he said, to cultivate it and ensure it continues into the future.

When Father Kevin first learned he was being entrusted with Holy Name of Mary Parish as parochial administrator, it felt overwhelming and intimidating.

“But to see the kind of response I'm getting from these farm visits, it just goes to show a small gesture of being present and trying to be part of people's lives goes a long way,” he said. “I have important stuff to do in the office, and that's all necessary, but if I'm not spending time with and getting to know my sheep, then I won't be nearly as effective of a pastor. It's not complicated.”

His advice to himself one year ago?

“Go milk some cows and have lunch, and you'll be alright.”