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Sowing justice.

ANDREW TURNER ALWAYS KNEW HE WAS CALLED TO BE A Catholic high school teacher. He loves the classroom, and he used to love coaching football, a sport he played in his youth. But following his vocation and athletic passion wasn't paying the bills for this father of four. So he quit coaching and, with his wife, Avis, picked up the plow and began raising vegetables during after-school hours on a farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

A religion teacher specializing in Catholic social teaching, Turner's second job in farming is a tidy integration of creed and practice. He lectures often and with conviction about God's mandate for humanity to be good stewards of the earth.

But stewardship can be toilsome, and for more than 10 years Turner resented the fields he tilled. In farming there are no public victories. No cheering crowds. Just the relentless rhythm of the seasons--planting, weeding, harvesting. Bound by this cycle, Turner confesses he had a "somewhat bitter disposition" toward the sacrifices it required. Over the past several years, however, the teacher-farmer has come to regard farming as a blessing not a curse.

"I see so many applications to [teaching social justice] from farming. It becomes very personal," he says.

A slender man, Turner speaks deliberately and with a slight Southern cadence. His faded work coat looks out of place in the polished corridors and carpeted classrooms of Gonzaga College, an elite Jesuit high school for boys in downtown Washington, D.C.

"Hard work doesn't always pay," he says. "Our kids don't realize that a lot of people work hard but remain in poverty because of the injustice of low wages." In his lesson on environmental justice Turner asks the students to think about how food is produced and to consider the harvesters. He wants them to know there is a healthy way to raise food and a just way to treat people who raise and harvest the food.

After tending to the ethical development of his students, Turner drives home every day to tend the fields of his farm. Over the past 15 years he and his wife have transformed the place, an old tobacco farm his father bought but couldn't maintain, into a working vegetable farm.

Turner now cultivates 25 acres of the 80-acre property, raising a wide variety of vegetables and cut flowers that are sold at four local farmer's markets. So far the business, known as TGIF, Thank God It's Fresh, has been lucrative. It pays the tuition bills at Catholic schools, anyway.

But he knows from experience that a farmer, like the working poor, can toil unsuccessfully. "You can do everything right and still fail," he says. "You never know what Mother Nature will give you, so it's very humbling." A drought in 2002 decimated his corn crop, and in 2003 Upper Marlboro had more rain than he had ever seen.

According to Turner, the federal government does little to help a smalltime farmer absorb such losses. Its farm subsidies are not available to the family farms but go to corporate operations that "are gobbling up all the land." The year he lost his corn crop the most he could get from Washington was a low-interest loan. His experience became fodder for classroom discussions at Gonzaga about the government's pro-big business policy toward food production.

DESPITE THE FRUSTRATIONS AND SHEER HARD WORK OF farming, Turner now regards his second job as an inevitable, if not complementary, requirement of his vocation.

"When Jesus called his disciples, these guys worked other jobs also. Even after they began their discipleship with Christ, I assume somebody at home had to work," he says.

As teacher and farmer, he is a witness to the mystery of growth. The year the corn died, the tomatoes thrived. To see that loss and gain occurring side by side in his fields was instructive. "It's life," he says, "You can't control everything. You do your best. You hope for the best. Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised." The same dynamic often plays out in the classroom, too, and he delights in seeing one of his students make a connection.

One of his favorite moments now is when he is off the tractor, working in the quiet, hoe in hand, marveling at the immediate beauty of the plant before him. "It's very prayerful," he says.

ANDREW TURNER FAMILY FARMER, SOCIAL JUSTICE TEACHER

UPPER MARLBORO, MARYLAND

PARISH: St. Peter's in Waldorf, Md.

MY FAVORITE SCRIPTURE: The story of the sinful woman in Luke who weeps at the feet of Jesus.

MY FAVORITE FOOD: My mom's homemade lasagna; even the pasta was made from scratch.

WORDS TO LIVE BY: Do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

CLAIRE SCHAEFFER-DUFFY, a member of the Saints Francis and Therese Catholic Worker. She writes from Worcester, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:in person: Andrew Turner
Author:Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:804
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