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Defining the good life

"The conversation that we need to initiate in the schools and the colleges and the religious institutions is what it means to live the good life."

Phil's words to me were spoken in the Alta Mixteca of Mexico's Oaxaca Province where I recently visited him and his wife. He and Kathy were classmates of mine at Carleton College in the 1960s and, after they married, while in graduate school in Chicago. Kathy Dahl was a high school homecoming queen and daughter of the Dean of Westminster College, Fulton, Mo.; Philip Bredine a football quarterback and all round big-man-on campus.

Their lives took a dramatic turn as they came to know Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement which Day and Peter Maurin founded in the 1930s. Phil and Kathy Dahl-Bredine were drawn to the shared life and social ideals of the movement, and became converts to Roman Catholicism at a time when the Second Vatican Council gave high priority to social justice and reconciliation. Thus began for Phil and Kathy a journey that took them to Mexico at the beginning of this new century.

They were countercultural in choosing to have a large family - seven children, now grown and flourishing - and to spurn success measured by ownership. Phil farmed, built an adobe house for the family, taught the children to sing. Kathy founded a local Montessori School and the whole family made up the choir in their parish church in New Mexico. Money was always somehow found for musical instruments and instruction.

In 2000 Phil and Kathy became Maryknoll lay volunteers in Oaxaca, where Phil engaged with the campesinos in reforestation projects and Kathy worked with mothers and children in their villages. When Maryknoll left Mexico they chose to stay behind and continue to work in the impoverished mountain region where I visited them last month. Phil had again built their house, a cob cottage - mud, sand and straw hardened into bricks - with a little help from his neighbors and children who came south of the border for the occasion.

They have electricity and Internet access by satellite, but otherwise their lives are close to the ground and interwoven with the subsistence farmers of the region. Water has to be transported from the local spring, and one of Phil's projects is to help his neighbors install cisterns to collect rain water. He remarked that NAFTA has actually undermined Mexican agriculture, adding that genetically modified corn poses a threat to farmers who have little money to buy seed every year.

This is the context of his words spoken about living the good life.

"Defining humankind as consumers belittles our dignity as human beings," he told me. "We are made in God's image to share in the ongoing work of creation: living in faith, building, trusting God for the gifts that make for life and the renewal of life."

Rev. Shipman is recently retired from serving as the pastor at the Church of the Holy Advent, Episcopal in Clinton.

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