Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
Members of Grace inhabit the South Berkshire County commercial hubs of Lee and Great Barrington where our office, worship space, and garden are located, as well as the smaller surrounding villages. Our homes, our jobs, and our schools situate us in a beautiful rural and small town landscape that is rich in history, literature and the fine arts.
Local residents, tourists, and second-home owners from Boston and New York alike all enjoy the abundance of hiking trails, ski areas, and fall foliage displays. While these activities have not been impacted by the pandemic, much of our tourist-based economy, the world-renowned festivals of music, dance, and theater, summer camps, inns, and many restaurants took a big hit last year. Our year-round museums, group homes for children and adults with special needs, and the lively arts and crafts community have also been impacted. The robust farming community has had to make dramatic pivots away from supplying the closed hotels, restaurants, and resorts.
The demand at food pantries has increased since the pandemic began. Through the generosity of Grace Church’s local partner, Taft Farms, Gideon’s Garden was able to more than double its acreage and triple the produce delivered to pantries in 2020. You can read more about these particular challenges and outcomes in our 2020 Annual Report.
Geographically, South Berkshire County is the middle section of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area where bands of the large Mohican nation lived and hunted before English and Dutch settlers both bought and took land from them in this area in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These European settlers also brought with them African slaves who have left a rich and enduring legacy. Among their descendants are Great Barrington’s native son, W.E.B. Du Bois, the most compelling American voice of equality and father of the modern civil rights movement. Embraced world-wide, he was not always embraced in his hometown. With community work over the past few decades, that has begun to change, but there is much work ahead to overcome and heal the “problem of the color line.”
The attractions of history and heritage, beauty and recreation, pre-pandemic farm-to-table dining and improving access to high speed internet have prompted wealthier New Yorkers to relocate or spend more time here. Before COVID, the increased demand for agriculture and hospitality workers also attracted a largely Spanish-speaking immigrant population who have needed a place to live nearby.
Other essential workers, young teachers, and children of local families are now facing a critical shortage of local, affordable housing. Income inequality has been pressuring the housing market since before the pandemic, but so far local initiatives have been unable to move quickly enough.
Everybody here is God’s somebody. Are you interested in helping us to live Jesus’ Way of Love with the people here, at this time, in this place?
Learn more about …
Who Is Here
Berkshire County, with a population of just under 125,000, is the county farthest west in Massachusetts, bordered by Vermont, New York, and Connecticut. It is about equidistant from Boston and New York City, and on a shorter axis, about midway between Albany, NY and Hartford, CT. In any direction you have access to great cities, and the beauty and natural wonder of the Berkshire hills, part of the Appalachian chain.
The county is informally split into three areas – North, Central, and South County. Great Barrington is the heart of South County and is the largest of the 12 towns in the southern Berkshires, with a population of about 7,000 residents. Lee is a gateway community off the Mass Turnpike (I-90) from Boston. During 2020, many people found the lower population density, and lower incidence of COVID-19 to be good reasons to isolate in and enjoy the quiet of the Berkshires.
Demographics show Great Barrington to be ethnically close to 80% white, 15% Latino, 4% African American and 1% Asian, but with steadily increasing numbers in all 3 non-white-European groups. Median income is listed at $65k, and average homes cost between $350 and $400k. While the area is a beautiful and comfortable place to live for many people, Berkshire County is the poorest county in Massachusetts, and job loss, addiction, hunger and homelessness are ever present challenges.
Faith Communities in South County
There are two other Episcopal churches in addition to Grace in South County. Christ Church-Trinity Lutheran in Sheffield is another instance of two churches joining forces to become one church family. St. Paul’s in Stockbridge is a Gilded Age jewel on Main Street across the street from the Red Lion Inn, of Norman Rockwell’s “Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas” fame. Great Barrington also has a large Roman Catholic Church (St. Peter’s) and a large Congregational Church, as does Lee. In 2019 the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington called a new pastor two years after the end of a previous 30 year pastorate. This opens many opportunities for collaboration.
There are two Jewish congregations both located in Great Barrington, Hevreh and Ahavath Shalom, both of which have shared amiable and positive pastoral relations with Grace. The only remaining historically Black congregation is in Great Barrington, Macedonia Baptist Church, with the first Black Church, A.M.E. Zion, now being renovated and transformed into an African American Cultural Center. South County also hosts a Friends Meeting, a Unitarian Universalist Meeting, and several non-denominational and evangelical faith groups. The local interfaith clergy association is in need of revival and purpose. South County Episcopal and UCC clergy enjoy a weekly lectionary discussion together, meeting in Stockbridge pre-COVID, and now on Zoom.
Human service work has long been a major industry of the Berkshires. At one time Berkshire County contained dozens of private schools, summer camps and homes for the elderly. Though those numbers have dropped steadily over the years, human service work is still a major employer throughout the county. Pittsfield is the medical hub of Berkshire County, home to Berkshire Health Systems, the area’s largest single employer. Among the top 100 hospitals in the nation (per HealthGrades), BHS strives to improve the health of all people in the Berkshires and surrounding communities, regardless of their ability to pay.
Fairview Hospital, a part of BHS located in Great Barrington is a federally-designated Critical Access hospital and a Massachusetts DPH Primary Stroke Center, with excellent emergency, orthopedic and maternity facilities, among others. Fairview is known for its high quality food for patients, staff and visitors, as well as its consistent ranking nationally in the top 10% of hospitals for patient satisfaction and experience. Among alternative and wholistic health options, Canyon Ranch has a resort site in Lenox and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health is in Stockbridge.
Depending on where you choose to live, there are three possible school districts: Southern Berkshire Regional School District based in Sheffield, Lee Public Schools in Lee, and Berkshire Hills Regional School District based in Great Barrington which draws students from 3 towns and all 12 of South County’s towns by school choice. In addition, there are a number of private primary and secondary schools within the immediate MA/CT/NY area including Waldorf Schools in Great Barrington and Stockbridge, a Montessori School in Lenoxdale, and Berkshire Country Day School in Lenox. Colleges in the county include Williams College, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield with a satellite campus in Great Barrington, and the early college Simon’s Rock of Bard College in Great Barrington. https://www.bhrsd.org/ http://www.leepublicschools.net https://sbrsd.org/ https://simons-rock.edu/
Berkshire County has been, by turns, agricultural, industrial, and recreational. The Housatonic River provided power for woolen, paper, and lathe mills, and the rich river valley provided excellent agricultural soil. Discovery of iron ore at several sites led to the development of small iron furnaces. Industry continued to develop into the 20th century, when, following WWII, General Electric became the largest employer in the county. By the mid-1980’s, GE had largely moved out, leaving behind significant unemployment, a befouled Housatonic River, and a number of brownfields sites. Remediation efforts continue to this day. The Housatonic River Walk in Great Barrington is an area reclaimed by citizen volunteers.
South County is home to the E.F. Schumacher Society for a New Economics (Small is Beautiful) which instituted our local currency and ensured that the nation’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture organic farm) continues to operate in Egremont through partnerships with The Nature Conservancy and local land trust societies. This has established a model for community involvement by providing small-scale market farmers affordable access to farmland—an essential component of our hospitality economy. Since 1981 The Society has sponsored events in various venues in Great Barrington and the greater northeast with nationally known activists like Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, and more recently, Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, and Leah Penniman.
Recreation and tourism have become the backbone of today’s economy. If you enjoy the New England Outdoors—hiking, walking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, swimming, fly-fishing, ice-fishing, canoeing and kayaking—in scenery that looks like a calendar picture, and may well be one, you have found a home. Your dog will love to accompany you, on a leash, but beware of the wildlife. We have all the small creatures, and some of the big ones. Bald eagles, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, black bears and moose are seen frequently. If you like to feed birds, the bears will find your feeder.
If cultural attractions feed your mind and soul, we have those too, although these institutions have been closed since the pandemic. Herman Melville’s home, Arrowhead, Edith Wharton’s “The Mount”, Daniel Chester French’s “Chesterwood”, Ambassador Joseph Choate’s “Naumkeag” and the Mission House are all historic sites open to the public. For the theatre and performing arts, we have Tanglewood, Berkshire Opera Festival, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Berkshire Lyric Theatre, Shakespeare & Co., the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, the Barrington Stage Co., the Berkshire and Williamstown Theatre Festivals. For art, natural science, and living history museums we have the Berkshire Museum, the Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art, Mass MoCA, Hancock Shaker Village, and the small, but lovely Berkshire Botanical Gardens which, though closed in winter, has been able to remain open during the pandemic.
After the original European settlements of the 17th and 18th centuries, the natural beauty of the area drew both the wealthy and the artistically gifted to the area in the 19th century. Berkshire “cottages” were built by the same Captains of Industry who built the Adirondack Great Camps, and the Newport cottages. Herman Melville could see Mt. Greylock out the window of his study in Pittsfield and the summit reminded him of the breaching behemoths he saw when working on a whaling ship. Moby Dick was written here. Nathaniel Hawthorne climbed Monument Mountain in Great Barrington to have picnics with Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Author Edith Wharton built an Italianate villa in Lenox, “The Mount”. Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the seated Lincoln at the Memorial in Washington had his home and studio in Stockbridge, as did Norman Rockwell. James Weldon Johnson wrote his book of sermons, God’s Trombones, and his autobiography in his writing cabin in Alford.
The 19th century also brought the first electric streetlights in the nation to Great Barrington, when William Stanley, working for George Westinghouse, lit Main Street businesses and the street itself with the first complete system for AC transmission.
South County has notable African Americans as well. Elizabeth Freeman, known as MumBet, was the first enslaved person to win her freedom in a lawsuit filed in 1781, when slavery was found to be unconstitutional under Massachusetts’ 1780 state constitution. She is buried in the “Sedgwick Pie” in the Stockbridge Cemetery with the family that freed her. In 1868 Great Barrington was the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose childhood homestead location is now a marked national historic site. He attended the First Congregational Church who sponsored his studies. The public middle school, a nationally awarded “green school”, was recently renamed to honor Du Bois. Supplemented by several singers from Mount Everett High School choir, the Grace Church Choir was asked to sing at the 50th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Du Bois Homesite October 18, 2019.
For the retired hippie, Great Barrington was one of the sites of the original incident depicted in the movie, “Alice’s Restaurant”. Trinity Van Deusenville, the church immortalized in the film, was originally a “chapel of ease” of St. James’ in Great Barrington. The deconsecration of the building shown in the film features the former St. James’ rector, who recreated the actual event. The building still stands, as the Guthrie Center, having been bought by Arlo Guthrie a number of years ago, and is now a home for numerous social service activities.