The Free School community came together 35 years ago around a radical independent school in downtown Albany, NY to support the teachers who where getting paid next to nothing at best working at the school. The community is dispersed amongst a racially, ethnically, socio-economically, to say diverse would be an understatement, neighborhood. Our community consists of about 30-40 families interspersed throughout the 3 block radius ranging in age from 1month to 73 years old. The “elders” of the community claimed a vacant lot years ago and spent 4 years hand digging a sacred earth prayer space; they borrowed the native people’s term: kiva. For years this was a space of community gathering, prayer, blessing and unity. As of 2 yeasrs ago the space had not been used for over 20 years and had collected the offerings of urban winds with box elder and hylanthes trees gracing the edge of the 20 foot wide 6 foot deep hole. The space was perfect for our new project of renewal as our community.
The community has grown to include people from all walks of life seeking a very alternative life without abandoning everyday realities. In coming together this community has successfully created systems and institutions to support itself: child care collectives, multiple meal collectives, a community loan fund that has allowed very low income people to buy houses, group sharing circle, wilderness skills training, car collective, and not to mention running the
With this kind of growth in size, diversity and interest over the years, the community most certainly has taken on new and different shape and definition since its incenption. At the time of the bread oven project the community was in the midst of an often difficult and diviing redefinition of its identity.
With the blessing of the elders that once used the kiva, the vacant lot was tansformed into the site for our community bread oven project. The lot sits at the corner of a main street in the neighborhood. The project took several months headed by jonah vitale-wolff and with the help of countless volunteers from the community and school. We received several grants from local organizations that funded all materials and about half of labor expenses. A neighborhood organization partnered with the oven building as the umbrella organization. When all was complete, the oven sat in the south corner of the lot covered by a living roof structure and a cob bench to the side (that has since been a community replastering project in the warm weather).
Our opening ceremony was nothing short of magic. Community members brought offerings to build the fire while invoking the energies of the four directions. Elders to the north offered paper, children to the east offered tinder, worker-busy bees to the south offered wood fuel, and south grounding offered the fire. With the fire lit our community friend and nip pon mihogee monk offered her blessing of peace she has chanted across tens of thousands of miles of walking for peace, and declared our oven, “peace oven”. We all chanted the familiar na-myo-muo-ho-ren-gee-kyo as community members offered prayers, lite inscence and breathed in lisps of smoke fom our first firing. Later jun-san said, “of all the praying I have done, I have never prayed to an oven.”
The space has taken on a life of its own with regular firing days throughout the spring summer and fall where people gather and bring things to bake and share food. We have claimed an adjacent vacant lot for kids to play in. and the space is flourishing with the landscaping done with almost entirely scavenged materials.
We recently had our second, now annual, first spring firing. This year we offered blessings of spring, and lit the firing with a community version of a bow-drill, called a “we-drill”. Spring is here, its time to gather, the fire is lit.