February 12. 2016 6:34PM

Saving sanctuary: Derry winner of Martin Luther King Award works with church to save his farmland and its purpose

New Hampshire Sunday News

Paul Doolittle gestures while talking about his land at his farm in Derry on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Paul Doolittle passes by his chicken house during a walk through his property at his farm in Derry on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Paul Doolittle at his farmhouse in Derry on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Paul Doolittle has a cup of tea in the dining room of his farmhouse in Derry on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

DERRY -- Paul Doolittle was a reluctant winner of this year's Martin Luther King Award for his work with Bhutanese refugees at his Derry farm, where for seven years he has welcomed them to grow their own food.

The reluctance came because he was facing a private grief and shame: selling his farm to pay a family debt.

Doolittle, 71, is the third generation of his family to farm this land, where deer, bear and the occasional moose visit, and songbirds and hawks frequent its fields and forests. “It's an island in the middle of suburbia,” he says.

And now he believes he's found a way to save it.

Doolittle is working with friends from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester to establish a religious nonprofit organization, SunPoint Farm Sanctuary, here. He plans to sell off a few of his 28 acres to retire his debts, and then turn over the rest to the new organization.

Doolittle doesn't consider himself the owner of this property. “It's the piece of land I was given to take care of,” he said. “And it was agony to realize that I had to sell some of it.”

He hopes to build a community here where folks will live and work in harmony with one another and nature. It's a vision he's been pursuing his entire life: “the challenge of seeing the world through loving eyes instead of fearful eyes.”

Doolittle has lived an unconventional life. He studied sociology and small-group behavior at Columbia University; Hindu meditation with Ram Dass; and “permaculture,” a method of designing sustainable communities, with its founder Bill Mollison in Hawaii.

“I think of my life as trying to play 'significant pursuit' instead of trivial pursuit,” he said, his eyes lit with a smile.

Early settlers

Doolittle grew up in Boston, but his grandparents were residents of Derry, where their farm was part of the original European settlements here. The first time he visited the farm in the 1960s, he recalled, “I began a love affair with the land.”

He figures he's had more than 200 jobs in his lifetime, including social work, food service, carpentry, construction and tree surgery. But he avoids the pursuit of personal wealth.

“My perception is that the chains of slavery became dollar bills, and we're enslaved by our need for money. And we don't make decisions about our own health, or the health of the planet, or the health of the community, because of the mandates of our jobs.”

He has traveled the world, seeking enlightenment from Mexico to the Himalayas.

But always, he came home to the farm.

After his parents retired to the farm in 1979, he lived with and cared for them for 25 years. Over the years, they raised goats, pigs, chickens and ducks, and grew vegetables and berries.

He used to bring firewood, produce and water from the farm to sell in Boston. “I could fill jugs of water, sell it in the city and get the same price they were charging at the pump for a gallon of gas,” he recalled.

Doolittle served on the Derry town council from 1994 to 2003, and helped organize construction of bike trails around the town.

And for the past seven years, he has welcomed members of the Bhutanese community to plant and harvest crops on his land. In exchange, they help out around the farm.

That work earned Doolittle the Martin Luther King Award from the state's Martin Luther King Coalition last month.

But Doolittle downplays his contribution. “I hosted them, and gave them fertile soil, compost, and materials and tools, and they knew exactly what to do.”

“I quickly learned they knew more than I did about organic farming,” he said. “They were teaching me more than I was teaching them.”

Cooperating with nature

As he traveled the world and learned from other cultures, Doolittle said, “I kind of inherited the ability to see the world as an ally of nature.”

But he also saw the increasing alienation of the human species from the natural world. “The fundamental delusion of our culture is that we are separate from nature,” he says.

And that's the work he hopes will flow from the SunPoint Farm Sanctuary.

“It would be a place where there are people doing the inner work of mindfulness practice, doing the outer work of growing food in cooperation with nature, and reinventing our sense of community and the common good....”

He envisions evening, weekend and weeklong programs and retreats, apprenticeships and residencies. And he'd like to offer trainings so the model could be replicated in other places.

The Rev. Patrick McLaughlin is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, where Doolittle, like his parents before him, attends services.

McLaughlin serves on the board of SunPoint Farm Sanctuary, which he called “an exciting opportunity.”

There are plenty of practical considerations that will have to go into creating the sanctuary, McLaughlin said. But at its heart, he said, “It feels central to the kinds of things that Unitarian Universalism is about right now.”

Instead of focusing inward, he explained, new UU churches are designed to be open to the world. “And there's a recognition that we see ourselves very much in a relationship with the larger community and the world.”

McLaughlin doesn't know exactly what the farm sanctuary would look like, but he sees it as a “monastic” community in an earlier sense of that word, when the first Christians lived together as families.

“It is really envisioned as a laboratory for people to come to and to learn things about themselves, learn things about what they need and don't need, what life calls them to, that they can take away and replicate.”

But it can't be a little utopian bubble, McLaughlin said. “If we are not living in the world, it will have failed.”

Doolittle envisions the sanctuary as “an island in this culture where nature has rights, where we're learning to communicate without violence or competition.

“And it's an experiment in sustainable living and cultural transformation for everyone who sees the disease of fear and separation in themselves, and attempts to heal that fear.”

Doolittle said he awakens early each day with a burst of enthusiasm, fueled by “a love for people and for the land.”

He recites a favorite poem by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi:

The breeze at dawn has something to teach you

Don't go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want

Don't go back to sleep.

The door between the two worlds is open and wide

Don't go back to sleep.

Doolittle smiles. “So I don't go back to sleep.”