The contagion is spreading. America has garden fever and even faith communities are getting involved. Community gardens are springing up in church parking lots all over the country. And some urban churches have taken over vacant blocks of land that have stood empty for years or created rooftop gardens.
There are many reasons to start a community garden with your church congregation. The most common motivation for faith-based community gardens is the opportunity to help those in need, especially during these turbulent times. Others are concerned for their young and want to provide locally grown organic food and enable them to develop healthy eating habits. Still others are motivated by the desire to heal our earth or want to provide a beautiful green space for their congregations and neighbors to enjoy God’s good creation.
A community garden is not just a place to grow food. It is a way to express our faith and interact with God and God’s good creation. Perhaps one reason God created human beings to tend the garden is because God knew that it is in the midst of a garden that we connect most intimately to the character and ways of our Creator. Edythe Neumann who is helping Highland Community Church in Abbotsford British Columbia to establish a community garden commented:
“The act of gardening can teach us something about ourselves, about our interdependence with the world of nature, about the relationships between work and creativity, and about how we might begin to discern those spiritual facts that elude us in other aspects of life. Gardening can also be an expression of community and conversation – another way to say that God is with us on the earth, a way to picture God’s presence with us – through the gifts of nature and gardening together.”
The most important step in establishing a church based community garden is planning. Bring together a small group of passionate individuals who really want to see this happen. Before getting into discussions about garden logistics, talk about why you feel this is important as a church activity. What are the benefits you hope the congregation and the neighborhood will gain? How will it help people connect more intimately to each other and to God? What are the values and characteristics of God’s kingdom that this garden could portray?
Jeff Littleton, who helped establish Five Loaves farm which is developing a network of community gardens on church properties in Lynden Washington told me:
“The garden teaches at least two key messages beyond that of vegetables or lady bugs. One is for our church: to share, to cooperate with, to relax, to enjoy each and everybody whatever faith or worldview. The other is for our community: their capturing that these “church people” can be trusted, they do live out what they say, they love us… and ‘I want to know why.’ Somehow, some way this joint experience will transform lives and transform communities under God’s care.”
For me personally fostering community and generosity are the most important kingdom values a church based garden can portray. Working together as a church community provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment and offers tremendous opportunity to strengthen inter-generational ties as young and old work side by side, weeding, watering and planting. You may even like to designate a special area as a childrens’ garden where children are allowed to choose what grows and when it is harvested. At our small intentional community, the Mustard Seed House we grow about 50% of our own vegetables. Seven year old Catie not only gets a chance to introduce new vegetable varieties each year, she is also my best year round helper. A few weeks ago she practiced her newly developed writing skills making markers for our tomato seedlings.
I also think that incorporating sacred spaces within the garden is an essential part of this initial discussion. Depending on the size of the garden, places for people to sit and meditate, prayer walks, community gathering spaces, etc. are all possible ways to strengthen peoples’ faith beyond the activities associated with food production. Early monastic communities created walled gardens that were rich with biblical imagery, often centered around an apple tree, representing both the tree of Life in Genesis and the Cross of Christ.
Establishing these connections between our faith and the garden are essential. In fact I am concerned that this faith based community garden movement may not be sustainable unless we learn how to connect our new found passions to our understanding of God and God’s world.
Once the basic garden plan has been moved through the appropriate church organizational process, it is usually fairly easy to recruit additional help, money and in-kind donations. Every Sunday after the 10:30 am service parishioners at St Mary’s in Cadillac, Michigan, take turns weeding and tending the community garden. Other churches have recruited their youth groups and retirees as volunteers or asked for donations like soil and building materials from businesses owned by church members.
Those outside the church may be interested in being involved too. Sonlight Community Christian Reformed Church, also in Lynden went door to door asking neighbors if they would like to participate. The Pumpkin Patch Community Garden at Millwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane Washington intentionally used Facebook and Twitter to help get the word out and had a Twitter inspired flash mob at there first big work day this year. Or you might like to contact other environmental organizations that work in the area and may be interested in partnering with your efforts. Third Christian Reformed Church in Lynden partnered with AROCHA, to develop a show garden that grows new and different varieties, provide teaching to help establish other community gardens, and hand out food to neighbors.
You may also like to approach your local Master Gardener’s association who are usually more than willing to provide expert advice if not labour and skills. Local high school or community college students may also be interested in volunteering as a way to earn their required Service Learning credits.
Another important discussion for your planning group concerns the use of garden produce. Many churches designate all or part of their harvest to local food banks and other organizations that feed the marginalized. For example, Grace Church in Old Saybrook, CT gardens a quarter acre of land and donates its produce to the local Shoreline Soup Kitchens and Pantries helping to feed 1,200 needy families. Other churches distribute the food amongst church members or invite neighbors to freely harvest from the garden.
Community gardens can also form the basis for other church related activities. Classes in gardening, cooking and preserving can arise out of garden related activities. Other classes on health and nutrition, healing the earth and other environmental issues and even spiritual formation can have their origins in such endeavors. My own venture into conducting seminars on The Spirituality of Gardening grew out of constant prodding from friends who wanted to learn more about not just how to grow vegetables but also about how to connect their experiences to their faith.
Montgomery Victory Gardens in Silver Spring MD offers the following great advice for anyone contemplating starting a faith based community garden:
“Start with a small group of committed individuals, but work hard to involve the entire congregation in some way; look for ways to make the process educational, and to make connections to your faith tradition; enlist people, especially young people from the community outside the congregation; start small and do realistic planning, especially when it comes to people’s crops in the beginning; keep a garden log and update the congregation throughout the process; expect surprises and have fun.”
Faith based community gardens, like any community project are not without their challenges. People are concerned about safety and liability issues, whether the project is sustainable for the long run, who will do the weeding and harvesting, where the water and electricity will come from. Even what to do with the sometimes overwhelming abundance that explodes over the summer can be a problem. All of these are issues that need to be discussed and planned for.
No matter how many challenges there are, nothing can take away from the deep satisfaction of getting one’s hands into the earth, digging, planting and harvesting the bounty of God’s good creation. Nor can they detract from the joy that engulfs as as we experience the awe inspiring generosity of a God who wants to provide abundantly for all of humankind. The garden is a place of healing, of wholeness and of deeply spiritual encounters where God restores our bodies and our spirits in a way that is truly miraculous.
[Here is one congregation's experience starting a community garden]