Here is the second part of the article I wrote for Patheos.com And don’t forget to check out the resource list here. Please email me or leave a comment if you have suggestions on other resources.
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, even the inclusion of a labyrinth 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. Northgate community garden in Seattle surrounds a small hill on which a labyrinth has been created as a place for meditation.
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 2,000 needy families each month. Last year the garden provided about 17,000 lbs of produce for the season. Other churches distribute the food amongst church members or invite neighbors to freely harvest from the garden encouraging a sense of community that goes far beyond the church congregation.
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.
Mongomery 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.