Why Would a Church Host a Community Garden?

Prayer Labyrinth in the forest, Schoemanskloof, South Africa

The Anglican Church of Canada has held a prominent historical role in the difficult legacy of Residential Schools in Alberta and other provinces.  When the last Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) came to Edmonton in March of 2014 our Bishop asked a group of Cree elders what we might do as a first step of renewed relationship following that event.  I was quite struck that their answer was, “plant a chokecherry.”  The chokecherry is sacred to their people for its uses and medicine, and so for the Anglicans to plant a chokecherry on church land is a distinct, and long-term, expression of our commitment to right-relations with our First Nations brothers and sisters.  Planting and growing can be deeply spiritual and restorative.

About the same time as the TRC, I noticed there was an ad on the Fulton Place community league website about a small group interested in creating a community garden in the area.  I’ve been interested in community gardens as an idea for a while and was keen to find out more.  I have seen how shared work is one of the quickest ways to break down barriers and build relationships between people.  There is something about working side by side that allows us to be human together and celebrate in common the satisfaction of a job done well.  Community gardens can help foster this kind of shared work and be of great benefit to individuals and neighborhoods becoming a central hub for all sorts of community activities.  We have a significant amount of ‘open’ land at St. Augustine’s and church leadership is pleased to see it well used in the community.  Meeting Sherry at Blues Java Bar confirmed my suspicions both that she needed land, and that she was more set on building community than just growing tomatoes.  The group’s vision involves building community through joint gardening, making the space a community center accessible to all ages and mobilities – pretty easy for a church to align with.  Through a thorough and diligent process, the land at St. Augustine’s was determined the best fit for the group’s vision and the planning process took on a more practical edge.

I am excited about many things about this garden.  One is the way the garden group has tackled problems with really solutions-based thinking and a good level of kindness.  They are a real power-house team, and their diligence and planning has made our relationship an easy one.  Another is the fun of seeing so many people come together to buzz around a piece of land and transform it into a new thing.  We got a taste of this when members of the group came over and planted a bunch of perennials in the flower beds of our church.  I am also waiting eagerly to see the rhythms of care that individuals will pattern on the land as they care for their garden box – week by week coming by to check and weed and water.  The plants beg us to observe their growing and to ensure they have everything needful for their development – gardening allows us to learn care-of-other and to become shaped by the rhythms of the seasons.  And in the midst of these excitements, perhaps I am most looking forward to seeing the relationships between the gardeners, the church, and the neighborhood become a strength to one another.

Jesus asserts that the center of healthy human spirituality is the development of relationship with both our Creator and with our neighbor, and community gardening invites us into both.  In the Land that God so loves, in the Land from which we are made, in the Land which is our sustenance, we meet God and God meets us.  There is no way around it – we plant the seed and offer the water, but God gives the growth in those mysterious scientific ways that a cell divides and divides again and differentiates into a juicy apple or a zucchini.  In the soil we see the magnificence of the world we live in down to the microscopic level.  In the food which we are free to grow on that soil we see how God cares for our bodies and provides for our need for nutrients.  We meet God in the Land.  And likewise as we work that soil, as we eat that food, as we share that food, we become intimately entwined with each other.  We must rely on each other for help, (“will you water my garden while I am away?”, “I have this problem with my lettuce, what have you done before?”), and we must celebrate together – a harvest celebration is done best with others who bring their own produce to the table.  And at that harvest table, not all will be gardeners though each brings their own gift, some bring their hunger and the need for food, some bring laughter and jokes, some bring the sheer enjoyment of the food, some bring knowledge and stories of the past – each is needed at the table and each is brought together to eat.  This kind of learning of God and sharing with each other is deeply spiritual and deeply connected to the way that Jesus came among us – eating and drinking and talking about seeds dying in the earth and weeds being pulled out at the right moment.

I love that a community garden invites this kind of spirituality no matter what denominational or religious background an individual may come from.  Religious dialogue is necessary, absolutely, but I suspect it is best done while shucking pees or enjoying a pot of borscht from beets you plucked together that morning.

I hope it is clear that a church of people who follow Jesus Christ the son of God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, ought to be about all these things mentioned above – building human relationship, encouraging right living on the Earth, deepening our compassion and good living in community, and living a life of thanksgiving for all we have been given.  Through church, we learn the words and shape of these things from Christ, perhaps one of the ways we live them is by sharing garden space and working out what to plant where and how, together.