At Work in God’s Garden

Community gardening is practical and theological, personal and communal

by Kendra Hotz & Matthew Mathews

In the beginning, God created a garden. Genesis 2 describes how God made the plants of the field and streams of the earth, breathed life into the first human and placed him in the Garden. Humankind, it would seem, was created to be at home in a garden. Yet many of us live far away from the food we eat and lack the skills we need to create a functional garden. We may have no access to appropriate space or live in an environment unsafe for outdoor gardening. Even if we love to garden and are able to do it, it can be difficult to find the time and energy to maintain and cultivate a beautiful, thriving garden.

Many churches and communities address these problems by creating community gardens where friends and members can come together to enjoy the satisfaction of garden-work. These gardens serve an important practical need and give us an opportunity to enjoy the simple beauty of enabling things to grow. But a community garden also answers social, theological and spiritual needs, and offers opportunities for justice, redemption and an experience of God’s peace or shalom. In fact, community gardening directly connects the practical and the theological, the personal and the communal.

The Binghampton neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn. was in need of some justice, redemption and shalom. Crime is a daily reality in Binghampton as is the struggle for economic development and civic investment by its residents. In 2007, the brutal, drug-related massacre of six people thrust Binghampton into the national media spotlight. With its history of violence and the many abandoned homes, run-down apartment buildings, and weeded-over vacant lots, the community was in desperate need of some beauty and peace.

Members of the Peacemaking Class at Idlewild Presbyterian Church thought that if residents joined together to plant fruits and vegetables, genuine peace could take root. Working together with residents of Binghampton, members of the church planted a garden. Now, the McMerton Community Garden has become a place where residents and volunteers cooperate to grow their own produce. By doing so they get to know one another as they work side by side to plant, water, weed and harvest. At Caritas Village, a community center and restaurant, anyone can trade an hour of work in the garden for a nutritious meal, often made with produce harvested from the garden. Children and young adults learn about gardening and develop gardening skills. Over time, communities all over Memphis have taken pride in the success of the garden.

Idlewild and Binghampton knew that peace is more than the absence or suppression of violence. They also knew that God’s vision of shalom required creating and cultivating certain conditions for that peace to take root, and that one of the necessary conditions is good health for its residents. Personal health is inextricably connected to the entrenched patterns of social and institutional brokenness that mark everyday life. Our food choices are always embedded in social contexts that enable or inhibit good health. It does no good to teach people to eat fresh, whole foods, if they have no access to those foods.

Likewise, the health of our communities is ultimately rooted in the well-being of our planet. It does no good to plant seeds in polluted soil. A community garden systematically addresses the interlocking patterns of institutional sin that undermine our personal health, the peace of our communities, and the beauty of our natural world. In doing so, community gardens participate in the vision of God’s shalom.

Community gardens embody justice, not charity. Charity steps in to ameliorate the conditions caused by injustice—a crucial part of the Christian mission—but Christian life also calls us to work toward establishing true justice. The McMerton Garden grew out of the vision and hopes of a small group, but from the beginning it was intentionally structured to promote grass-roots participation, community investment, and sustainability. The garden intentionally, not incidentally, empowers neighbors. When the residents themselves till the soil, plant the seeds, pull the weeds and share in the harvest, the garden becomes a living reality in their imaginations and lives. Only then does it become a true garden of the community, rather than just a garden in their neighborhood.

Community gardens also promote justice because they address many of the conditions that produce health-destroying stress. They bring together people of all races, ages and abilities around a common task. They break down the barriers of our class-stratified cities and bring the healthy food choices into every neighborhood. They produce open, green spaces where neighbors can meet each other without fear. Because they help to reduce crime, they alleviate the stress of living in violent neighborhoods. They create opportunities for recreation and sabbath, a time for holy rest, and help to build order and to promote delight in social structures.

But gardening does even more than build community and alleviate stress. The practice of planting the garden carries with it the affirmation that God is remaking our bodies, our communities, and our world. Redemption transforms our individual health, but also the health of our communities, and both of these are connected to the well-being of the land. At the McMerton Community Garden, we see the coming reign of God breaking into the present. It inspires the members of the community to envision redemption for their bodies and souls. They plant their seeds with the faith that those seeds will someday mature into a majestic tree. Their faith has given them eyes to see what is growing in their midst and challenges us to ask “Where is God at work in my community?”

With the McMerton Community Garden, and many more like it, we see that the simple act of gardening can have a profound impact on the life of an individual, a community and the Church. We are created to be in a garden and to witness to the reign of God through planting and harvesting, and places like McMerton give us an opportunity to experience the practical and spiritual blessings of the Garden.

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