A literal mission field: Cornerstone community garden

Jan-Marie Etzel and her husband, David, persuaded Cornerstone UMC across the street from their home to launch a ministry that promotes healthy eating and environmental stewardship. Photo from Jan-Marie Etzel.

NAPLES – Cornerstone Edibles is the garden that grew into a farm that helps feed a community. In the process, it became a mission of Cornerstone UMC, Naples.

The vision for this farm began several years ago. 

In quiet moments Jan-Marie Etzel would sit on her porch and gaze across the road at the vacant land surrounding Cornerstone UMC. Sometimes she would hear music from a church service.

She and her husband, David, were not members of the church. Their home was along a shared entrance leading to the church and the neighborhood subdivision where they live.

Community members eating food a table set up outside church

Community members share the bounty of the land with "Meal in the Field" outside Cornerstone UMC, Naples. Photo by Kim Cavalier.

But the couple were passionate about gardens and a farm-to-table lifestyle. 

"I decided to pray and ask God to show me what can happen here," said Jan-Marie Etzel.

An idea took hold that with church permission she and her husband would plant a community garden on a small plot on the church's nearly 10-acre campus.

"I could see it all growing," she said. "I drew it all up."

The pastor, Rev. Roy Terry, embraced the plan. Jan-Marie Etzel remembered Terry telling her that the congregation had been waiting for someone to show them a purpose for the land. The church in recent years has been proactive in adopting the Florida Conference's Creation Care mission to promote eco-friendly activities that recognize a Christian commitment to care for God's creation.

Cornerstone recently was recognized by the National Wildlife Federation for providing a "mini-refuge" for wildlife through its environmentally sustainable gardening practices. On Saturday, June 13, at the Florida Conference’s annual meeting,Terry submitted to voting members a resolution calling for Florida United Methodist churches to adopt Creation Care practices and establish committees to carry them out. The resolution passed with an almost unanimous vote.

The project started with 12 rows of crops with each row tended by two people. The Etzels provided expertise and equipment. The couple are on the board of directors of Collier Fruit Growers Inc., a local nonprofit that offers education and help in growing tropical and sub-tropical fruits. 

The harvests from those first raised beds at Cornerstone UMC were abundant.

"Every Sunday after church we gave freely to members of the church," Jan-Marie Etzel said.

The group reached out to high schools, Kiwanis clubs and other local organizations, inviting the community to share in the garden's harvests and its care. 

Everything grown is organic. No pesticides are used.

In the past three years the community garden has added more crop rows, herbs, a nursery and a tropical fruit grove. "So now we've got a small farm," Jan-Marie Etzel said.

Baskets of produce and fruit still are handed out at church and to community volunteers who till the soil. But a portion of the crops are taken to a local farmer's market for sale to support on-going farm work.

Initially people paid dues to selectively till individual portions of the garden. But Jan-Marie Etzel said she noticed people tended to care only for their own patch of garden. Dues were dropped and work was spread evenly. Everyone benefited from every part of the garden, she said.

"The more we harvested, it seemed the more the plants were giving," she said.

On one Thursday a month, people from the church and the community are invited to "Meal in the Field." The covered-dish dinner is served outdoors on a long table. Salads include garden-grown vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce and carrots. Live music and conversation knit the church and community together. 

Jan-Marie Etzel said she likes to tell everyone to "come, taste, and see what grows at the Cornerstone Edibles." But her message, she said, is as much about the human connections and God's grace as it is about the food that is grown.

"It's a gift from God. It's a gift from the Creator," she said. "That's why we give it away on Sunday."

– Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Florida Conference managing editor Susan Green contributed to this report.

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