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Community gardens: An Eden-oriented shift in church culture

Community gardens: An Eden-oriented shift in church culture

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Community gardens: An Eden-oriented shift in church culture

By Derek Maul | Oct. 15, 2009 {1090}

This summer, President Barack Obama told attendees at a health forum that America’s First Family is considering setting up a farmers market outside the White House.

The idea, articulated during one of a series of public meetings this August, involves harvesting vegetables from the White House garden, as well as produce from local farmers. It would give Washington, D.C., “more access to good, fresh food,” the President said.

Corn now grows in what used to be an unused acre of wasteland behind Ocoee Oaks United Methodist Church in Orlando. It’s part of the church’s new community garden. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1318.

President Obama also made reference to escalating health-care costs associated with America’s poor diet. He stressed the fact that such expenditure is largely preventable and that nutrition must become a key element of our mindset when it comes to how we think about health.

The president’s remarks add credence to the burgeoning nationwide community garden movement, an initiative that’s embracing both homegrown organic produce and a wide range of collaborative efforts. It’s an idea that straddles environmentalism, nutrition, ecology, fair-trade practices, hunger and a core element of emergent spirituality.

In 1979 the ACGA (American Community Garden Association, was organized to provide resources to projects throughout the United States and Canada. Today there are an estimated 18,000 such ventures. And while Florida lags behind many regions, a growing number of United Methodist congregations have embraced the concept, adding dimensions of grace, faith, generosity and community outreach to the model.

One is at a church in Orlando; the other in Delray Beach. Although two very different congregations, they share one common question: “How can we be leaders in terms of redemptive stewardship when it comes to the restoration of God’s creation?”

A garden of new life

About 18 months ago Cason United Methodist Church in Delray Beach was a church in crisis.

“Our spiritual crisis was a direct result in failing to address vital relationships between faith, work, money, stewardship, giving and the capacity to serve (the church’s) people,” said Candy Evans, a local businesswoman with 15 years invested in the congregation.

Candy Evans (left) and Lori Robbins are surrounded by the growing garden they helped launch at Cason United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy of Cason United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1319.

Cason took a critical look at its assets and saw the potential connection between a four-acre vacant lot the church was neglecting and limited green space in the community.

“After seeing a clip on community gardening, we had a light bulb moment,” Evans said. “We knew without a doubt that this was what the church and the community needed.”

The answer was a community garden in a lot that had been vacant for 39 years.

Evans, who coordinates Cason’s elaborate community garden effort, said the church has a great opportunity to be on the cutting edge of a nationwide movement.

“It’s not just the church,” she said, “but every American. We’ve destroyed what we’ve been given. There’s this huge awakening of the sleeping public. It simply doesn’t have to be this way. We can be salt and light; we need to stand up.”

Cason’s citation on the ACGA Web site thanks the church for feeding the needy, educating the public and being stewards of the earth.

The Rev. Linda Mobley was appointed to the church in 2008 after helping facilitate the redemptive self-study process. She sees the community garden initiative as a key element in a revitalization process that’s been picking up steam for the best part of a year.

Cason United Methodist Church will celebrate the dedication of its newly expanded garden with a ceremony and fall festival Oct. 24. Photo #09-1320.

“In Genesis there’s a recurrent theme that God created and it was good,” Mobley said. “We really fell connected to that concept here through the Cason Community Garden. There’s joy, love and excitement in the air here — laughing and hugging. I love this church, and I’m excited to be here.”

Mobley believes the garden is a subtle, openhearted way to welcome the neighborhood to the church family. Sunday attendance has increased from about 90 in the spring of 2008 to around 165 today.

Cason’s garden started with two members — Candy Evans and Lori Robbins, disciples who were willing to do anything to resuscitate a struggling church. The project soon grew to include the regular efforts of 30 adults, 15 children and many others from the community, including a local elementary school.

“We knew very little about gardening and had no resources to speak of,” Evans wrote in a blog entry. “However, we did have everlasting faith, a will to survive, and an opportunity to make Christ known to the community of Delray Beach through the garden. With every step in the building of the garden at Cason, doors opened and volunteers and supplies were offered! With God’s hand we were guided through.”

In its first season, the Delray Beach Sun Sentinel reported, Cason’s community garden produced “strawberries, green beans, Swiss chard, heirloom tomatoes, melons, collard greens, beets, herbs and six kinds of peppers.”

Church member Dave Rieke and the Rev. Ernie Post review the spreadsheet that tracks the progress of the community garden at Ocoee Oaks United Methodist Church. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1321.

In addition to feeding countless individuals, the garden donated close to 300 pounds of fresh produce to a nearby soup kitchen.

Practicing ‘outrageous generosity’

In the Orlando area, Ocoee Oaks United Methodist Church was engaged in a different kind of struggle.

“In October of 2008 we were preparing for a revival,” said the Rev. Ernie Post, pastor of the church for the past 15 years. “It was out of that general sense of being a country in crisis. We connected the dots and concluded that the sin we’re facing (as the United States) is greed. The response of the church should not be condemnation, but generosity. The phrase ‘outrageous generosity’ emerged, and ideas bubbled.”

The first major event was a giant “Free Yard Sale.” Ocoee Oaks has 400 regular attendees, and the response was overwhelming. Members dealt with their excess and gave away literally tons of good-quality merchandise, making a big splash in the community.

Squash — with its bright yellow blooms — is just one of the many vegetables grown in the Ocoee Oaks garden. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1322.

Post’s son, Michael, pointed out an unused acre of wasteland behind the church. “I’m going to plant some corn and give it away,” he said. And one thing led to another.

“I told the congregation ‘We’re doing a garden,’ ” Post said. “I had no clue what I was doing. I rattled off a list of things we might need. In 10 days we were given all this stuff: 600 tons of compost delivered, 1,000 feet of fence, tilling equipment, a complete irrigation system, seeds, volunteers, a well.”

Sitting in the congregation was a newcomer to the church, Dave Rieke. “My training was as an agricultural engineer,” he said. “When I heard they were handling all this manure I realized I’d better get involved. There’s a lot we can do to damage the environment; we have to be careful. But now an area that was dead and doing nothing is nice and productive. That’s good for the environment.”

Initially, Post said, city government was less than cooperative.

“However, once they realized we were giving the produce away, and not just to church members, everything changed,” he said.

Effect on church culture

“This is a piece of the larger picture of how we respond to sin,” Post said. “Our message to the community is redemption, not condemnation. So, one answer to the current economic plight is to make everything free. The mayor even came over to say thank you. When we started work
on the garden we could have sold tickets to the community. They’d constantly drive by just to see what we were doing.”

Rieke tends seeds used for propagation. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1323.

Rieke agrees. “I’ve never been in such a positive church,” he said. “We have homeless people coming in wanting to help in the garden — not looking for a handout. Families from the community, people we have fed, show up to work in the garden.”

Of course, there have been bumps along the way.

“A garden is a great deal of work, and it never stops, especially in Florida where gardens grow all year long,” Rieke said. “In the beginning, I expressed concern for insect and disease problems, people to constantly pick the crops, and people dedicated to hoeing the weeds. The first crop season was a huge success, but all of my concerns were valid, and we are rethinking some of our procedures now.

There were some big frustrations, like weeds and grass overwhelming large parts of the garden and insects damaging much of the sweet corn, Rieke said.

“We had about a dozen people who volunteered to pick beans, and about four people covered the week and kept up with the task,” he said. “There have been some dedicated garden volunteers who love to spend the time outside, but the masses have no idea what it is about and want to volunteer for ‘an hour next Thursday evening.’ ”

“Variable weather and crop production require that schedules be a bit, but not too much, more flexible,” he added. “Another approach to be tried in the fall is for volunteers to adopt a row or two and keep the area relatively weed free.”

All this points to the value of education, across the board. Rieke would like to see the church host community seminars on nutrition, diet, the specific values of fresh produce, raising crops at home and how individuals can affect change in the greater community.

Bible-based foundation

Peppers round out the variety of produce grown in the Ocoee Oaks garden. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1324.

In Delray Beach, Mobley said, for her, the theology of Cason’s community garden is rooted in the Genesis account of creation — the idea of restoration, redemption and a return to the garden where stewardship of the earth is a key element of our relationship to the Creator.

Post finds himself drawn to Ephesians 2:8-9. “That’s where this concept of free hits home,” he said. “ ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ ”

“Let’s manifest what’s real about faith,” he said. “Let’s show it to people and live by faith as a church.”

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.