By Cleo A. Lampos
Furrows created by seven decades of worry creased Stella’s forehead. She hunkered in the corner of the food pantry, trying to decide which staples to add to her basket.
As she inhaled the odor of coffee and donuts on the welcome table, Stella detected an overlay of scent from freshly cut greens. Several feet away, a woman carried an armload of young, tender leaves with a mixture of fresh dirt intermingling with the smell of Swiss chard. The aroma filled Stella’s lungs, then tapped her heartstrings before shaking cobwebs from the memories of her childhood.
Joy filled her eyes as she gazed at the shiny, green-ribbed leaves. Stella immigrated with her parents from Italy some 60 years ago. A main staple in their home was salad filled with their garden’s first pickings of Swiss chard in the spring, or matured leaves sautéed in garlic and leeks. Standing in the food pantry on the south side of Chicago, Stella felt overwhelmed as she recalled the love of her family and God’s grace to them as they struggled in a new country.
Linda Wygant picked the Swiss chard that morning from an organically grown garden run by the food pantry’s host church. As she carried the harvest through the door, Linda noticed Stella’s joyful reaction to the armful of greens. She stopped to listen to the elderly woman’s story. “The heart and food are interconnected,” said Linda, the spokesperson for Grace Seeds Ministry. “The power of smell, taste, and flavor to ignite memories is amazing.” She thought about the lesson the Swiss chard provided and smiled. “Gardens make the gospel come alive.”
The Community Garden
Two years ago, minister Philip Leo scanned the grassy area north of the long rectangular church building in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Too much lawn to cut and maintain. Certainly not profitable for anything but ornamentation. “Mow it or hoe it,” he mulled ruefully. The niggling feeling that he should do more for the unemployed in the suburban area and the “food deserts” in the urban part of Chicago motivated Phil to speak to the retired men of the church. Could they plant a community garden to supplement the five local food pantries with nutritious, fresh, organically grown food? He reeled at the response.
“The rabbits will eat the sprouts when they break ground.” “The teenagers will throw the tomatoes at each other.” “Vagrants will steal the produce before it is harvested.” “How high would the fence have to be?” “Nothing will grow on the south side; not enough sun.” “Gardens are ugly.” “Who’s going to weed it?” “Who is going to get the food?” “We’ve never done that before.” The questions and comments stayed Phil’s tongue, but they did not quell his desire to make the ground productive. A year passed.
Retired carpenter John Swagman approached Phil early the next spring. “Been thinking about that garden,” John began. “Tested the sunlight. We could give it a try.” With a crew of retirees, John organized a team who suffocated the grass, dug up the soil, and planted the garden. Weeding and watering assignments were rotated. Seedlings started by children in our kid’s church and in trays under grow lights in basements responded to the care of John and his team. Soon the garden contained vines heavy with sun-ripened tomatoes, beans snuggled under bush leaves, and carrots spreading into a long green line. Vegetables sank into the earth and grew above the soil until the raised beds produced basket after basket of sun-ripened vegetables. A similar garden on a Chicago church’s lot yielded 250 pounds of food. A suburban Tinley Park community garden contributed 670 pounds of fresh harvest. By the end of the summer, John and his crew tilled double the land for the following year.
The Garden of Eden
Phil has taken a hands-off approach to this project, allowing the men to enjoy their work. But his philosophy drives the project. They are “earth keepers”—people who take the broken and empty, then cultivate it, bringing back life. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they reflect the rule over creation given to them by God.
Because Phil believes generosity is part of being a Christian, he teamed up with Share the Harvest, a ministry that collects fresh produce for food pantries. Giving of the “first fruits” proved more difficult for Phil than he imagined as he harvested the first crop of green beans, his favorite vegetables, from his own plot. “Giving the first is hard and gets at the nature of God’s heart. He gave the best, not the leftovers. I need to receive the produce as a gift from God, then pry my fingers off of it.”
Phil’s garden experience has given him a new appreciation of the way the Israelites brought unblemished lambs to the temple for sacrifice. “The sacrifice matches the one who gives his best.” So the vegetables that are shared need to be of that same quality.
Minister Jeff Wild takes the mandate to be an earth keeper seriously. Through his efforts, the Madison Christian Community in Wisconsin has implemented several environmentally friendly practices. They planted a natural prairie rather than high maintenance sod in the front of the church.
Although wind power is not feasible in their location, solar panels on the roof of the building provide energy through the peak times of the day, reducing the cost of electricity. Combined with energy efficient bulbs, changing the ballast on fixtures, and managing the use of the building, their electric bill has been reduced by 40 percent.
The tractor used in the agricultural area of the grounds runs on vegetable oil. Soil erosion is reduced through a rain garden that collects rainwater from the roof of the sanctuary into a single 2,500-gallon tank. This water then flows through underground tubing to the garden where slow drip irrigation hoses are placed among the vegetation. Even waste products are recycled in the form of Father Dom’s Duck Doo, a locally produced compost consisting of “duck doo, cranberries, and other good stuff,” according to Wild. Twenty-five pounds of worms in the compost pile produce “black gold” and worm castings to side dress plants.
Madison Christian Community inherited seven acres of land and part of the desire of the congregation is to be stewards of the land to nurture soil as well as souls.
“God gave all of us this land. He gave it to us for a reason,” said church member Jill McLeod. “Not all religious lessons come out of a Bible; some of them come out of a garden.” The congregation set aside 6,000 square feet for planting a garden to provide organically grown vegetables for area food pantries, meal sites, and feeding programs serving low-income families. Volunteers from the congregation care for the site.
Seeds of hope scatter wide from Wild’s hands. He works with a nearby correctional facility to offer a restorative justice-based horticulture program. Inmates attend a horticulture class where they sow seeds and attend the seedlings for the congregational garden. A field trip for the inmates to mulch the pathways, set up fencing, and see where the harvest will be grown helps them connect with church members who greet them with homemade baked goods and coffee. According to Wild, they prefer the church’s coffee to the institutional brand.
This garden hosts children from low-income families for summer camp. Twice a week for two hours, the students learn how to grow, cook, eat, and share vegetables. “Given what’s going on in the world, growing our own food and sharing it with each other is what’s going to sustain us in the long run,” said Susan Gruber who volunteers to work with the children.
The church connected with the community by opening 45 plots in a community garden to apartment dwellers, low-income housing residents, retirees, and immigrant couples. The plots are 20 feet by 20 feet. The church hopes the crops grown will supply much of the participant’s needs for fresh vegetables. “Gathering around food builds community,” claims Wild as he surveys folks from 20 to 80 years of age weeding their plots. He believes they are the new generation of earth keepers.
More experiments in “going green” continue each year at MCC. One class planted a small field of winter wheat to make Communion bread. A chicken coop with five hens increased the manure production. Whatever the future brings, it will be in the color green.
Cleo A. Lampos is a freelance writer in Oak Lawn, Illinois.
Community Gardening Resources
How to Start a Community Garden
Urban Gardening: What, How, and Why
From the American Community Gardening Association
Starting a Community Garden
Best Practices—10 Tips Series
From Urban Organic Gardener
Basics of Starting an Apartment Vegetable Garden: How to Start Your Apartment Garden … and Maximize Your Small Space
From Earth First
Urban Gardening: You Can Grow Food, No Matter Where You Live