The first earthly paradise, according to Genesis, was a garden. Chapter 2 of the first book of the Bible tells us that after God created his perfect universe “and saw that it was good,” he made the pinnacle of his creation–human beings. God then “planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:8-9, NKJV). Eden was for Adam and Eve a place to live, learn, work, and enjoy full communion with each other and with God. All that they needed and could ever want was provided there in a space of perfect harmony, balance, and beauty. God even walked with them in the garden “in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).
But the Bible also tells us that when human beings sinned, they damaged that communion—with God, with each other, and with the earth itself. Adam and Eve were cast out of the original earthly paradise and prevented from ever re-entering it. Their communication with God became tainted by guilt, shame, and fear, and even their relationship to the earth lost its harmonious balance. The earth became difficult and conflict-ridden after God cursed the ground and caused it to bring forth “thorns and thistles.” The first couple’s punishment for their transgression affects nature as well as humanity (Genesis 3:17-19).
Romans 5:20 reminds us, however, that “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (NKJV). Just as God set in motion his plan to restore humankind into full communion and fellowship with him by sending Christ to die on the cross, so he also continues to show his grace and his love for his creation in the natural world. Moreover, caring for his creation can often be a catalyst for pursuing the restoration of Edenic communion both in human relationships and in the relationship between humans and the natural world. Tangible evidence of this can be found in the growing number of community gardens being established by churches across the United States. More and more congregations, particularly in urban areas, are finding that community gardens provide rich and vibrant spaces in which outreach, service, fellowship and learning can take place as people work together to meet nutritional needs and to better care for the often limited green space.
“The garden exists as its own entity so that it becomes a genuine community effort, a genuine expression of the community that’s blended with the church itself.”
One such congregation can be found in Burnsville, Minnesota at The International Outreach Church. In 2009, beginning with 56 plots on one acre of land, the church created International Outreach Church Community Garden (IOCCG). They have quickly expanded to include 99 plots, 2 arbors, and an on-site compost project. They donate a portion of the produce to a local food shelf, allowing more needy families to eat fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables. While food production is naturally the focus of the project, church organizers have a higher purpose for their community garden. Some of their stated goals are “to promote unity among various ethnic populations,” “to encourage the use of the garden as a central gathering and meeting place for the community,” and to “encourage multi-generational age groups to interact and experience gardening” (ioccommunitygarden.org). The church’s ultimate mission, according to its publications, is “to strengthen community relations through creating and sustaining an organic garden, thus promoting stewardship, beautification and personal belonging.” Pastor Charles Karuku and his wife Lindsey have said that they “love to promote gardening as a way of building an atmosphere of healing in the community through healthy foods.”
IOCCG has even reached beyond national borders, helping to establish a Kenyan Women’s Community Sustainable Farms Project, with the help of a grant from a sustainable agriculture group. They work with women from Kenya to plant Mwangani, a leafy vegetable that is a traditional staple for many in that country. Planting and selling the crop not only allows the women to earn income, but it also helps them to maintain cultural ties by keeping alive “traditional foodways.” Working with these women is another way for the IOCCG to demonstrate a spirit of unity and cooperation while showing godly respect for people from different cultures. The partnerships they have established with individuals and with community groups offer tangible, living demonstrations of a spiritual truth: that God desires to reconcile the world to himself, and that individual Christians and Christian congregations can and should be active ministers in that process.
The Poolesville Presbyterian Church in Poolesville, Maryland is a small historic congregation on mission very similar to that of IOCCG, although in a somewhat different context. The church is located “in farm country” according to Pastor David Williams (no relation to the author), who points out that this is unusual for being so close to Washington, DC. Because of its location, many residents near Poolesville Presbyterian already have access to large tracts of land, but some of those residents live in what are called “high-density living areas,” townhomes with little or no room for gardens. “In this area there’s a lot of value on being sustainable, being green, buying local, and growing your own food,” Williams said. “Many people in the community have that choice. But we have lower income folks living in very high density areas, so there’s a justice issue here. People who are surrounded by land that’s arable don’t have access to it. Giving people the space to grow is a priority for us for that reason as well.” Williams also emphasized that “the Presbyterian Church USA is interested in encouraging the development of community gardens as an expression of our stewardship for creation and our desire to literally get our hands in the earth around us instead of just merely consuming.”
Poolesville Presbyterian worked to establish its community garden this past spring on a plot of land that they had once thought about using for a new building. The garden had been on the minds of church leaders for some time, however, and when they decided to begin the project, they were intentional about including the entire community. They held a series of open meetings, inviting individuals and businesses to join them in the planning process. Town leaders pitched in as well, offering to help with things like running water lines to the property.
Within the church itself, “the response from the congregation has been alternatively enthusiastic and supportive,” Pastor Williams says. “What’s been more significant is that the leadership of the church has been perfectly willing to have other people come in and share. [They have shown] willingness to be in a genuine partnership with the community.” As an example, Williams points to the fact that when they needed to clear brush from the property, someone inside the congregation asked a local community member to help out. The next day someone showed up with a back hoe and removed everything. “In some churches they would be really territorial,” Williams said. Church members could’ve been angry because “someone didn’t go through the proper procedures.” Instead they were just grateful that the work had been done. Williams says he believes strongly that “having a genuinely open attitude toward [outside help] is part of our call to Christian hospitality.” He adds that “the church tends to view outside support of this as an example of partnership with the community.”
When asked about his vision for the future of the garden, Williams says he sees “the garden existing as its own entity so that it becomes a genuine community effort, a genuine expression of the community that’s blended with the church itself.” He believes that this work is laying the foundation for real relationships between the church and the town: “Long term that serves an evangelical purpose. You’re building a shared bond, you’re being stewards for creation in a way that people can see. [It is] important that the community see that this is an important part of our faith. What I like most is that it doesn’t just say it, it does it.” Already, some of the people from the less wealthy parts of the town of Poolesville, Maryland have shown up at meetings and expressed interest in farming some of the plots once they become available. Perhaps more importantly, some of those participating are people who already have their own farms and gardens. As Pastor Williams says, “they want it simply because it gets them out of their own back yard. There’s that relationship component as well.”
Poolesville Presbyterian, like IOC and dozens of other churches across the country, senses the tremendous value that caring for the earth can have in helping to bridge the gap between people and between people and the natural world. In the space of the garden, these churches are nurturing relationships, providing for those in need, challenging themselves to move beyond materialism and consumerism, and opening up avenues for communication for people to hear about and share the love of God. As such, their work provides a powerful and vivid picture of the spiritual work of reconciliation, restoration, and rejuvenation that Christ seeks to accomplish in each of our lives.