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Growing Good: Community Gardens Link Churches and Their Communities

Emily Cox

Even people who live in less-pastoral regions enjoy the taste of freshly grown produce, but obtaining it is difficult for apartment dwellers and others who do not have enough property for even a small garden plot. One thing that several churches in our region have done to help overcome this challenge is to engage with their surrounding community by providing garden spaces so that more people can have access to fresh foods.

Greenspaces in a Food Desert

One organization that seeks to foster such gardens is Jeannette Greenspaces, Inc. Clyde and Lucy Bittner of the First Presbyterian Church of Jeannette started the organization after they found that no one was able to bring a grocery store to the residents of Jeannette, in an attempt to provide the people with affordable access to food even in the food desert that the area has become.

The Jeannette Greenspace, Inc. garden in Jeannette, PA. (Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh)

Greenspaces’ main location is right in the heart of Jeannette and has nine large and nine small beds available for rent, as well as two demo beds. For only a few dollars, anyone in the community is able to rent one of these beds for the year. This way the people learn how to do the work themselves and become invested, rather than having a garden set up where people can take what they want without being involved in the process. Soil and fertilizer are provided through Greenspaces, so the gardeners just need to add the work of planting, weeding, and watering their beds and then they can enjoy whatever produce they grow. The funding comes largely from the produce grown in Greenspaces’ garden in the Bittner’s own backyard.

It brings people in to work together. We have churches come in and help us, and people see what we’re doing, and we get to talk to them a little bit

Lucy Bittner

Lucy explained that the garden is important “for people who don’t have any back yard who want fresh vegetables,” such as one family that she said live in a high rise and go to the garden in order to grow the vegetables they want since they cannot do so at home. She said that Greenspaces has “brought the community more together and brought more visibility within our city. People from the bus see it and want to stop in and volunteer.” The way that the garden draws people together is one way that Lucy has seen God at work in this ministry. It not only provides them with some of the food they need, but also with education in growing and cooking produce and with friendship and interpersonal connections. Lucy said, “It brings people in to work together. We have churches come in and help us, and people see what we’re doing, and we get to talk to them a little bit.”

Growing good in the heart of town. Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh

Gardens as Gospel Gateways

Talking to the people at the garden can also open up doors for sharing the gospel with them. One year, shortly before Easter, Lucy was at the gardens and a group of people with children also gathered there. There was an empty bed, so she told them, “Dig a big hole, as big as you can.” Then she lay in the hole and had them cover her with the dirt, and her husband told the children the story of Jesus rising from the dead. Lucy got up then and they proclaimed that Christ was risen. Even though this was several years ago, Lucy shared that when she sees one of the young girls who was there, the girl still remembers that day.

First fruits of a bountiful harvest in Jeannette. Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh

One church that has partnered with Jeannette Greenspaces is the Mosaic Community Church nearby. When Pastor Nate Keisel first moved to the area, he knew that the poverty rates there were high, and that the region was considered a food desert. “Most people will shop at the Dollar General, so they can’t get produce,” explained Pastor Nate, “So obesity is actually a problem, because bad calories are cheap.” Pastor Nate wanted to do something about this without being yet another food bank. He said, “we didn’t just want to meet a need, but to help people address the need. … We didn’t want to create a paternalism where people remain dependent on the provision of others. … The idea was to get community members comfortable with growing their own produce.” Since Greenspaces was addressing this same issue, Mosaic Community Church partnered both with them and with Westmoreland Community Action.

Pastor Nate Keisel holds some of the bounty from the Jeannette garden. Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh

Pastor Nate said that these partnerships “went beyond our expectations.” He especially highlighted the relationships that they fostered with Westmoreland Community Action as valuable. Westmoreland Community Action already offered a variety of community services and assistance programs to people in the county, but even though these were many of the programs that the people in Jeannette were needing, most people in the area did not know about the organization or have any way to access this help. When Westmoreland Community Action got involved with the community through partnering on the garden project, however, people were also able to be connected to those resources, making the resources no longer only available, but also accessible.

Nourishing Minds, Bodies, and Souls

Currently, Mosaic Community Church is working on a newer garden project on a piece of property they purchased. The two buildings that are already there will be used for educational programs and children’s after-school programs, and the empty lot between is being transformed into garden space where the children can learn firsthand how to grow their own produce. This allows the church to step into the needs of its community. “People in a community need Jesus foundationally, but that’s not all they need,” Pastor Nate said. “They need basic resources, education, skills… food that promotes health. When people see that you care about them holistically they are more open to conversations about the gospel as well.” By providing education about nutritional foods and giving people the tools they need to grow their own, the church is also able to build connections with people and share God’s love with them.

Building Relationships through Gardening--Living Faith Baptist Church

Another community garden effort is the Living Faith Community Garden at Living Faith Baptist Church in Fombell, PA. Here too, is an area where people are living without garden space, which makes the community garden “a way to serve the community we exist in,” according to associate Pastor Wade Henderson. “It’s a good idea because there are people in apartments nearby and also people who are garden minded nearby.” Pastor Wade sees God at work in building relationships with the people in the community. People from the church come down and work in the garden, as do other community members. Pastor Wade hopes that this connection will be an open door for them to come to the church, as some of them have, or at least to see Jesus modeled in the lives of the church members working there.

The art of gardening is alive and well at Living Faith Community Garden in Fombell, PA. Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh

The garden ministry started two years ago, but this year Holly Inman took over the project with big plans for it. In getting the garden ready, she wanted to mulch around the garden beds, but the people she contacted about mulch were not able to bring any. As time was running out, Holly began to grow concerned. Then one day she prayed, “Lord, I need mulch… I know you’re in control, so I praise you for the mulch you will provide.” Looking up, she saw that there were some workers turning a tree into wood chips and found out that they needed somewhere to dump them. They delivered two big loads of mulch to the garden and volunteers came to help spread it around so that it could be ready for opening day.

Tending Gardens and the Community

“The main objective for the community garden was to reach the community,” said Holly, so they posted flyers in local businesses and put them on pizza boxes. The news spread by word of mouth, too. While one church member was out shopping, she overheard a woman remarking about the high prices of the vegetables and told her about the garden. Now that woman’s family comes not only to the garden but to the church as well. The church plans to continue fostering community with visitors and new members by putting together a new church directory, using the flowers in front of the garden as a backdrop. Then the flowers will be brought to nursing homes, to spread love to the residents who live there as well.

Community members can rent plots for free at Living Faith Community Garden. Photo credit, Gracie Turnbaugh

Holly has seen how the garden grows not only beautiful plants, but also comradery among people. “Everyone looks forward to spending time there,” she said. “There’s a lot of laughter there.” They have chairs set up so that people can sit and talk, and have even held Bible study in the garden. As the summer continues on, gardeners will all donate part of their crop to the food bank and then at the end of the season they will have a big community dinner as another time of sharing and outreach. Even as the growing season comes to a close in the fall, they will continue its ministry through classes on preservation modes like canning and drying as well as learning how to cook some simple essentials together.

Seeds of Hope

Community gardens are an important part of ministry for these churches because they help people gain access to the foods their bodies need while also connecting them to a local congregation. Pastor Nate summed up the purpose of the gardens simply: “Community gardens build community with people.” And we are excited to see what God grows out of such community!

Emily is a PRM writing intern also partnering with First Presbyterian Church of Jeannette to gain firsthand experience in ministry. She is a lifelong resident of southwestern Pennsylvania.