Back to the Garden
On a recent sunday, Steven Hebbard got stung by a bee. He seemed deliriously happy. "I got stung! It stung! Whoopee!" Hebbard wasn't crazy. He was just excited that his group of gardeners had put in their first beehive.
The day before, Hebbard had trained 19 students from Gateway Community Church, an Austin megachurch, on how to garden alongside the homeless and impoverished. And earlier this year, Hebbard broke ground on a new garden on an acre of land for the poverty-stricken refugee community living in East Austin. Most of the refugees are Nepalese or Bhutanese. "After looking at the space and realizing they had at least an acre that could be used for community gardening, I contacted the apartment complex manager, and he gave us the go-ahead."
Thirty refugees—about half of them with a Hindu background—came to the kickoff. Christian refugees living nearby joined in, and many of them are now active at the new International Restoration Church.
"After the garden looked amazing in its fully planted form, I fully expected all the refugees to take off," Hebbard told Christianity Today. "Some did, but most stuck around. The day was an amazing success."
"Back to the garden" is a new way of doing church that adds a missional tweak to traditional gardening. Congregations and ministries are planting sweet corn around their sites, mobilizing gardening networks for the needy, and rediscovering the value of low-tech, high-touch community.
Several years ago, Hebbard caught a vision for urban gardening and launched the Karpophoreō Project (KP), inspired by the Greek phrase in Colossians 1, "bearing fruit in every good work." His vision is to restore relationships between people and their environment through small-scale gardens.
Across the nation, similar programs are taking root. In Caledonia, Michigan, the sanctuary windows of Redeemer Covenant Church look out not onto headstones but corn, tomatoes, and other vegetable crops.
In New York City, a Bronx Baptist church is reaching out to urban youth by inviting them to an outdoor sanctuary of strawberry plants and watermelon vines at its Righteousness Community Garden.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, Orthodox theologian and author Vigen Guroian mentors students by inviting them to garden on a five-acre plot.
Many Americans consider themselves gardeners, yet researchers have determined that the amount of gardening per U.S. household has been in steady decline. University of Virginia scholar Guroian confirms this. On a recent visit to see his mother in Connecticut, he walked down a residential street that years ago was a gardeners' row. "Now, there are no gardens and at best a little shrubbery."
There is no single cause, Guroian says, yet reliable statistics show that Americans are working longer hours and taking on more jobs outside the traditional workweek.
However, gardening associations say that after the 2008 economic crisis, gardening took off among people seeking to cut their grocery bills. In 2010, there was a 20 percent increase in small gardens. Jung Seed, a large Midwestern seed distributor, says that demand has begun to turn around, and that seed deliveries to churches and community ministries are on the rise.
Calvin DeWitt, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, told CT that he believes many Christians are increasingly motivated to garden as an antidote to high-tech, high-stress living.
"We have moved to the abstract even in the church," says DeWitt. "We praise God for greatness, not the lilies of the field. Hymns with creation-rich verses have been dropped from hymnals in favor of more abstract references."