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."
For Christian gardeners, spiritual motivations typically outrank economic ones. The Christian Cultural Center landscaped an Edenic park around its Brooklyn building that evokes the Ten Commandments, Moses, and African American history. The design also invites the community into the garden as an act of neighborliness. Lead pastor A. R. Bernard says he is inspired when flowers hang through the fence, a kind of invitation to church for neighborhood kids and parents who walk by.
Non-Digital Public Space
Christian gardening, Hebbard believes, creates public space for believers to grow and nonbelievers to begin to grow spiritually.
Part of the appeal is that it is a genuine alternative to the Internet. "I kept getting this call from God: 'Unplug! Back to the soil!'" Hebbard says. Fresh out of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Hebbard was working for a federal agency in Austin but uncertain of his career path. Then a friend invited him to a reading group that met in a garden. They studied the writings of Baptist environmentalist Wendell Berry. "He turned my life upside down," Hebbard says. "Berry articulated so many things about our lives that I was feeling but couldn't say."
Hebbard threw himself into several urban farming internships. He realized he desired not farming per se but richer personal relationships through helping the poor and sharing the gospel. After the internships, Hebbard teamed up with Alan Graham, president and founding member of Austin-based Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a group that rehabs trailer homes and rents them to the homeless at low cost.
Hebbard had another big idea: If Christians lived among the homeless, the two groups could garden together and create a Christian community that would be a model to others. This vision evolved into Karpophoreō. Launched in April 2009, KP currently has 100 volunteers and 40 homeless gardeners. It has set up a community center in Austin's Royal Palms Mobile Home Park and is recruiting volunteers.
The approach has caught the imagination of young Austinites, including Jen Ardill. The John Brown University graduate came across KP accidently but responded right away. "I elbowed my way in. I became involved in every way I could."
Ardill, currently on the KP staff, says that communal gardening has helped her address her shyness. "People now knock on my door to see if they can get some of my cilantro," she says.
At first, homeless individuals looked upon Hebbard's ardent gardeners with suspicion. Jimmy Northen, who lived on the streets for nine years, wondered, "Who are these people? What do they want? On the streets, you can't trust just anyone." But after KP started a Thursday night Bible study and a Friday meal called Stone Soup Breakfast, Northen was drawn in.
Or take mobile home resident Theresa Gonzalez. For years, she had been friendless. "I was very isolated," she says. "Then, I heard that they had a Bible study in the trailer across from me. I knew I needed something." She joined the study, made friends, and soon had flowers blooming in front of her home.
Because of her physical limitations, Gonzalez doesn't garden as much as she would like, but she provides cupcakes for birthday celebrations at the Bible studies. She started attending a Baptist church next to KP's garden at the trailer park. "And she stopped drinking," her granddaughter Isabella chimes in.
"Yes," Gonzalez says, "I stopped drinking after I started going to church."
Several Austin churches have expanded their outreach programs and seen their faith deepen through their connection to KP.
Last year, churchgoer Amy Hardin was growing restless at home with three boys, and wanted to practice a simpler lifestyle and make more connections with others. Her pastor challenged her to sacrifice something for Lent and to write down one way she could serve the needy. Hardin thought her boys were growing up without any appreciation for nature or compassion for the homeless.
"On a whim, I wrote down 'Garden and help the homeless,'" Hardin says. She typed "gardening for the homeless" into Google and discovered Hebbard's organization. "It was too good to be true."
Hardin spread the word about KP to friends at Austin New Church, and now a half-dozen families from the church work with KP.
Jen and Brandon Hatmaker launched their church plant in a south Austin area known as the "Death Valley of church planting." Some 27 attempts at church planting had failed. But Austin New Church has succeeded and grown to 400 people.
The Hatmakers call Austin New Church a "missional church," which for them means helping the poor and needy by fostering neighborliness. Over 120 of their new believers came to them by volunteering for church-sponsored outreach, including KP projects.
Another small, new church in Austin, Vox Veniae, has started a community garden and chose a person with disabilities to be chief gardener. While CT was visiting, Hebbard was learning beekeeping in order to build a beehive at Vox, which hopes to do more than gardening. Church leader Gideon Tsang says these efforts allow the church and the community to partner authentically with needy individuals.
Citing his own spiritual development, Guroian says this church-community partnership gardening will produce a great spiritual harvest over time.
"We didn't go to church often," Guroian says, recalling his childhood. He didn't have real knowledge of God, but he loved to walk in the woods and experience the sense of wonder. "I was really looking for he who made these wonders."
In college, Guroian continued his search. "My professors didn't realize that they were teaching me the way to God." He concluded that a good work ethic is not enough in life. For him, biblical faith came through powerful images of the garden, the desert, and the harvest.
Some see both promise and danger in the current Christian gardening movement. Guroian admits that reverence for creation can become a fetish: "I get nervous when I see people reverently fondling the vegetables and fruits at Whole Foods. Just eat it, please."
On the other hand, he sees younger Christians gardening out of deep spiritual longings. "They have a real sense of a gap between their faith affirmations of the goodness of creation and the way they actually live their lives." The new gardeners also recognize that they have become too busy and self-focused. Gardening is one remedy.
For Guroian, being a gardener has become a vocation on par with his profession as a theologian. He writes in his book The Fragrance of God, "When I kneel in my garden, the aromas of the plants may overwhelm me … God's presence permeates my entire being, though he remains invisible to my eyes."
To go spiritually deeper, suggests Guroian, bring hymns into the garden, especially older hymns such as "In the Garden."
Later this year, Guroian will lead Antiochian Orthodox leaders at a retreat center. His plan is to garden with them while praying the ancient liturgy of the hours.
Tony Carnes is a senior writer for Christianity Today based in New York City.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
For more on Hebbard's urban gardening initiative, the Karpophoreō Project, visit their blog.
The Fragrance of God is available at ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Additional news on the Christian environmental movement is available from the Evangelical Environmental Network at CreationCare.org.
Previous Christianity Today articles on gardening and environmental issues include:
A Grounded Faith | Mexican ministry branches out beyond tree planting to bring healing to souls in a barren land. (November 6, 2009)
Imagining a Different Way to Live | Wendell Berry is inspiring a new generation of Christians to care for the land. (November 15, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
'Books & Culture' Corner: Tending the Garden | Evangelicals and the environment. (July 1, 2004)
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