The disbandment of the church he oversaw is not something the Reverend Roger Dart is happy about—but what happened after its final service still makes him proud. Like a kernel of wheat dying and producing many seeds, when Dart’s congregation split apart, the service for the poor that it began was picked up by several others.
Dart and two other ministers led the Congregational Church in Deerfield, an opulent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore. A few years ago, its parishioners built a garden in their building’s backyard, took its produce to the Deerfield Farmers Market, and started giving fresh greens away to the hungry. But when the CCiD suffered from age creep and disbanded at the end of 2015, their food project, the Gleanings Ministry, was in trouble. It had plenty of fans, but it no longer had any gardeners—and after the sale of the church’s property, it no longer had a garden.
That was when a network of other North Shore worshippers stepped in.
"He was passionate about it, but he would need some support from some other congregations,” said the Reverend Brian Roots of the Christ United Methodist Church, also in Deerfield. “It was pretty easy to say ‘yes’ to that."
Dart said that watching others take up the mission his congregation began has been an encouragement. “We knew that it was a valuable ministry,” he said. “I feel mostly grateful that other people have discovered what we had.”
Feeding the Hidden Hungry
The CCiD first got into the urban gardening trend in 2012, when they tilled and fertilized about 400 square feet of dirt behind their building. Volunteers planted tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, and more. The summer of 2012 saw a drought in most of the Midwest, and many Chicago suburbs rationed their municipal water supplies—but the CCiD used its own well and had plenty of water to nourish its soil.
What the CCiD needed, however, was a place that could transfer their produce to the poor. The West Deerfield Township food pantry was the nearest outlet—but, as West Deerfield Township board member Joan Reed pointed out, it had no refrigerator, and it was closed on the weekends.
“It was virtually impossible to get their food to food pantry recipients,” Reed said. “That was not going to work.”
The CCiD decided to try a much more unusual idea: Every Saturday morning during the summer, they took what they’d grown to the Deerfield Farmers Market. At 1 P.M., after the professionals packed up their tents, the parishioners opened up theirs.
Reed is involved with the Deerfield Farmers Market, as well. At first, she saw the CCiD’s concept as curious: giving food away right next to independent farmers who were trying to sell similar food might cause some problems, especially in a community with little easily observable poverty.
“It started out small,” but Reed said Dart convinced her it could benefit every side. “Somehow, he established a way.”
“The first year, they thought we were nuts” is how Dart recalls it. “They had been...lukewarm to our activity. Everybody thinks, Hunger? Here?”
But every Saturday during the next four summers, the CCiD crew found a “yes” to that question. They met working families who appreciated a helping hand, immigrants with language barriers, and mentally or physically disabled people. Some were warm and thankful, Dart recalled—even if every now and then, they spotted someone squeezing through the line or grabbing more veggies than they probably needed.
Eventually, the idea caught on with the vendors: Reed and Dart both said that once the farmers learned of what was going on after their market closed, many of them started bringing their own unsold produce to the Gleanings tent. In time, the majority of what the CCiD volunteers gave away actually came from vendors’ donations.
They never asked for identification or proof of need. “After a while, you get to know who’s there,” Dart said. “We’d have a couple of people saying, ‘You know, I’m having a tough week.’ You could tell the people who were living close to the edge.”
An Empty Building, a Full Harvest
At the same time, though, the church—founded in 1958—was living close to its own edge. Unable to replenish their membership with younger families, the CCiD dissolved in December 2015 and spent the early part of 2016 dismantling their building. Original and longtime members took home the stained-glass lancet windows, while others repurposed the wood of the pews. This spring, no one worked in what had been the Gleanings garden.
Concerned about the ministry’s absence, Dart took the concept to the Southeast Lake County Inter-Religious Council, wondering if he could find another group interested in tilling a patch of their own soil or managing what the farmers brought in. He found five groups. In the summer of 2016, the Gleanings Ministry became the shared work of a Jewish congregation, a Baha’i temple, and three Christian fellowships. Dart said a fourth has signed on to join for the summer of 2017.
“They’re enthused, and looking forward to next year, and that’s as good as it can get,” he said. “I have the joy of figuring out how to keep everybody busy.”
The new Gleanings volunteers take turns: One congregation mans the tent on one Saturday, and the next in the rotation sets it up the following weekend. Reed and Dart said that in the revamped system’s first summer, the amount of food donated by market vendors stayed about the same as 2015. None of the five new participants dug their own gardens this summer, but three of the six scheduled to operate it in 2017 say they want to.
“We’re happy that it’s continuing,” Reed said.
Dart found that what one congregation could do was not enough; only time will tell what six can do. But as the Gospel of John relates, Jesus taught that one seed could perish and yet still multiply.
"It's sad that a congregation dies and the building was turned into a subdivision,” Roots said. “But what's cool is that the spirit of their ministry has spread. It's contagious, and it grew."