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A Sliver of Shalom in the Suburbs

A Sliver of Shalom in the Suburbs

How my Christian community used a plot of land to plant community in an isolated neighborhood.

Editor's Note: Ever since we announced the This Is Our City essay competition in September, we've received no shortage of stories about Christians making 'common-good decision' to bless their city and neighbors. Over the past weeks, our team has enjoyed stories hailing from Austin to Malaysia to small-town America. We even received a story about surfing for the common good.

Today we're delighted to debut the first of the 10 essay winners. Today's is from Drew Ward, a member of Riverbend Commons intentional Christian community in Corona, a wealthy suburbs in Southern California whose challenges are not material but relational. In the coming weeks, we'll share the other essay winners on our site, highlighting the 3 top 'blue-ribbon' essays that deserve particular attention.

Some folks in Ohio call it the Devil's Strip. It goes by other names depending on where you live: shoulder, berm, snow shelf, tree lawn, furniture strip, among others; or the name heard throughout the British Commonwealth: verge. The verge of what, I wonder. It's the strip of grass in many residential areas that runs between the sidewalk and the road. Neighbors here, in Corona, California, call it a parkway. It's public land that many towns require homeowners to care for—watering it, weeding it, mowing—though city ordinance forbids homeowners to make alterations to it. It's a residential no-man's land, a verdant pariah. A developer friend of mine calls it "the stupid strip." My friends and I hoped to redeem this sliver of public land in our attempts to build community in our Southern California suburb.

Riverbend Commons is an intentional Christian community devoted to hospitality, creativity, simplicity, and reimagining life more justly in a suburban context. The 40-plus members of Riverbend couldn't imagine how daunting this would be when we started 12 years ago. One of the founders of NieuCommunities, near inner-city San Diego, commented to me, "I imagine what we're doing here in Golden Hill is a piece of cake compared to what you're up against." We weren't sure what he meant.

Now we know: The suburbs are a strange gig. People are friendly enough, the streets, quiet. The quiet should not be confused with peace, however. The quiet of the suburbs is more often the result of isolation, not peace. It would be like saying that a grasshopper set inside a jar out in a field is at peace with the grass around him.

Homes here are called "Detached Single Family Dwellings"—no household shares a wall with another. Walls are among the many things we do not share. People in our neighborhood rarely make meaningful contact with each other. Inside the houses, whose members are wired into the world through pads and pods and all manner of technological paraphernalia, connections are often just as rare. We have imprisoned ourselves within our own tastes and the appealing protections of material comforts and conveniences. It seems to me that in our little attempts to be gods, we lose the truest parts of our humanity. Shane Claiborne, who lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, writes, "Sometimes people ask me if I am scared, living in the inner city. I usually reply, 'I'm more scared of living in the suburbs.' The Scriptures say that we should not fear those things which can destroy the body, but we are to fear that which can destroy the soul (Matt. 10:28)."

The suburbs are a well-manicured prison colony where we are the unwitting keepers of our own captivity—separated from each other by all sorts of fiercely defended invisible walls. In the suburbs, a parkway is another kind of wall—a buffer from the street, a safe margin around families. It has come to be a sort of "No Fly Zone" between kingdoms. But the suburban isolation conceals the deeper truth of all we hold in common. We may share no walls, but we do share things more valuable than walls: We share this street and this season together on it, and the same socioeconomic challenges, and we share the need for love and for food. We share our humanity.

On October 6, 2010, a crack in the wall appeared—a sliver of opportunity the width of our neighborhood parkways. The City of Corona lifted its regulations and invited what they called "landscaping partnerships" between commercial and residential property owners to remove the grass from our parkways and replace it with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Parkways serve an important role in pedestrian safety, aesthetics, and "rainwater retention and percolation." Until then, Corona residents were not allowed to alter it, even though they were required to tend it. The name Devil's Strip can be traced back to the 1800s as a label for unusable land. So what do we do with unusable land? In the United States, no matter where you are, the landscape feature of choice is grass. Recent reports in Environmental Management estimate that upwards of "40 million acres of America are covered in lawns, making turf grass our largest irrigated crop." This is roughly the size of all New England—in other words, enough grass in our front and backyards—and parkways—collectively, to cover Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine.

But as pretty as that idea may be, Corona is situated on the inland side of the Southern California coastal range in the Santa Ana Mountain watershed, where very little annual water is actually ever shed. In a state known for unwavering sunshine, Riverside County receives less than one-third of the average rainfall than all counties of California. Simply put, we are the driest county in a dry state. So, to keep our lawns green year-round requires a tremendous commitment of resources.

So, when the city opened the door to more responsible landscaping opportunities in an effort to save water, Riverbend Commons saw it as an open door to do much more. Simplicity had usually meant for us, among other things, growing what food we could on our tenth of an acre. In partnering with the City of Corona, some new acreage opened up. More than that, it seemed like an opportunity to practice Riverbend's call to hospitality.

So we pulled up our grass and replaced it with drought-tolerant herbs—rosemary, oregano, thyme, and mint—reserving 14 feet of this strip of open land for a vegetable garden meant for the whole neighborhood. Everybody around Riverbend Commons got involved—yanking out the grass one shovelful at a time, wheeling it back to the compost, sifting out stones, and building the box for the vegetables. It took several weeks for us all to get this done. And the neighborhood watched.

When we pulled up with a heaping truckload of soil, our next-door neighbor walked over and helped us fill the box and spread the soil into the corners. Contact. We gathered around it when it was finished and prayed. We prayed for the neighborhood, we prayed the food and for us all. Then we put a sign in the ground: "Neighborhood Garden" (and a second sign inviting neighbors to help plant seeds that Mother's Day weekend).

When the morning came, we made a platter of scones, squeezed some orange juice, and walked out to our front parkway like it was our front door and hoped people would step through it. We each had a scone ourselves and a cup of coffee, and we waited. We were hoping the seeds we were sowing that day would produce more than fruit that could be gathered in baskets, but fruit that would be tasted in new friendships around our tables, at holiday gatherings, and family events.

Then, a woman whom we had not said three words to before that day came walking up the street with a potted peppermint to go in the ground. Minutes later, a little girl with her mother and grandmother came to help plant seeds. The three generations of ladies spent the morning with us chatting, planting, sipping, and eating. They thanked us for giving them an enchanted Mother's Day outing.

We had wanted to do more with this little garden than to reduce our water use and save a few bucks. We wanted it to be an experiment in neighborliness and in building community—and we held an even deeper hope that it might be an answer to Jesus' call for us to provide for the poor and to feed the stranger.

Since that morning, stories abound, as does work. We have to come out to weed, to water, to stake things up and to trellis them, to look closely at these living things and protect them against threats. It is work that literally brings us daily to our knees, offering our bodies and sacrificing our convenience. What had been a forgotten patch of real estate has begun to feel more and more like sidewalk altar. As a result, a community is sprouting: Comparing notes about growing watermelons with a neighbor quickly turns into recollections of his kite-running childhood in Afghanistan; in exchange for a bag full of cucumbers, we receive an invitation to children's graduations; for leaves off of our lemon tree, we received late-night platters full of food and Polynesian praise songs sung in falsetto to ukulele; a man and his dog stop to chat and walk away with a tomato; a Muslim mother on the corner brings her son to show him what the seed he just planted at home will grow up to be; a Catholic mother and her son come to gather basil into a silver bowl and exchange recipes for a pesto salad dressing with fresh lime; the mailman from Bangladesh stops to talk about his love for growing food and pulls out his phone to show pictures and short videos of his garden like it was his child.

This Devil's Strip has been redeemed. It's as if a taste of God's Holy Mountain, spoken of in Isaiah 56, is appearing out on the curb at Riverbend. In this small way, we've taken the lid off the jar, and the quiet of the neighborhood is being transformed into a more lively peace—animated by a gospel of shalom. The goodness happening at this curbside seems on the verge of something new, on the verge of something real, where a growing community has been seeded.

Like Christ's body, the earth is broken open to offer food to be shared. This parkway is no longer a wall, and more than a door, or even an altar—it has become a table, offered for the communion of this suburb.

Drew Ward, one of the original members of Riverbend Commons, is currently writing a book about their ongoing suburban experiment in intentional Christian community. He teaches Environmental Literature for the Creation Care Study Program and writing at Chaffey College.

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