It was May 2020, and I was checking in on the people of Friedens Church over the phone. I called a parishioner in his mid-80s, who said to me matter-of-factly, “Well, Pastor, I heard you are in the produce business now.” Now, this is the kind of man who keeps track of his rain gauge and is one of my most reliable sources for how many inches we got in the latest storm. He has also enlightened me about antique tractors, and I know he and his late wife used to do a lot of canning, so I imagine he would have done well in the produce business. But it never would have occurred to me to describe the garden we planted at Friedens Church at the beginning of the pandemic that way, so I chuckled and said, “well, I don’t think we’ll be making very much money, but yes, we are growing vegetables at church, and we are going to give them away for free. I hope you’ll stop by and see the garden sometime.” Many of the members of Friedens Church, Shartlesville are gardeners or have farming backgrounds, and people did drive by to see what we were up to. Because it was already late April and we didn’t own a tiller, the fledgling garden team decided to put down black plastic to both kill the grass and provide weed management. We cut holes in the plastic, dug through the lush sod, and planted our seeds. One of the members who grew up on a dairy farm rolled down the car window to tell me, “I’ve seen the Amish do it that way,” with some definite puzzlement in her voice.
The story of the “Garden of Friedens” began with a phone call in April 2020. I had long admired a house on the main drag in Shartlesville with a garden in the front yard. I was impressed not only by the abundance of living green it produced but also because it takes some courage to plant a garden in your front yard. This is Shartlesville, after all, a historically Pennsylvania Dutch community where things are done in a certain way. But I knew why the unconventional location: the house faces south, so the best place for the garden was in the front, right along Old 22, for all the neighborhood to see. Shortly after lockdown, I found out who lived there and called to ask if they might want to plant pumpkins or other viney crops on our land, where there was more room than a front yard. It turns out our neighbor had some pumpkin seeds on hand, which we both viewed as more than mere coincidence. One of the council members had some funds from a memorial race that she offered for the other incidentals, and so the garden was born.
After the season was over, I got to thinking about the “produce business” comment. Although we had in fact been very productive vegetable producers and certainly weren’t running a deficit budget, I looked back over the season in my mind and discovered: we grew a lot more than vegetables. Unlike a traditional produce business, our garden at church cultivated community, spirituality, and mission. Let me give you a few examples:
- We grew relationships.
Eight people gathered for the first garden team meeting: they were young and old, members and non-members, experienced and less-experienced gardeners. Most people did not know each other, but since we could gather safely outside during the first pandemic summer, friendships developed. (In my experience, there is no conversation quite like one had while picking beans!) The garden was visible from the road and parking lot, so it became a place people could drop by for conversation. We also got to know our siblings in faith at the UCC congregation down the road, where we delivered our vegetables every third Thursday for their food pantry. In 2021, they partnered with us for Vacation Bible School, and my colleague Pastor Jason and I discussed food insecurity through the lens of the Feeding of the 5,000. The 20+ kids who came harvested the vegetables that were delivered to the Food Pantry the next day. We also took produce to the local senior center and the Mom-and-Pop convenience store in town: relationships we wouldn’t have otherwise cultivated.
- We grew a gift economy.
In 2020, we held a Fresh Produce Giveaway on Sundays after worship. Our neighbors drove through the parking lot and people usually wanted to reciprocate with cash donations, so we had to make a Garden line item in our church budget. Parishioners started donating tools, seeds, plants, tractor time, and their ideas. Members of the garden team and other parishioners even began bringing their own garden produce and started swapping everything from tomatoes and hot peppers to sauerkraut and elderberries. In July 2020, the first zucchinis and summer squashes were placed in front of the altar, and all our giving was an extension of the communion table, where God’s gifts are given and received for free.In 2021, we took much of the produce to the Mom-and-Pop store in town, with a sign, “FREE VEGGIES.” One day, the owner of the store gave me an envelope: Thank You from Ruthie was written in perfect penmanship and there was $10 inside. Gift economies provoke gratitude, invite reciprocity, and inspire further generosity.
- We grew connections between the seasons of the land and the church year.
As Christians grounded in a liturgical cycle, our life of faith unfolds in seasons: seasons we experience as mortal creatures with the other living beings in our neighborhoods. The church year is marked with hymnody, scripture, and prayer in dialogue with the weather, and in a historically Pennsylvania Dutch community, the seasons hold culturally significant rituals, often agricultural in nature, like the common practice of ‘Harvest Home’ worship in October or eating sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. Throughout the summer, our experiences in the garden frequently dovetailed with the teachings of Jesus in the lectionary cycle. Jesus was a rural person, and his agrarian parables come alive outdoors. Unlike a farm operation, a church garden is a place where you can bless the seeds, soil, and season with song, scripture, and hands-on learning opportunities. Reviving the tradition of Rogation Days (festival days in spring devoted to special prayers for crops), the congregation gathered in the garden after worship in May 2021 to plant the first seedlings and snack on some of last year’s popcorn harvest. Mid-season 2020, one of the gardeners warned the squash bugs were laying their eggs and about to wreak havoc, and I couldn’t help but think of her role as prophet, warning of the coming squash bug apocalypse. She was right! The insurance carrier had told us not to use pesticides, but organic gardens have other tools at their disposal, too, like crop rotation, non-chemical sprays, and polyculture. At the end of the season, we gathered again to put the garden to bed, read from scripture, and give thanks to God for the harvest. Cover crops planted in December were Advent seeds of hope.
- We grew leaders.
The garden team has been a holy experiment, and I have found great joy watching the different team members offer their gifts. Part of my pastoral role has been to nurture the sense of vocation I see emerging in the garden’s core team. A 7-year-old member of the garden team is good with his hands, and his parents have seen how responsible he is with tools. He came up with the idea to make us a sign for our produce give-aways, so with their help, he designed and crafted the wooden sign below. Others love to save seed and contributed from their bounty, and I was impressed by team members’ hard work. I have noticed how garden team members have become more committed to the congregation’s life in general, and how it has given non-members and less-active members an easy on ramp to participation in our life together. This year, the garden team will be exploring role development and volunteer management, so that the garden will continue to be a space where people can build relationships and feel God’s presence. In fall of 2021, I joined a Ministry Innovators cohort through Plainsong Farm, a living laboratory for farm based environmental education and Christian discipleship in Michigan. One of Plainsong Farm’s objectives is to “resource and grow a network for the Christian Food Movement,” and it has been an inspiration to see the way the Spirit is moving through the other 8 ministry innovators to yoke caring for creation and mission development.
- We grew in mission.
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:13). Contributing the fruit of our land in an era of uncertainty, injustice, and supply chain issues has certainly increased our congregation’s sense of mission. The garden has also been a place of spiritual formation for the youngest among us. In both 2020 and 2021, our (short but sweet) Vacation Bible School included time in the garden. Harvesting potatoes was like an Easter egg hunt… with a lot more mud! The children also weighed the produce and were all smiles when they found out they harvested 119 pounds of vegetables! One of the non-member gardeners told me she would never join the church, and I told her that wasn’t the aim: I was hoping the garden would be a place for her to live out part of her vocation. Sometimes, she and her family come to worship now, and when she told me she was looking for a more accessible Bible to read, I was happy to pass on a Lutheran Study Bible! In that moment, she reflected back to me my vocation as Biblical interpreter for this community. I wonder what happens when we think of the land around our church building as an extension of our sanctuary, in a similar way to the circles of intimacy extending from the Holy of Holies in the Temple: the furthermost courtyard was the “Court of Gentiles,” and the land surrounding our holy sites can also function as a safe(r) place for people who won’t “come to church” to engage God and God’s people. The land comes to be a partner in mission and ministry.
- We grew spiritually.
A parent told me about her child’s visceral response to empty grocery store shelves in March 2020. Through his tears, she told him, “in a few weeks, we will be able to plant our own garden, and we won’t go hungry.” Focusing on what we can control in uncertain times gives us a sense of agency and combats fear. The church garden became a place for learning resilience during a global pandemic. The first year I gardened as a young adult, I learned what faith meant on an entirely new level: that a seed can become a vigorous plant is almost an absurdity until you watch the miracle unfold yourself. Jesus recommends learning from the land itself: “consider the lilies of the field…” Gardens shouldn’t be underestimated as spiritual teachers: I learned about trusting God, trusting my faith community, and trusting my own vocation in a garden. On church-owned land or in the context of a faith community’s life together, a garden becomes not just a vegetable production site, but a place where we encounter God.
- We grew beauty.
So, for real, okra is spiky on the outside and (often) slimy on the inside, and I couldn’t have PAID many people around here to take them… But aren’t these okra plants just beautiful? These hibiscus-like blossoms open in the morning and attract pollinators. Sometimes, parishioners would text me pictures they took of the garden’s beauty, like a kind of meditation.
We decided to name our garden the “Garden of Friedens.” The meaning of the Hebrew word Eden is “delight.” And Friedens’ church garden has been a delight, because through us God is growing a lot more than vegetables! We may be in the produce business, but we are also in the business of growing disciples.
Inge Williams is the pastor of Friedens Church in Shartlesville, a hamlet at the base of the Blue Mountain in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Inge hails from the Midwest, both Ohio and northwestern Michigan. In 2014, she received her M.Div. from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. As a founding member of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod’s Creation Care Task Force, Inge knows we cannot address poverty, hunger, and the uptick of disaster due to extreme weather without both local acts of discipleship and advocacy for systemic change. In her free time, Inge enjoys spending time out-of-doors in all four seasons and playing old-time banjo.