The ground was tilled, the rows determined, the shining new green house stood tall next to the garden, finished just in time for spring planting. Reverend Collins and a small band of volunteers had been hard at work throughout the winter, after a successful second season in their Ministry Garden. Now, they’d have twice as much room to grow food for those in need, in a rich plot of land spanning 1,000 square feet behind Burks United Methodist Church in Hixson, Tennessee. And then COVID hit the country. How do you run a socially distanced community garden? They were about to find out.
The Ministry Garden grew out of a vision that seminary student Rachel Collins had for a space of “intentional intergenerational interaction.” Intentional interaction, yes, intergenerational, perhaps a little less than anticipated, Collins tells us. All of the volunteer gardeners are currently over the age of 75. She says, “It’s been a joy to see the community coming out. It’s a time when these people are valued for the work that they can do, and it really shows how they are able, physically and mentally, to do the work. To be able bodied, to be seen that way is powerful.” Collins herself can’t be over thirty and admits to purposely bringing her Millennial / Gen Z perspective to the older generation in the garden.
From long, debateful conversations with folks like Joe, a former ag agent and dedicated garden volunteer, on why Collins won’t allow pesticides and herbicides, to assuming a posture of meditation for the worship service before each work session, the community is stretching and growing perhaps even more than the 9-foot tall okra they’re cultivating. “They looked at me like I was crazy. By the end of the season it was something that they really got into,” Collins says about the meditation in particular. The worship service is intentionally integrated into the gardening work. First they gather, meditate, read scriptures that pertain to the garden and go into it with a mindfulness that infuses their work with significance beyond the measurable harvest. Collins is highly organized and the gardening assignments are detailed and efficient, hardly lasting more than fifteen minutes before Collins brings everyone back together for discussion or a song. Then it’s out to the garden for another round of weeding or pruning or harvesting to finish with a liturgy centered in creation care. “Ultimately it really enriches us,” says Collins. “They’ve given me a lot of space to learn and grow in how we play with our faith, and the earth.”
And that’s just the beginning of the Ministry Garden’s ministry. Last year they grew 900 pounds of food that they gave to those in need, through partnerships with local non-profits including United Way. Originally folks would come to the church with vouchers to pick up bags of fresh organic produce, given freely along with recipes on how to shell the peas, fry, stew, or pickle the okra. Collins said they would invite people to take whatever they needed, but people were taking so little, the volunteers had to bag the produce ahead of time to be sure they took enough. The more volunteers would offer, Collins explained, the more folks would hesitate, saying, “We want there to be some for other people, when they come.” “That’s great,” says Collins, “but we’re working out of a scarcity mentality and so we’re trying to reverse that. There is enough. There is more coming. There is more growing, there’s enough for you.”
Last year Burks collaborated with Northside Neighborhood House to offer free cooking classes in a large community kitchen. Attendees were given a recipe, a food box, and all the supplies they would need to cook their own healthy meals at home. When winter came, Collins asked the gardening team if they wanted a much deserved break, but they opted to keep going and take it inside, baking bread and the occasional pumpkin loaf or batch of cookies. The community loved the fresh baked rolls especially, though Collins says the winter fare wasn’t as popular as the produce. It’s not surprising considering the #givinggarden cornucopia: summer squash, zucchini, okra, corn, peas, butter beans, turnips, garlic, onions, beets, butternut squash, collards, cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and winter greens and wheat for a harvestable cover crop in colder weather.
As the harvest wanes, they’ve begun to preserve food for the winter, pickling turnips, blanching and freezing peas. “We are trying to be creative with how we utilize the most of what we grow. In fact, we reseeded most of the garden from seeds that we saved from the garden last season,” Collins says. They’ve engaged in their share of creative innovation with COVID compromising the community element. Instead of folks coming to them, church members organize weekly and bi-weekly deliveries to individuals and families in the community. They are also working with the local food bank to help distribute the food. As far as the gardening itself? Collins says it’s been a lot to keep up with. Her original team of eight is still together in spirit, but they now volunteer in socially distanced shifts with remote to do lists and video instruction on everything from how to know if a Cream 40 pea is ready to be harvested, to laying down paper and pine shavings.
Collins says, “It’s more of a ‘come for as long as you can and then go and take a nap for a few hours’” situation. “Four or five key people have been keeping things going. Joe is my rock. Especially while I’m in school, he’s there twice a week, helping me to till new plots or harvest on a regular basis. So they’ve been very faithful to the cause.” They’ve harvested 450 pounds of food this year, which is less than Collins had hoped. After participating in the 2019 EarthKeepers program, which equips United Methodists in the United States for environmental stewardship, she’d devised some grand plans for 2020 including three intentional Ministry Garden communities — the OG Sunday night crew, a new young professionals service early on Tuesday mornings, and then a family offering on Thursday evenings. “It was going to be great,” Collins says wistfully. “Those plans have been put on hold, but hopefully they’ll be realized. Soon.”