Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
Frederick Law Olmsted was the American creator of the craft of landscape architecture. He had no college degree or much experience beyond a little farming when he was awarded the contract to oversee the construction of Central Park in New York City. He later went on to design college campuses, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the beautiful city parks that grace Louisville, Ky.
Olmsted partially prepared himself for his tasks by taking an extended walking tour of Europe. There, he saw vast, carefully manicured and structured gardens. Evidently, he did not like them, because he set out to design something very different – gardens that were strikingly natural in style. From the outside, an Olmsted park might look like all the designer did was simply fence an area and let things grow at will. But, in fact, Olmstead carefully placed each tree and bush. He built pathways that were easy to navigate so that the eye could focus on the beauty of the vista.
Olmstead’s goals in landscaping were to create natural habitats where people of all types could relax and mingle together. His parks were to be an oasis from the growing industrial world of his time where people no longer lived on the farm, but spent their days and nights in factories. His parks were to be gathering places where bankers, factory owners, shopkeepers, teachers, industrial workers, mothers, fathers, and children could gather. Olmsted designed parks to create community.
Creating community among a variety of people is also the gift of the church. We are called to worship by the same Lord, the same Savior, and the same Spirit. But we are not the same. We have different origins, different families, different stories, and different experiences in life. The community we live out in the church covers the whole lifespan of humankind, from baptizing babies to witnessing to the resurrection in death. This church community grows like Olmsted’s parks. It may seem like a wild collection of flowers and weeds. But it is God’s planned green space in this world, designed for us to learn to live in it together.
The Reverend Gradye Parsons is Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).