IRVINE, Calif.

Anita Coleman didn’t set out to start a gardening ministry — it just sort of sprouted up on its own.

Coleman and a few others had been pondering the challenges of ‘doing church’ in a culture in which folks are busy and often shy away from activities that add to the information overload that plagues many. Coleman attends Irvine Presbyterian Church in the heart of Orange County, Calif., and a member of Los Ranchos Presbytery.

“We started thinking of those who don’t necessarily want to come and hang out in church, or don’t have a culture of going to church every Sunday,” Coleman said.

She and others also began to realize that many would come to church on Sundays but not see themselves as having ministries of their own that spread into the rest of the week.

“We thought, ‘Everybody has a passion — how about if we take that passion and go from there?’” Coleman said.

For Coleman, that passion was gardening. Having served on several mission committees within the church, she wanted to connect her love of mission with her passion for gardening. From there, the seed of the garden club began to take root.

“The garden club was really a passion about where God was calling me, to focus on the gardening and to use that to develop relationships — to use gardening to draw us together, especially those who do not consider themselves Christians,” Coleman said.

But as she has learned in gardening, it is sometimes difficult for new life to blossom, even in spite of the best of intentions.

What began as a group of four women quickly dwindled to Coleman and one other. They decided they’d start by bringing items from their gardens to sell at the Christmas Mission Bazaar at the church.

“The thing is, I was ready to give up,” said Coleman, realizing that between the two women, there were hardly enough plants worth sharing. But then one day after worship, Coleman happened to bump into another friend who had been attending various Bible studies but hadn’t found a solid connection at the church.

“When I saw her, I asked about her garden and told her about the garden club and the bazaar and how it looked like we would not have enough to sell,” said Coleman.

The woman’s response proved to be just what the garden club needed to hear.

“You know, Anita, this is perfect timing — my husband and I have been wanting to clean up the garden and we have all these cacti that we would love to give,” she said.

In cash sales alone, selling each plant for .50 to one dollar, the garden club has raised more than $100 to support the mission of Pravaham, a community of peace and justice in South India.

“What  I am running into is that people around here are very private, afraid to share what is innermost, a bit suspicious and scared and don’t want to enter into something that they don’t know where it is going to lead and are afraid of commitment. If we try to analyze that, we are never going to get anywhere,” Coleman said. “But if we can encourage people with an interest in gardening, they can chose to come to us.”

Any talk of regularly scheduled monthly meetings has met with this same sort of hesitation. But what Coleman has found is that many have come forward to offer plants or to express interest.

“All these people coming forward, offering these things, they are all wanting to connect with the church and wanting to be a part of the church. They want to have some sort of ministry,” Coleman said. “But in the way that we typically define ministry, we don’t always see life itself as a ministry.”

Coleman doesn’t know what the garden club will look like in 2010.

“But people are growing things and they are excited about contributing,” she said. “I think if we can tap into that, we grow people closer to each other and to God.”

Coleman’s own spiritual practices have been shaped and grown in her time in the garden.

“I’ve been meditating lately on humility and on the pea. When I look out at the garden, I see the other, more flamboyant plants such as the bougainvillea. The pea is so small I hardly notice it. Yet the flowers are so beautiful,” she said.

Coleman sees God’s love in the pomegranate.

“When I look at it from outside it’s not all that beautiful. But when you open it and see all the seeds inside and the rich color of red it reminds me of the church — connected by God as a community of love and power that is so much more than any of us can individually ever do or be.

“When our agenda is God’s agenda, to move out where people are, we have to remain open to the Holy Spirit to bring people in and move us along in the way that God wants us to go. So that is where we are.”

The Rev. Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer and photographer in Newport Beach, Calif., and a newly ordained minister member of Los Ranchos Presbytery.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter