A trip to Haiti and a community conversation planted a seed at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church that is bringing fresh vegetables and fresh hope to Asheville, North Carolina.
In January 2009, church member Bill Gettys traveled to Haiti to work on a project in the medical laboratory of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker Jenny Bent. While there, Bill learned about the agricultural work of Jenny’s husband, Mark Hare, who is also a PC(USA) mission co-worker. When Bill returned home, he enthusiastically introduced the church to Mark’s garden program.
That October, Grace Covenant hosted a forum on health care needs in the community. Discussion eventually focused on how the congregation could contribute to the wellness of the community surrounding the church. After identifying potential community partners and acquiring the necessary approvals, tilling began on the garden on the church lawn at the end of January 2010.
Here’s how the program works: at the beginning of the growing season, about 40 church and community members divide into four teams to till, plant, weed and harvest crops on alternating weeks. Summer crops vary from beans, squash and eggplant to peppers and tomatoes. In the fall, the teams plant cool weather vegetables. The volunteers box and deliver about 75 percent of the vegetables to local food pantries and community kitchens.
Then-pastor Mark Ramsey was supportive from the beginning and received approval from the session. Everyone liked the idea, but there was some hesitation about digging up the church lawn to plant vegetables. Some suggested that the garden might be in the back, hidden from the road. Ramsey said firmly that if the church was going to undertake the project, it was going to be front and center. And the Community Garden was born.
The Rev. Kristy Farber, associate pastor, has been equally supportive. “The church often uses words or metaphors, which are important, but so is this ministry of substance and sustenance, offering nurture to body and soul in a way that goes beyond words. Just like the gospel this ministry shines a light that conquers the darkness of at least this little corner of the world,” she says.
In the spring of 2014, children’s ministry coordinator Heather Gast and long-time member Otis “Buzz” Durham talked about the possibility of creating a version of Mark Hare’s yard garden to get children and families involved. Durham, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, had been to Haiti and worked alongside Mark Hare.
“Our World Garden is modeled on Mark’s work in Haiti,” Durham says. “It is one way we have found that gives us a foundation to join hands with the young and old. The garden was built by our K–8 children over a period of several days in the spring. Then in the fall we added to the garden during an overnight camp on the church lawn. The garden is tended by families throughout the growing season.”
After workshops on charcoal making, tire cutting and soil preparation, the tire garden was born, making miniature garden plots inside discarded tires. In Haiti’s dry season, there is no rain for five to seven months and food can become scarce. The small tire gardens allow families to grow food at a time when they normally can’t.
Using the same techniques Mark Hare teaches in Haiti, the children planted lettuces, herbs, cabbage, eggplant and carrots. This wasn’t a project in which the adults worked and the children watched. The drip irrigation system was researched, designed and built by a 13-year-old, Phoebe, and a crew of church members. In the fall, the tires were planted with kale, spinach and collard greens.
The children learn that the agricultural work Mark teaches farmers in Haiti is both old and new. For instance, agricultural waste products such as coconut husks and other organic materials can be used to make “bio-char,” that when mixed with native soil helps release water and store nutrients. The children at Grace used corncobs and shucks to make their bio-char.
Heather said working together in the garden has given families an activity they can enjoy together. “So many service projects force us to choose something that is appropriate for either adults or children. This garden allows children of every age to be involved and provides a rich experience for families. It’s a beautiful thing,” she said.
The gardens have acted as a billboard for the church, attracting a number of new members, particularly young families, Heather says. “We get so many visitors saying they found us because of the garden. They see the garden before they see the church. They love that this is a service project they can do as a family.”
Buzz and his wife Pat Durham joined other parents and grandparents in adding raised beds to the garden during the spring campout in 2014. “Buzz and I retired early and I went to sleep smiling, listening to the next generation of parents exchange stories and share their faith,” Pat says.
On Sunday morning, everyone cooked breakfast at the church before services began. “There was just something so magical about driving up to the church and seeing 15 tents in the church yard,” Pat says. “Everyone was wrapped in flannel and sleepy from working hard and sleeping outside. It was messy, beautiful fellowship.”
The garden has ministered in ways they never envisioned, Pat explains. She was working in the Community Garden one day when she saw a couple standing of to the side. They looked curious, and she motioned them over. She found out they were from out of town visiting a terminally ill friend in the hospital.
“We invited them to walk around,” she says. “It seemed to provide them solace. I realized once again that the impact of the garden reaches much farther than just the people who work there.”
The church is constantly trying to re-invent the garden to stay relevant. Last year a partnership with the neighborhood YMCA provided an indoor location for a “tailgate market” with 30 farm vendors. The vendor fees were used to support scholarships for youth to participate in YMCA programs. Haitian art is sold at an annual auction to support a Haitian medical clinic and school, but also helps the congregation gain greater awareness of life and culture in the community.
In a slideshow prepared by the church, two sentences encapsulate the project well: “We will bring the kingdom of God a little closer. We share the Peace of Christ with the bend of our back and the work of our hands as we practice our faith.”
This article is reprinted from Mission Crossroads, a publication of Presbyterian World Mission, winter 2015. To subscribe and receive three issues of the magazine each year at no cost, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.