Beyond the Pews, in the Garden, Churches Are Building a New Community

In cities short on healthy groceries and space to plant crops, religious institutions provide land for the believers and nonbelievers alike.

(Photo: Kali Nine/Getty Images)

Feb 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When a panel at the University of Michigan gathered this week to discuss food access, race, and social justice issues in Detroit, Anthony Hatinger, the garden production coordinator for the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation, teased out the more ineffable aspects of what it means to grow your own food. He works with residents of North Central Detroit in the faith-based nonprofit’s economic development program, where he oversees two community gardens, an orchard, and a hydroponics operation that supply the Peaches & Greens storefront and mobile market that serves the same neighborhood. He knows what it means to see people put their hands in the dirt and connect with more than worms.

“Farming is a spiritual discipline,” he recounted in an interview. “All of our nourishment comes from the plants, that come from the soil, that come from the essence of our existence, which is stardust, really. I don’t necessarily get all that deep with people to begin with,” he laughed, “but they see it in the value of the work that they do.”

That understanding is the underlying tenet for various agricultural efforts across the country—from Zen farms to Star of David garden plots—that weave together food justice work, community, and spirituality.

“The Bible is a tremendous tool for agriculture. Same for the Koran, same for the Torah, same with the Bhagavad Gita,” Hatinger said. “You take any book of spiritual learning, and there’s going to be lessons and parables and examples of how our interactions with nature are directly tied to how we treat one another.”

Under Lyda Marincel Robb at the Farm-Faith Project, the same union of church, garden, and community has flourished on the East Side of St. Paul, Minnesota, where green space is hard to come by. “Churches are a unique place in our community in that they actually have land,” she explained. Her role is to connect churches that want to host gardens with members of the Hmong community who want to farm it. There in the plots, congregants and Hmong residents of the neighborhood garden side by side, and everyone takes home what they grow. Non-gardeners will come to hang out, hop on the swings, or stroll through rows, whistling.

“The people in the churches want to connect with the neighborhood more and really do care about food and food justice,” Robb said. Relationships grow out of a shared agricultural interest between the church’s members and East Side residents. ”If all you’re doing is gardening next to another person, there’s a community thing going on, even if you’re not directly interacting.”

In both North Central Detroit and St. Paul’s East Side, the food produced is filling a real need. Robb said the food grown in the church garden plots “is an anticipated and expected part of what [the gardeners’] food plan is. They’re hugely productive plots. They were really feeding their families with a lot of produce,” she said.

The Peaches & Greens mobile market rolls through the neighborhood like an ice cream truck—“We got a song that goes, ‘We got peaches! We got greens!’ ” Hatinger said, with no small amount of delight—and sets up shop near public parks and other community venues. “I grow some of the best stuff around, and it’s at super low cost, and it’s accessible.” But the real work of solving food insecurity, he said, is about something more.

While churches have a long tradition of nourishing the needy through soup kitchens and free monthly or weekly hot meals, programs like the Farm-Faith Project and Hatinger’s work at the CDC aim to not only provide but to empower, to create a sense of confidence and agency in a link of the food chain where people may feel disconnected and disenfranchised.

“By doing work-share, by not just giving the produce away for free, by creating community classrooms in our garden, in our kitchen, in the community fishery here—we’re trying to reignite the spark in people’s minds about where their food comes from and why it’s so important—if not the most important aspect of our survival,” Hatinger said.

“If we can turn the mentality of our residents into being more conscious about what real food is—where it comes from, where it’s growing, and how it can be produced controlled and cooperatively owned by residents,” he continued, “we’re increasing the power and the freedom that people have over their food choices.”

Amen to that.