Transforming communities, transforming churches.
From Sydney to Broken Hill, and from Moree to Cooma, churches are growing food.
There are at least ten community gardens — places where communities come together to grow food — in which churches across the Synod are involved.
Some gardens are run by churches and some are hosted by churches but run by community groups. Most, but not all, are on church land.
What all of the garden projects have in common is that churches are finding connection and purpose in responding to need and interest in their broader communities — need that includes but goes beyond meeting the challenge of more sustainable food production and consumption.
Disused tennis courts, car parks and vacant spaces are becoming places for food growing, for teaching and learning skills, for thriving native plants, for sharing friendship and meals, for mosaics and murals, and for prayer and reflection.
Sheyne Ladmore, from Chatswood South Uniting Church in Sydney’s north, expresses a passion for community building that is common across the churches that are involved in community gardening.
“I feel that strong relationships are lacking in the community. There are lots of units in this area and lots of new Australians. I am passionate about connecting people together and I also want my children to have the opportunity to be a part of that,” says the mother of three, who is actively involved in the “Permapatch” garden on the church’s grounds.
“Building community is a mission focus of this church and the Permapatch committee is keen to do that as well,” she says.
And community building is exactly what is happening.
Take the Garden of Eden Community Garden, a ten year mission project of St George’s Uniting Church, Eden. Among the people involved in the project have been schools, artists, musicians, the Koori community, local farmers and people out of work who come for work placements organised in conjunction with Mission Australia.
The church has even hosted a visit from Watoto Ugandan Children’s Choir, who got in contact because they heard about the garden.
In a town with no other community centre, the church is becoming a hub for community life.
“This is about more than just a garden — it is about community development,” says Ruth Haggar, initiator of the project. “There is a large sense of brokenness in Eden and we are working to heal that. Of course in the process we are healing ourselves.”
Many of the community garden projects, similar to the Garden of Eden, have a particular focus on inclusion and empowerment of people on the margins.
South Sydney Uniting Church hosts the Eden Garden, run by the Luncheon Club, an HIV/AIDS support group.
The “Feed my People” community vegetable garden at Moree Uniting Church will involve the nursing home across the road as well as the Aboriginal community.
The Far West Indigenous Church (UAICC) in Broken Hill, in collaboration with Bush Church Aid and Robinson College, developed its garden and on-site horticulture courses to provide an activity to alleviate boredom, which is a factor in the problems of substance abuse in the local community.
The joint Adamstown Uniting Church/Permaculture Hunter “Sustaining Our Suburbs” initiative helps low-income people to grow their own fresh food organically. So far the project has established five community gardens in schools, childcare centres and community centres in low-income areas, with more in the pipeline, and is assisting people in public housing to grow food in their own gardens.
In seeking to reach out and help transform the communities in which they live, churches themselves are being transformed — and in multiple ways.
Brian Gutherson, convenor of the Miranda Community Garden in southern Sydney (affectionately known as the MCG) says, “The garden is one of the most enthusiastic things to happen at our church for a while. We were going to build an aged care facility on the land but, after years of planning, it fell through — much to our disappointment.
“The MCG has given us a new lease of life.”
Every second Saturday, members of the congregation join with others from the community to gradually transform the land behind their church into a paradise of garden plots, fruit trees, flowers and native plants. Those who are unable to garden participate by providing morning tea.
At Chatswood South, parishioners and garden members served shoulder to shoulder at their fete on polling day in August.
At the Cooma Community Garden at St Andrew’s Uniting Church gardeners and worshippers share morning tea together after church services.
At South Sydney Uniting Church, animals are blessed in the garden every year on St Francis of Assisi Day. Spring Fairs and harvest festivals are gaining heightened significance at churches, as parishioners and gardeners join together in the celebrations with produce grown right there on site.
Robert Buchan, Resource Minister with the New England North West Presbytery, who is helping to initiate the “Feed My People” veggie garden, believes that community gardens have the potential to transform the way that churches practise witness and service.
“There are many church people who are faithfully serving in the community; but this is often as a part of other community groups, such as Rotary Clubs. Community gardens present churches with an opportunity to connect community service together with Christian witness, right there at our places of worship.”
One question that arises is whether there are more people coming to church.
“Well, the gardeners are at the church more often than the congregation,” quips Peter Crimmins from O’Connor Uniting Church, which hosts the O’Connor Garden run by Canberra Organic Growers Society.
“But does it bring more people into the congregation? Is that the objective of what we are doing? I leave that to the Holy Spirit. These assets which we hold are to be shared. We have an obligation as a church who loves God to do the best we can with God’s Creation and to model that in the community without being didactic.”
The Rev. Neville Naden, of the Far West Indigenous Church, agrees with this sentiment. “What we are really about is drawing alongside people to share the love of Christ with them. And if they want to ask why we are doing what we are doing, then we’re happy to tell them.”
Dr Miriam Pepper, a founding member of the ecology network Uniting Earthweb, is a member of Maroubra Uniting Church.
Visit www.unitingearthweb.org.au to:
- Read more about church-based community garden projects;
- Learn about church involvement in other community food initiatives such as food buying groups, food cooperatives and community supported agriculture; and
- Access resources to help you to start or get involved in a community food initiative