United Church Observer magazine | October 2005 | Circulation: 81,000
Charles Savill peers over a fat green tomato. It’s still August, but you can almost see him imagining the salsa his preserving collective will make with it in the fall. And rhubarb for jams and pies, zucchinis for bread…
He begins listing off all the fruits and vegetables in the garden, but it gets hard to hear him when another bout of traffic roars by on the busy street, just beyond the fence and a parking lot in this stretch of inner city Winnipeg.
Savill, myself and a woman named Agnes are standing in a community garden plot across the street from St. Matthew’s Maryland Community Ministry, which is jointly run by the United and Anglican Churches in Winnipeg.
“This garden started up as a community effort,” Savill says, showing off a crabapple tree in the corner. “In December, when you’re selling the preserves (at the church bazaar), you remember how hot it was in June.
“And around Easter, the time of resurrection, you have these plants come up from the ground. It comes in cycles just like the church year.”
In fact, the Preserving Garden, which is used exclusively by Savill’s and Agnes’ collective operating out of the church basement, is one of four operated by the community ministry. Others are dedicated to a summer children’s programme, community vegetable plots and a demonstration compost area for the neighbourhood.
Community gardening is one very tasty example of new forms of ministry being explored by churches in Winnipeg. Workers in the gardens explain that the sense of shared community and skills in what is a poorer neighbourhood is a testament to their success.
“The gardens are so healing,” says Melissa Croft, a student employed by the ministry on an ‘urban green team’ to maintain the gardens. “They’re a focus point for the community. It’s growing, producing flowers and vegetables, and making seeds again. You can watch something grow, and that can also happen within yourself.
“It can be an image for people of their own healing.”
The first garden, known as McGee Garden, began seven years ago. Soon followed by the other three, the ministry began supplementing its busy food bank with fresh vegetables. The community ministry also runs a drop-in centre and a wellness programme which are all connected to the garden projects.
While Rev. Ingrid Peters Derry is new to her job as a community minister, a position she shares with Rev. Juanita MacKinnon Smith, she has a real sense that the gardens have contributed strongly to the community, and have also begun addressing some of the brokenness that too often comes with urban poverty.
“Connecting to nature is difficult to do in the inner city,” she says. “Our food bank is only a band aid solution to people’s food needs. The gardens have such potential for community building, because they help us recognize the roots of where food comes from.”
Peters Derry recalls bringing her family to church one day. When the kids got bored, she took them out into the demonstration garden across the street and picked tiny carrots.
“They’ve been talking about it since,” she says, laughing. “They kept saying, ‘We want to come back to church!'”
Several of the students employed in the gardens took the Observer on a walking tour of the four garden plots, several blocks apart. The rain was just holding back, but their enthusiasm for their work, and for the volunteers who join them in the ministry, is palpable.
“See over there,” says Kathryn Myran, another ‘green teamer.’ “We had little teepees up behind the corn, it was like a little village.”
At the garden’s entrance, overgrown with yellow peas, she points to four boxes painted with the colours black, yellow, red and white, representing the four directions in Native tradition.
Myran, who grew up on reserve in Manitoba, sees the gardens, and the inner city children’s programme she helps lead, as key to building positive self-image in youth who are largely of First Nations background.
“A lot of teenagers now don’t have that sense of identity–that’s where a lot of problems come from,” she says. “I lived on reserve all my life. Here we all come from different backgrounds, and have learned a lot from each other.”
St. Matthew’s area, Croft explains, faces increased crime rates and poverty. But while some churches might be cautious to grow food in an area considered more ‘risky,’ in fact volunteers come from the area and demonstrate the vibrant community and diversity that is really here.
Crouching into the tangle of yellow beans, Croft emerges grinning with several handfulls of the legumes. I take a bite–these beans are juicy, organic and very alive. Just like a living church community, I think. So how can other churches start their own ministry gardens?
“You have to be really dedicated,” Croft adds. “It has to be a functional part of your body. It really has to be an arm of your church.”