How Does Your (Community) Garden Grow?

An abandoned, graffiti-covered lot transformed into a community garden where vegetables -- and faith -- grow

Lucy weeds and waters her two community garden plots every morning after walking her son Lester to school across the street. In the summer, when school is out, Lucy brings Lester to the garden. They grow green tomatillos, jalapeños, green peppers, and plum and cherry tomatoes. In the fall comes lettuce, cabbage and cilantro.

“I let go of everything when I am in the garden,” Lucy says. “I see how wonderful God’s creation is in the colors, fruits, flowers, butterflies and birds. If my son isn’t interrupting, it’s a moment alone in silence where I can say my prayers right in the middle of the plants. I think about my family, my problems. Everything that’s happened is erased. I feel peace and calm.”

Ironically, Lucy’s place of tranquility is a half-acre lot on a busy corner of 29th and River Streets in Camden, New Jersey, a city that makes headlines for its high per capita murder rate, major drug busts, abandoned property crisis and the firing of half the police force in 2011. But the flipside of the newspaper truth is the beauty of positive change happening every day.

Lucy and Lester are one of 24 garden families who toil from March to October in Brother Jerry’s Community Garden, part of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish. As of June 2012, eight Mexican, four Dominican, six Puerto Rican and five Anglo families participate — a potpourri of neophyte trial and error and ancestral farming practices from the old country. Also, as good role models, the Franciscan friars who run St. Anthony’s have a garden plot and have committed to working it together as part of their Friar community time. Each family tends its own plot for the season and can keep the produce they harvest, but most gardeners at Brother Jerry’s share on a regular basis with neighbors and passersby in the Franciscan spirit of hospitality and generosity.

Peace (and food) with justice

Brother Jerry’s Community Garden gathers together God’s diverse people to participate in the cycle of life from seed to harvest, from spring to fall. Participating in a community garden can be a spiritual experience.

The “If you want peace, work for justice” motto decorates a few bumper stickers in the church parking lot and also illustrates the history of Brother Jerry’s Garden. In December 2008, a community organizer from Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP) asked St. Anthony’s youth group, “What would you change about this neighborhood?” The kids identified the graffiti-covered, abandoned community policing office trailers at 29th and River (across the street from the church and school) where drugs were sold, needles were scattered, and prostitutes would meet their johns.

Under CCOP’s guidance, the parish youth wrote a letter to Camden police and city officials asking them to help remove the blight. In record time, officials responded, removed the trailers, and approved an Adopt-A-Lot petition from the church. With help from the Camden Children’s Garden (CCG) and a team of Americorps volunteers, the ugly gravel lot was transformed into a series of 10 neat compost beds with wood-chip pathways. Over the next two years, 30 more garden beds have been added. The lesson learned: When faith-filled concerned citizens get together, they can transform things in a community. Furthermore, Camden is becoming a hub of urban garden production. The CCG has created more than 120 community gardens in the city of Camden.

The connection between community gardens and the Church is deeply theological. Gardening is a good first step to reconnecting with God’s creation — the earth itself, plants, water and our food. In fact, the Catholic Church asks us to be stewards and protectors of God’s creation. From Pope Benedict XVI: “The Earth is indeed a precious gift of the Creator who, in designing its intrinsic order, has given us bearings that guide us as stewards of his creation. Precisely from within this framework, the Church considers matters concerning the environment and its protection intimately linked to the theme of integral human development.”

Care for Creation is one of the seven tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. The Franciscans may lead the way with St. Francis of Assisi, patron of ecology. He saw the sun as his brother and the moon as his sister. In fact, St. Francis’ sermon to the birds and making peace with the wolf of Gubbio have won him a prominent place in the garden section of Home Depot, the only saint sold next to birdseed.

Lucy and Lester

A mother’s dream come true

But Brother Jerry’s gardeners do not put in hours of hard labor to grow vegetables because the Vatican wants them to “go green.” Estela, a single mother of four children, works in the garden every day because she values pesticide-free, fresh food. Estela saves on her grocery bill by not having to buy tomatoes, peppers or chilies during the summer. Her children notice the difference in taste between her organic tomatoes and the wrinkly ones from the corner bodega. Estela does not own a car and therefore depends on the bus or a ride to get to Camden’s one large grocery store. (According to the USDA, Camden ranks as one of the top 10 food deserts — an area where urban or rural residents have limited access to food — in the United States.)

Brother Jerry’s Community Garden, therefore, is an important access point for Estela and her children to connect to God’s creation; grow vegetables, herbs and fruits; and share tips with other neighbors about healthy cooking. Estela says her children ask countless questions while helping her and other gardeners. The past two years of gardening have been an education for the whole family. Estela’s children are fit and healthy and choose to eat more vegetables now, a mother’s dream come true. The family also cared for the plot whose production went to the Diocese of Camden’s Cathedral Kitchen program to feed the homeless. During August and September, the kids take turns pulling the garden cart of harvested vegetables during the offertory procession at Sunday Mass.

Brother Jerry’s Community Garden gathers together God’s diverse people to participate in the cycle of life from seed to harvest, from spring to fall — planting seeds, shoveling earth, watering roots (not leaves!), weeding, harvesting the fruits of labor and then letting the plants die as the ground freezes. Participating in a community garden can be a spiritual experience. Reynalda, a gardener and member of the Franciscan Spirituality group says, “Every day before I go to water the plants and work in the garden, I offer up my labor to God. I feel God’s presence in the garden. Plants are my life. Plants give me life. I take care of them as if they were my children.”