Community gardens produce more than vegetables

Two California congregations cultivate connections with communities

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Riley Paull, left, and Rebekah Lehrman from Hope Kingsburg take a break from weeding to move lady bugs to the roses where the bugs are needed to control pests. Photo: HK

Gardens are places to plant seeds and watch them grow—not always as one might expect. For two California MB churches, community gardens provide an opportunity to grow produce and plants as well as relationships.

Hope Kingsburg, located in Kingsburg, and Neighborhood Church in Fresno transformed unused properties into community gardens for neighbors to plant produce and landscaping and connect. While each garden is set up differently, both churches share a similar mission to use their soil to plant seeds not only in the ground, but also in the hearts of their neighbors.

Garden plots for rent

Hope Kingsburg designed its community garden to be primarily self-sufficient, relying on the gardeners to care for the 24 plots available for rent, while the church maintains the property upkeep and utilities.

Hope Kingsburg broke ground on its garden project in 2017 after a city worker contacted Jordan Ringhofer, pastor at the time before accepting his current role as Pacific District Minister, with ways the church could fund a project turning an unused property across the street into a community garden. Ringhofer says he was excited for an opportunity to connect with the agricultural community.

“It’s a bridge to relationships, and relationships are essential for us to effectively reach our communities,” Ringhofer says. “The goal was to see how we could continue to open that bridge between community and the church by giving the garden a chance and remembering that it’s better to try something than to not do anything and if it doesn’t work, then you move on to the next thing.”

Of course, no garden is without toil. Brenda Deason, former chair and current member of Hope Kingsburg’s outreach team, says the garden has been an undertaking, from the paperwork to the groundwork, but has also provided a place for the church to show love for its neighbors since none of the gardeners attend Hope Kingsburg.

Kathy Heinrichs Wiest, a member of Hope Kingsburg who oversees the garden, says most plots stay full, though the greater growth has been the cultivated relationships.

“Our garden is set up to serve as a place to connect with our neighbors,” Wiest says. “Not everyone is going to show up to the church door Sunday morning, but those who like to garden are going to spend a lot of time there. It’s a great place we can connect with those we might not normally see, build relationships with them and tell them about Jesus.”

Front yard friendships

Joe and Heidi White invite neighbors to help themselves to the more than 100 edible plants and landscaping that the church tends in the White’s front yard. Photo: Joe White

About 20 miles northwest in Fresno, Neighborhood Church meets in two homes, including the home of pastor Joe White, who sought to make the two-acre property around his house engaging for neighbors as a garden and place to fellowship.

White invites residents of the neighborhood to his front yard to freely take from a garden of more than 100 edible plants and landscaping the church tends. Neighbors can gather around the house at a fire pit and stage or walk trails, including one with four stations that with various plants represent creation, the fall of man, Jesus’ resurrection and eternity to symbolize the gospel.

The garden is a new project for the church this year, and Neighborhood plans to expand it into a park on a formerly neglected property down the road with raised beds for neighbors to grow their own produce, a dog park and trails to enjoy. The expansion project has allowed the church to work with local government and its neighbors, both those who are involved with Neighborhood Church and those who are not.

“The way we see it, the church is all of our neighbors,” White says. “We’re working with people who call our neighborhood home, and we see them as our church whether they attend the services or not. Even if most of them have never come to church we still see them as ours and our responsibility as God has trusted them to us, and this park is important to us for that reason.”

Joe’s wife, Heidi, is one of the project’s leaders. She says the garden and park projects have provided an opportunity to meet new neighbors, get to know them and invite them to voice and execute their ideas for the park before it opens.

“We want to communicate to our community that we care about their space and voice, their complaints and hopes and their dreams for this place and be intentional in listening, since that is how a lot of relationships start,” Heidi White says. “We are really hoping they’ll become involved with it and maybe someday our church.”—

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