Cultivating Community - Michigan Interfaith Power & Light

Cultivating Community

At Sunnyside UMC, garden manager Rachelle Yeaman tells the story of the Growing Community Garden, a collaboration with Fresh Fire AME Church, as tour-goers gather under the welcome shade of a centrally located maple tree.

Recognizing that, in work at the intersection of racial and environmental justice, trusting and mutually beneficial relationships are key, Hope for Creation (MiIPL’s southwest Michigan affiliate) is building connections around shared interests in working the soil.

With the support of generous grants from the Congregation of St. Joseph and the Mesara Family Foundation, we are engaging master gardeners and other volunteers in our member congregations to develop partnerships in neighborhoods facing food insecurity, with the twin goals of expanding capacity to produce healthy food and safe neighborhoods and of building lasting healing relationships between people of faith from diverse communities. Our focus in 2021 is supporting collaboration in neighborhoods that are environmental hot-spots in Kalamazoo and fostering connections between established and emerging gardening efforts.

On a recent June Saturday afternoon, Hope for Creation sponsored a tour of several examples of congregational creation care. Each congregation provided a land acknowledgement, simple refreshments, a plant-based recipe and a quick tour of its property, followed by time for questions and connections. First stop was the Growing Community Garden, a shared endeavor of Sunnyside United Methodist Church and Fresh Fire AME Church, where a multiracial garden team tends an extensive plot that is intentionally open for neighbors to forage and play. Garden co-manager Rachelle Yeaman simultaneously lamented the scourge of potato beetles that had required hours of meticulous hand-picking that morning, and rejoiced in the bounty of collards and other greens that were thriving in raised beds built by congregants over the years. Pastor David from Sunnyside and Pastor Bobette Hampton of Fresh Fire are both strong supporters of the Growing Community Garden and can often be found caring for the shared garden. The Sunnyside/Fresh Fire collaboration has several years under its belt and therefore serves as a classroom for other congregations seeking to launch their own collaborative garden projects.

Our second stop was Skyridge Church of the Brethren, where Pastor Ruth Moerdyk is leading her congregation in envisioning multiple uses of its extensive outdoor space. Temporary signage indicated the possible locations of a runoff rain garden, a children’s play area, a labyrinth, basketball or pickleball court, secluded sitting areas, a meditation garden, picnic area and compost system. Skyridge hopes to create a welcoming environment that will draw in passersby to explore and enjoy its grounds, and the congregation is hosting a series of walk-arounds where congregants and neighbors are invited to make suggestions and offer input via a short paper survey and topographical map.

Our final stop on this inaugural tour was at the Jubilee Garden, a project of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. A small but dedicated group of congregants tends a garden that provides hundreds of pounds of produce to a local food bank each summer. Improvements include a solar-powered irrigation system and an impressive rodent-proof fence. In addition to the garden and a small plot that has served as a holding spot for landscaping plants for Habitat for Humanity, Prince of Peace also owns acreage that is being lovingly restored to natural savanna.

Tour-goers expressed appreciation and inspiration. One local UCC church sent a delegation to all three stops, hoping to learn and connect as it considered starting its own garden. Ideas were floated to share tools and funding, and -- even on a hot Saturday afternoon during a busy time of summer -- everyone agreed that more tours of more congregational gardens should happen. (Another local AME church is touring the Growing Community Garden this evening, in fact, hoping to learn from the experiences of the two congregations who share in its care.)

See a slide-show featuring all three stops, along with the recipes shared:

To learn more or to get involved in Hope for Creation’s gardening connections work, email us at [email protected].