Good seed for good soil
Years of tending plants and relationships transformed my backyard
I’m surrounded by 2 acres of the best soil in Illinois. Lots of sweat got our garden to where it is today. But in this soil, we grow good food and good relationships.
The rear windows of my home at the Jacob’s Well Community Church parsonage overlook the congregation’s community garden, where butterflies, hummingbirds and bees float between vegetable crops and the flowers.
This garden isn’t just for our church. Our neighbors walk over and pitch in with the daily chores. Our area of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, knows Jacob’s Well Community Church as the “church with the garden.”
But it wasn’t always that way. We were the new kids when we first tilled the soil; we had to build relationships and earn the community’s trust.
I’m the garden’s resident caretaker. I have the job by default because I rent the parsonage, but I was excited to take on the task. Gardens and crops are in my blood: I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and worked in agriculture finance for most of my life.
Every day of the growing season, I breathe in the [fresh garden air, and stay active. I walk through the grassy paths and pull weeds. On some hot summer days, I make sure the plants get water,
walking the garden’s one hose throughout the garden. When frost decides to come early, I make sure to protect the plants by wrapping paper around all 150 tomato plants and 75 pepper plants.
We started the garden in April 2006, when our church participated in a citywide service day.
Dave Berry, our pastor, had the idea to start a community garden. We all agreed that it would be a great way to serve the community throughout the year, instead of just one day. We also were excited to find a good use for the church property that we had just started to rent a few months earlier.
About 100 adults and 25 children attend Sunday service, so we were pleased to have around 40 volunteers on the first workday. A great mix of older, seasoned gardeners and young college students prepared the ground and planted seeds and starts for our 1-acre garden.
In the past few years, the garden has grown to 2 acres, with the help of volunteers from our congregation and from the neighborhood. Since it expanded, we now plant a quarter-acre of sweet corn, more than 100 tomato plants, several dozen pepper plants, and a variety of eggplant, carrots, squash and other vegetables.
Each winter, we plant tomato and pepper starts from seed in our church. The garden yields have been unbelievable. But the best part is that we meet our goal of serving the community throughout the year. Volunteers drive many loads of pickup trucks filled with vegetables to food banks throughout our community.
The good relationships that grew from the garden didn’t bloom overnight. Our congregation had just moved into the church building, so most of our neighbors didn’t know who we were when we started the garden.
This church property is adjacent to a large city park and a wooded Holiness Association campground on one side, and residential neighborhoods on the other sides. Neighbors had been using the grounds behind our church for various activities, including as a place to walk their dogs. They were unsure how a community garden would change their quiet neighborhood. Since my wife and I had recently divorced, I began to rent the parsonage when our congregation moved to the property. As the new neighbor, I knocked on a lot of doors to introduce myself and invite them to be a part of the garden. It gave me a chance to answer residents’ questions and explain the story of our congregation and our denomination, The Fellowship of Evangelical Churches.
It took a few years for the neighbors to interact with the garden. But in the meantime, I would leave bags of sweet corn, tomatoes, and peppers at their doors. Soon, interest began to grow, and we now have several neighbors helping sow, weed, harvest and transport crops to those in need.
At church or on the street, it’s easy to wave and casually wish people a good week. But it’s a different thing when you’re on your knees in the dirt, elbow-to-elbow, tending to the garden. That’s when you really get to know people.
This year, we will start a sustainable gardening college internship program. From the first planting of the garden, college students have played an important role. About 25 percent of our congregation is college students who come and go with the cycle of classes and graduation.
Through the summer internship program, our veteran gardener, Chris Cohoon, will work with six to eight students to teach them the lifelong skills of gardening. We want to give the students the tools to start their own community gardens and use the gardens to share the Gospel – no matter where the students go after they graduate.
Most of these students come from non-farming backgrounds. As the interns learn gardening skills through the summer, students will also learn about agriculture in the Bible.
Parables like the four soils or the mustard seed come alive when the young adults understand how God has designed soil to work or a seed to sprout. Interns will also design a Sunday school program and summer family camp to teach these lessons to children. We also hope to develop a curriculum we can provide to other churches so they could have these tools too. We see this venture as a strategic way to raise new leaders for the work of God.
Everence has been generous in coming alongside our congregation as we start this program. We pray that God will continue to provide through others who share our vision for the community and future leaders.
Bruce Strum lives in Normal, Illinois, and attends Jacob’s Well Community Church. He has been an important part of the garden from the day it was planted.