Growing with God through gardening
How one congregation taught its children and reached its neighbors through a peace garden
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.—Mark 4:3-8
[G]ardening: It is the closest one can come to being present at creation.—Phyllis Theroux
Nearly 10 years ago, Ted Zerger started the Peace Garden, a neighborhood garden located in a lower-income area of Salina, Kan. Since then, our church, Salina Mennonite, has followed the growth of the Peace Garden and participated in various garden-related activities, including an annual planting party, block party, pumpkin-decorating party and garden-decorating Christmas party. But for a number of reasons—such as the fact the garden is located several miles from the church, as well as Ted’s desire to see the neighborhood residents assume ownership over the garden and be the beneficiaries of its produce—the involvement of our congregation in the Peace Garden has been, though consistent, necessarily peripheral.
First fruits to the altar: Ted Zerger helps Cedar and Luke Van Tassel harvest lettuce. Photo by Annelle Claassen.
Early last spring, however, Ted planted a new seed. “Why not start a church garden, tended by the children of Salina Mennonite?” he asked. The time was ripe. A few years earlier, after many years of renting another denomination’s church building, we’d purchased our own, and at last we had a yard to do with what we pleased. Moreover, the education committee was looking for a new approach to our summer Sunday school program. Given the small size of our church, we’d had difficulty covering Sunday school classes during the summer, when vacation schedules made attendance (for both children and teachers) uneven and unpredictable. We needed a multiage program that worked whether we had five children or 15 and could be supervised by as few as two adults per Sunday. For these reasons—along with the fact that many of us in the congregation share Ted’s love for gardening, commitment to healthy, locally produced food and interest in land stewardship—centering our summer Sunday school curriculum around a garden seemed perfect.
We were pleased with the success of our pilot run. Using Mark 4:3-8 as our theme for the summer, we developed a curriculum that aimed to connect the body and spirit by combining physical work in the natural world with Bible study.
Starting last April, while our children were still split into classes by age and studying the spring quarter’s Gather ’Round Sunday school materials, we introduced our plan for a church garden and spent the first 10-15 minutes of each class period planting seeds in small containers. Ted set up a gardening table inside that included a grow-lamp and tools and dropcloth, and students worked around this table each Sunday before going to their respective classes. In May, the children transferred their seedlings to the garden plot outside.
The new curriculum commenced in full in June. Children started each Sunday school session outside with garden work (watering, weeding, harvesting) and a common prayer:
“Thank you, God, for the soil; thank you, God, for the sun; thank you, God, for the water; thank you for the seed.” They spent the following 40-45 minutes inside, studying and doing activities aimed to help them connect the lessons of their gardening work (growth requires nurture, care and consistency) with their spiritual lives.
Inside activities were varied and flexible. We transformed Ted’s gardening table into a curriculum resource center, with copies of our theme verse, fiction and nonfiction books about gardening, and a folder full of relevant biblical stories/references and craft activities (gleaned from several community garden manuals). Adults in the congregation volunteered to oversee these multiage classes in two-week blocks. Every week our teachers reviewed the theme verse with the children, shared an object lesson (roughly equivalent in time and preparation to a children’s sermon) and either read a story about gardening or led an activity that reinforced the lesson or gardening activity.
Over the course of the summer, the children made T-shirts, gourd maracas and necessary garden items (such as scarecrows, a milk jug irrigation system and labeled/illustrated wooden plant markers). Even more importantly, the children shared the fruit of their labor with the congregation. Throughout the summer, they brought the “first fruits” of their harvest to the altar during offering. In late May, they harvested lettuce and made and ate a salad together; in August they harvested carrots, potatoes, beans, peppers, onions and tomatoes and made soup for the congregation; in September they made a dish of their harvested sweet potatoes for our potluck. Even the youngest children were able to participate in the worship service and give to the church in a tangible way.
The Sunday school gardening program also enabled children to learn more about their community and welcome our neighbors in new ways. One weekend, the children visited the local food bank’s community garden, located a few blocks from our church. There the kids learned about how growing food helps Salina’s poorest residents eat. The children’s own involvement in growing and sharing food made it possible for them to identify more fully with the recipients of the food bank garden. Moreover, the garden attracted neighborhood children to our church yard. One weekday evening, when Ted was checking on the garden, he found three young girls picking cherry tomatoes. They sat down on the church step to eat them together. A block over, Ted could hear the familiar song of the ice cream truck, but the girls paid it no heed. They already had their snack. Hence, our garden offered healthy activity and food to individuals beyond our own congregation.
One of the gardening curriculum’s key planners and organizers memorialized the summer by taking photos almost weekly and compiling them in a scrapbook. She also helped the children make posters illustrating their own spiritual growth. These are now displayed in our Sunday school “common room.” In this way, the children are reminded of their summer work and the connections between their physical and spiritual growth and health.
Certainly the success of our summer Sunday school project depended on the enthusiasm and commitment of several people. During the hot, dry weeks of mid and late summer, Ted stopped by several days during the week to water the children’s garden. Several other adults spearheaded the indoor activities by organizing the activity folder and collecting materials for some of the craft activities. Starting a garden-centered curriculum requires leadership and organization.
Nevertheless, we heartily recommend that other congregations consider initiating their own church gardens. It is a project that can be easily adapted to the size and resources of a given congregation. It is accessible and fun for adults and children alike and inclusive by its very nature—the earth does not know age, gender, race, class, size or popularity. The fact that we all must eat reinforces the inclusive nature of gardening; the work of the garden draws individuals of all ages together in a common goal. Moreover, children found great satisfaction in the harvesting and preparing of their food, and their excitement was contagious. Finally, using gardening as a metaphor for our spiritual growth and communal cooperation makes the lesson real in ways a book or children’s sermon never can. As Ted says, “You care for the soil, you care for the soul; the difference between soil and soul is U and I.”
Kristin Van Tassel is a member of Salina (Kan.) Mennonite Church.