I know most people think of Iowa as a monolithic cornfield, a state full of dirt. But we live in a mid-size metropolitan area, the capital city of Des Moines. We hardly ever venture into the countryside. Our home is inside the city limits yet it’s an old farm house that survived suburban sprawl. Our yard is one-full-acre in size, a bumpy, horse pasture remnant that perseveres whilst landscaped, chemically treated lawns surround it for miles in each direction. Six years ago when the real estate agent showed us this place, my husband, Bob, and I had different points of view:
Being from the Midwest, I said, “That’s a lot of work.”
Being from New York City, Bob said, “That’s a lot of freedom.”
Freedom won out on this marital difference.
In addition to the large yard came an industrial-sized driveway, which better resembles a parking lot, topped off with two (2) garages that fit in total five (5) vehicles counting the tractor lawn mower. This property was custom-made for Bob, who had been deprived this magnitude of motor storage capacity his whole previous life.
Our church building is downtown, eight miles away, and it’s surrounded by parking lots, boulevards, skywalks and office towers. There’s a lot of concrete and pretty much no soil. So when the idea came up to plant a community garden, Bob offered our little piece of freedom as a site. Team Garden — a dozen or so people who leverage dirt-related resources — got to work strategizing, fundraising, staking, seeding, planting, growing, tending, fertilizing and watering. They named their project the St. John’s Faith Garden.
But this is no ordinary patch of earth.
It’s a no-till, no-weed garden (or at least it was until someone accidently tilled it).
It’s watered by a rain barrel that Team Garden installed on the side of one of our garages.
It’s fertilized by worm casings, purchased through Team Garden’s sponsor-a-worm-bag program.
It’s watered by a drip hose that Team Garden wound through the tomatoes, peppers and lettuce.
It’s tended by a carefully scheduled rotation of Team Garden volunteers.
Its purpose is to grow fresh food and give it away.
“He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” That’s what it says on a trivet plate that was given to us by a lovely lady named Lou. Petite in stature, glamorous in make-up and dress, Lou is 70-something years old and is cuter than a doll, possibly like a tiny Zsa Zsa Gabor. Whenever she sees me she gives me a big hug and says something like, “I never thought I’d see the day when the pastor’s wife would be wearing jeans with sparkles on the behind.” Or “My oh my, you go girl.” I hadn’t intended those jeans to be any kind of liberation symbol, but rather, a result of what’s on sale and nothing else to wear. Yet I look at that round trivet plate atop our kitchen counter, imprinted images of birds, apples and flowers, and I think of Lou and her generosity toward me. If it’s true, you reap what you sow, people like Lou will harvest kindness and sincerity.
For centuries a primary metaphor for the church has been kingdom. But what if the focus on the word kingdom set the church off on the wrong path? What if the driving image was a garden? These questions are posed by author Mary Ylvisaker Nilsen in her luminous memoir, “Beyond the Dead End: Letters to My Father.”
“All the language of kings and rulers, of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ of princes and powers, of dominance and control, which has so infected the message of Jesus, would be gone, replaced by the language of growth, of nurturing, pruning, planting, cultivating, harvesting.” (p. 264)
Mary goes on to wonder what it would be like if our church were more focused on growing and tending, rather than changing minds and converting. “What if Jeremiah’s vision, ‘their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again,’ had been the dominant metaphor for the way the church saw itself and grew?” (p. 264)
When we have out-of-town guests, it’s always surprising to them that people, aka Team Garden, freely enter our yard to cultivate our backyard. This is Iowa, don’t people have their own green space? In New York City the purpose of community gardens is to afford precious garden space to residents who have none. Team Garden has another goal: to grow fresh tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, lettuce and peppers to donate to the local food pantry network. No strings attached. Year One the garden yielded 144 pounds of produce. Year Two it yielded 475 pounds. This coming summer the goal is 600 pounds. This church group is not acting on the word “kingdom,” they are living on the word “garden.”
There’s a lot of talk these days on who deserves free stuff and who doesn’t. Whom should we help and whom we shouldn’t. Who’s legal and who’s not. Who’s to blame for poverty and who isn’t. What is mine and what is yours. It’s usually the people on the bottom who get beat up the most in the debate. But what if dirt ruled our thinking? What if a garden was our guiding metaphor? What if we were one in Christ and there was no us and them, and we made no distinction of who deserves to be tended or ignored? What if we watered the whole world, even if we didn’t agree with each other?
That’s starting to sound like hippie-talk.
As I write this Bob’s cylinder index is up to about 16, courtesy of a rusty Dodge pick-up, a busted snow blower, a working leaf blower, and a number of other motorized contraptions contained inside one of the garages. His cylinder value was merely six before we moved to this one-acre plot of freedom in the city, so we’re trending in the right direction. Sweet little Lou continues to raise me up, seeming to present herself just when I need some nurturing the most, when my self-confidence is low and my self-loathing is high. I bump into her at coffee hour; accidently sit in front of her on Sunday morning. “My oh my,” she says every time, blanketing me with love whether I deserve it or not. Team Garden is preparing to plant their third year of fresh food giveaway. Dirt is dirt, but what if you could transform it into togetherness or free food or undeserved love? What if the church operated by the laws of dirt?
Terri Mork Speirs recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. She is a writer and mother as well as a grant writer for Children & Families of Iowa.