Photo: Steve Jerbi
How do you fight poor health and nutrition, unemployment and disillusionment in the nation’s fourth poorest city?
In a neighborhood often described as “blighted,” the congregation sees rich soil and opportunity. They have created a garden and a successful summer work program for youth, called Kids Working to Succeed, that together are transforming their community.
According to Steve Jerbi, pastor of the congregation, “The garden is the best place to do evangelism for youth.”
Digging in the dirt with your friends is also an excellent introduction to the love of Jesus.
Young people ages 8-15 are paid per workday for mulching, planting, watering, and harvesting in the garden as well as cleaning up in the neighborhood and around the church. They are supervised by older teens, and their funds help to pay for summer camp and to buy school clothes and supplies.
Reaping new skills
Sixteen-year-old Isaiah Furquan is himself a fertile garden. After being involved for more than five years, Isaiah is a youth leader in Kids Working to Succeed.
“Before I never really liked being a leader,” he said. “This is a good way to learn.”
A promising poet who hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the fall, Isaiah performs at poetry competitions. He was one of the emcees at the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering, where he also performed two of his poems.
How has Kids Working to Succeed helped him grow? “It taught me patience and other leadership qualities,” he says. “Sometimes you have to take different routes to build bonds with people that you deal with on a daily basis.”
Jeanne says that kids like Isaiah who are involved with Kids Working to Succeed gain work skills as well as a good reputation. People are more willing to hire them because they have learned to be reliable, hard workers.
But Jeanne wants them to go out into the world with another powerful tool: good nutrition.
Making nutrition a justice issue
In the neighborhood All Peoples calls home, there are no grocery stores. Instead the streets are littered with fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
According to Pastor Steve, good food and healthy living are social justice and public health issues that All Peoples must tackle.
Jeanne tells of two little girls from the neighborhood who returned produce from the garden saying, “Mom says we can’t have any dirty, nasty vegetables.” Their mother didn’t realize that, once washed, the produce would be far more nutritious than what she could buy at a local store.
Jeanne visited the family, taught them how to make soup, and a few days later the mother reappeared: “That was the best soup I’ve ever had. What other vegetables do you have?”
Jeanne describes the All Peoples garden as a “grazing garden.” The first fruits always go to the kids who work there. They are surprised, she says, to find that green beans can be eaten raw, and quickly are stopping by on their bikes for handfuls at a time.
What the kids don’t eat is then shared with the church’s food pantry and the entire congregation.
Soon Milwaukee will be blanketed in snow, but All Peoples will still be gardening.
The Lutheran congregation is grateful for funding from ELCA World Hunger and other partners, as well as the generosity of their members.
All Peoples has, for the first time, planted a winter garden. Transforming the third floor of the church into a greenhouse, they’ll plant herbs and hydroponic lettuce, stevia plants (a natural, low-calorie sweetener for those in the community with diabetes), and Christmas flowers for the young people of the congregation to sell.
And All Peoples and the kids of Kids Working to Succeed have planned for spring. They harvested seeds this year. They think about next year’s crops. And they can’t wait to reconnect with God’s ever-giving creation.
Angela K. Nickerson, a travel writer and guide, enjoys her coffee on a piazza in Rome. She’s also the author of two books about her favorite city. Find a link to her blog The Gypsy Guide at Lutheran Blogs.