Wendell Berry, the Inhabit Conference, community gardens, and the kingdom of God

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Inhabit Conference, a collaboration between the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Parish Collective, a network of faith leaders equipping churches to live out the gospel in their neighborhoods. It was a wonderful collection of people seeking an alternative imagination for being the church in this modern, commodified, flattened cultural moment. In a fitting convergence of events, Wendell Berry gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday. The Inhabit Conference and National Endowment for the Humanities lecture both expressed a prophetic call to reconnect with a sense of place and a responsibility to people.

The Chronicle in Higher Education had the following report on the Berry lecture:

Mr. Berry's speech was a discussion of affection and its power to bind people to community. It was also a meditation on place and those who "stick" to it—as caretakers and curators. "In affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy," Mr. Berry said.

The opposite of the "sticker"—in the words of Mr. Berry's mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner—is the "boomer," those who "pillage and run."

"That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated," Mr. Berry said. Our relationship to the land and to community is increasingly abstract and distanced.

"By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers....." 

The antidote, Mr. Berry said, is affection, connection, and a broader definition of education—to study and appreciate practical skills like the arts of "land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking."

Berry's comments echo much of what I heard at Inhabit. In the midst of the growing wreckage of "boomer" models of church in North America, people shared stories about what it looks like to be a "sticker" church that specializes in affection, connection, and homemaking. As someone who battles mightily with my boomer instincts in leading the church, the conference refreshed my vision for a different, stickier path of leadership.

Part of the gift of the conference was to help me see the blessing of the stories that have unfolded in our community over the last couple of years. (The test of a good church conference is whether you go home feeling envious of God at work in other people's stories or encouraged by God at work in your own stories. Inhabit provided me with the latter.) Many spoke of starting community gardens, so I thought I'd share part of our story here as an example of how community gardens can serve as a living alternative to the "pillage and run" pace of life.

The story of the garden goes back four decades to the start of an iconic neighborhood pumpkin patch on the shores of the Spokane river, located next to a major north-south thoroughfare in the Spokane valley. Generations of children grew up in our vicinity making a seasonal pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to pick out the perfect pumpkin and pluck it from the vine. Not only that, they got to see the field plowed, the seeds planted, and the plants growing as their family station wagons drove by the site in the spring and summer. It was a community-sustained umbilical to the land and a constant connection to the rhythms of springtime and harvest that have been lost in most communities.

Ten years ago Spokane County set out to widen the Argonne bridge and the pumpkin patch was designated as the lay-down area for all the heavy equipment and machinery required for the year-long construction project. I was told that tractors came and shaved off the two feet of black humus that had accumulated from the years of growing pumpkins in order to level the land. After the construction was completed the land was left as a hard-packed abandoned lot that served as a turnaround area for school buses and a shortcut for people walking through the neighborhood. The land was so hard it took a pick-ax to loosen enough soil for a soil-test. 

Four years ago people in the church and in the neighborhood started a conversation about the potential of recovering the land and the story of the land by turning the site of the old pumpkin patch into a community garden. I had only known that plot of land as an abandoned lot and it was only after these conversations started that I learned its history. The loss of connection to the land is like that, we not only lose the use of the land we lose the stories that at one time gave life to the neighborhood.

We knew we couldn't do it on our own as a church so we reached out to the neighors and other community partners. The paper mill that owns the land agreed to let us use it and they even donated the water and facilitated the donation of lumber and compost through their connections. We enlisted neighbors, the school district, a local group home, scouts, local landscaping businesses as co-conspirators in reclaiming the land. We even had a bunch of guerilla gardeners from the Twitterverse that came to help us get started. We joined together and named it the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:

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The garden has become a gathering place for families and neighbors.

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One of our goals with the garden is not only to let people have a plot to use for personal use, we wanted to bring back the pumpkin patch. So along with individual raised beds we have some area for row crops for Second Harvest and a place for pumpkins. Last summer we had a bounty crop of pumpkins and invited children from a local group home to come over and choose a pumpkin. The rule was that they had to pick a pumpkin that they would carry to the car. 

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Some of them pushed the rule about carrying the pumpkin to the limit. 

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Others tried to find the perfect pumpkin. It took this little girl 15 minutes wandering the patch to find just the right one.

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It was a wonderfully redemptive moment to see kids once again walking on this land with anticipation in their eyes and joy in their hearts about finding a pumpkin to call their own.

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I imagine that when these children now drive by the pumpkin patch they remember the fruit of the land, they remember the richness of the soil, they remember the rhythms of the seasons, and the joy of the harvest. To use Berry's words they have a new sense of affection, for a land that sustains them and a community that is committed to a place, which serves as a tangible sign that they are part of a community that is committed to them. 

Along with this I think they have a better sense of God's redeeming work in the world and we in the church who have been involved with the garden have a better sense of this work as well. We better understand that the kingdom of God is not some abstract notion, it's like a community garden -- putting down roots in a place, redeeming abandoned places, and renewing affectionate relationships.

Thanks to those at the Seattle School and the Parish Collective for putting on the Inhabit Conference. It helped remind me of the God who is at work in our neighborhood.