27 September 2010

Backyard Gospel

Driving on Highways 33 or 26, you pass through unassuming towns like Mayville, Horicon, Juneau, and Columbus, Wisconsin. In each town, you will find at least one church on or near the main road. Most likely, you will see several. There are Catholic churches built of stone and softened by delicate stained glass. There are wood-frame protestant churches with spires that house a single, authoritative bell.

At the same time, in the same towns, you can see that house after house has a garden – nestled somewhere between the backdoor and garage, sitting like a private chapel. Some households erect altars to the heirloom tomato while others build shrines to butternut squash. But each and every one of them conveys a sense of homegrown grace.

Comparing the rituals of church and yard work may seem a stretch. But it makes sense. Gardening is equal parts labor, service, and faith. Sounds a lot like church to me.

Earlier this month, Pat Schneider of Madison’s CapTimes wrote a piece about the garden harvest making its way to Madison-area food banks. Though the article ostensibly tracks the expansion of community and food-pantry gardening in the area, it seems fairly clear that a well-balanced meal isn’t the only benefit.

For example, Schneider begins the article with the story of Linda Joranger , “a laid-off state worker who turned to the [Middleton Outreach Ministry] food pantry — and the pantry garden to feed her sense of purpose — while looking for work this summer.”

She also describes an effort on Madison’s troubled southwest side to place fresh food on kitchens tables and street corners. Here, on Russett Road, “[community-maintained] gardens are meant to build community and change the feel of a street that has been prone to outbursts of violence.” In this place, where crime and poverty are hard to ignore, people are gardening in order to feed themselves and create a space where “beauty is an important goal.”

Apparently, it’s working. Ray McKnight, a volunteer from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, told Schneider that “the evident care lavished on the gardens has helped ‘mellow out’ the neighborhood.”

From Schneider’s telling, it seems like gardening is just plain good for us. It’s honest. It’s constructive. It offers benefits for oneself and for others. Isn’t that also the theory behind cultivating a spiritual life?

Maybe gardening is a way to find space and time for prayer between Sunday services. Maybe, for the secular crowd, it’s a contemplative alternative to gathering around the pulpit.

Am I romanticizing the church of horticulture? Perhaps. But I am inclined to think that gardening is a faith with few pitfalls. After all, no one has been knocked on their heels by the gross mistreatment of brussels sprouts. No community has been divided over the question of whether two head of cabbage can lay together in a garden plot. And no one has used ugly language to protest the location of a strawberry patch.

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