Growing in relevance
Our Saviour Community Garden began as an effort to show that a parish with dwindling membership still had relevance in an older Dallas neighborhood. Eight years later, the church garden has yielded nearly 20 tons of organic produce for the needy, serving as a destination for gardeners and a model for other churches.
November 22, 2011 | Members of the tiny Episcopal Church of Our Saviour asked themselves this question eight years ago: If the church closed, would it be missed?
The answer, congregants sadly agreed, was no. They cast about for ideas to help the church connect with the surrounding neighorhood, eventually deciding to start a community garden as an outreach ministry. It was truly a leap of faith in 2003, well before the “eat local” craze and before Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn.
Church members chose the project for one simple reason: “We had no money,” said garden coordinator Becky Smith.
The only thing they had was land; the one-story brick church sits on four acres in Pleasant Grove, an older, lower-income neighborhood eight miles from the glittering skyline of downtown Dallas. And they had Smith, a lifelong gardener whose mother descended from sharecroppers in rural Arkansas.
Our Saviour members recall how amazed they were when crops from six 10-by-24-foot plots yielded more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables the first year. They donated the crops to a nearby food pantry, reversing the sense of irrelevance they’d had just a year earlier.
“They were just very down in the dumps,” said Suffragan Bishop Paul E. Lambert of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. “The next thing I know, they’ve got this garden out here.”
“It’s on a giant piece of property that if it’d been in another part of the city would’ve been sold and it’d be a Wal-Mart,” Lambert said, referring to the development boom going on in other parts of Dallas.
By the time Our Saviour’s garden reached the five-year mark, it had produced 11 tons for charity alone. With a partner agency, church gardeners quickly leveraged grant funding that helped them get tools, seeds, trees and other key equipment for expanding and sustaining the project.
Donations snowballed. They got a rainwater cistern and a roofed pavilion. Area Wal-Marts awarded a matching grant for a plant sale. JPMorgan Chase Bank donated picnic tables and money for fencing. Starbucks sponsored a plot.
As Thanksgiving approaches and the harvest season winds down, church members say that the total yield since the garden started is approaching 20 tons. (It likely would have passed that mark but for the severe drought this summer.) Regardless of the precise number, church members say they are amazed they’ve been able to grow so much just outside the church doors.
Sophia Brown, a longtime church member, said, “It’s awesome to see what God can do with a little bit of something.”
A testament to what can be done
On a recent cool autumn day, gardeners were eager to see what had survived the summer’s triple-digit heat and scorching drought. Mustard greens, peppers, long beans, okra and eggplant proved among the hardiest.
Pinkie White, a retiree, has a small plot that she has been tending for about three years. That makes her something of a veteran gardener.
“A lot of the people that were here at first, they got jobs and went on,” said White, who visits the garden about three times a week to water her greens, beets and Swiss chard.
It’s a fact of life -- particularly in the current economy -- that gardening takes a back seat to working, or looking for work. But new people continue to arrive to replace those who’ve left.
The garden has a Facebook fan page, but most people seem to find their way to Our Saviour’s garden by word-of-mouth. On a recent morning, one new volunteer said his mother suggested he visit after she read about it.
Another first-timer, Charles Shipp, said a friend referred him to Our Saviour because he knew Shipp had previously worked at a community garden in California.
On Tuesdays, the newcomers are invited to join regulars at a breakfast prepared by church members. The fellowship typically continues as they head out to the field to harvest.
Susan Balsam, who has been volunteering for about six months, read about Our Saviour’s garden in a supermarket flier and now drives across town from North Dallas to pull weeds, plant seeds and dig in the dirt.
“At first, I was kind of scared to drive out there,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of that part of town.”
Even some longtime Pleasant Grove residents say they were surprised to see a garden spring up in their neighborhood.
“I was just like, ‘What is this out here in the Grove?’” said Patricia Guynn, who lives about a mile away. The first time she noticed the garden while driving by, she pulled over to check it out. She now comes back to visit.
Recently, she brought her son Benjamin, who said the garden is a visible sign that Pleasant Grove is home to many good families.