Annie Napier was weeding the community garden at her west Oklahoma City church when a group of people playing soccer nearby rushed over in somewhat of a panic.
“No! No! No!,” they said, gesturing at the “weeds” she had pulled from one of the raised beds at Portland Avenue Baptist Church, 1301 N Portland Ave.
Napier, 32, said she found out that what she considered a weed was amaranth, a leaf vegetable (and grain) particularly popular in warm regions of the world such as Guatemala, where the athletes were from.
The nurse, part of a core group of people who tend the garden, said the experience with the Hispanic soccer players was uplifting because it opened up conversation with some of the church’s neighbors.
“It’s just one example of how we’re trying to close that gap in our community,” Napier said. “It was cool.”
Portland Avenue Baptist is one of many churches where a community garden is supplying an opportunity for outdoor activity as well as a way to build relationships between churches and the communities they serve.
Mason Weaver, urban harvest director at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said faith-based community gardens are viewed as the “backbone” of community gardening in the state.
He said the gardens grown by churches and faith-based organizations mesh well with the food bank’s mission when they commit to donating a percentage of their produce to help alleviate hunger in their communities.
“We really view that as the way forward,” Weaver said.
Susan Howard, a lay leader at Wesley United Methodist Church, said members are trying to spread the word about the church’s new community garden.
“Some of our evangelism members have been walking the neighborhood to tell them about it,” she said.
And at Del City Church of Christ, garden coordinator Melvin Thompson said fresh fruits and vegetables from the church’s garden have been bringing the congregation together with its neighbors for four years.
“We sit here, and people see the sign and pull in,” Thompson said of vegetable stand on the church’s front lawn. “There are no strings attached. Well, maybe just some vegetable stems.”
Former parking lot
Tomatoes, basil, okra, squash, bell peppers, onions and radishes are sprouting at Wesley United Methodist, 1401 NW 25, courtesy of church member Guy Ramsey and other gardeners.
Ramsey, 54, said he recently built several raised beds on the church’s north side, in a former parking lot area. He said he created the garden after a church member said she wanted a little “dirt therapy” and noticed areas around the church that would be good for gardening.
Lay leader Howard, 58, said the church hopes to expand the garden to at least 10 raised beds. She and her husband, Rex, the garden coordinator, are avid gardeners, she said.
“I just thought it was an excellent idea, because it’s a way to build relationships with our neighbors in the community,” Howard said.
Gardening with a plan
Thompson, a master gardener at Del City Church of Christ, said he didn’t know “doodle squat” about his pet project when he came up with the idea. The self-professed workaholic said he only knew that he needed to do something after he retired from running the business he founded.
He said Bruce Edwards, an urban harvest leader formerly with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, helped him design the garden destined for an area on the church’s east side. Thompson said the garden was started in 2010 with several raised beds on an acre and a half, but it has grown to include 60 raised beds and a greenhouse.
On a recent “picking day,” church members of all ages plucked onions, radishes and turnips and placed the vegetables in buckets under a tent set up in front of the church, 1901 Vickie Drive. Nearby residents like Rhonda Gazaway often stop to see and take home the church’s latest bounty.
“It’s a good way to connect with our community. People see our stand and they come for free vegetables, and it shows that we care,” said the Rev. Jerred England, youth minister.
Thompson said the garden produces year-round and features cantaloupes, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrots, asparagus, snap peas and grapes. In an area donated to the cause by the adjacent Del City High School, the church gardeners have planted potatoes and watermelons.
Thompson said his experience as a businessman helped him formulate a 10-year plan for the garden. He said the church recently opened a park area adjacent to the community garden. The park is overflowing with an abundance of flowers (one flower bed is shaped like the state of Oklahoma), trees and several picnic tables.
Shawn Fowler, pulpit minister, said he is grateful for Thompson’s passion for the garden project, which he said is way to “reach people for Jesus.”
“I kind of see it as a way we can all follow in the footsteps of Christ and meet the physical needs,” Fowler said.
A dozen raised beds painted in bright colors are being cultivated at Portland Avenue Baptist.
Each features a Scripture with a gardening tie-in, such as Psalm 34:8, which says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Tony Mullican, 33, student and community minister at Portland Avenue Baptist, said the church started the garden five years ago to give middle school students in vacation Bible school something creative to do. The students built the first four raised beds, and younger children planted the first seeds. Mullican said several Eagle Scouts later built more raised beds.
Each bed is being cultivated by a different family in the church this year, he said.
Mullican said the garden’s proximity to a soccer field means there are always people in the area.
“Some of them will come over and look at the garden and pick items, and (we) want them to do that,” he said. “Then we pick some of it and give it out on Wednesdays, particularly to our seniors.”
Mullican said the garden now offers lettuce, onions, okra, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, peppers and squash.
He said the fresh produce combined with opportunities to interact with the church’s neighbors are part of the bounty of blessings from the garden.
“Most of all, we get to share and connect with our community,” he said.
Mason Weaver, urban harvest director at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said many churches may be eligible to receive free garden seeds from the food bank if they are donating some of the produce from their community gardens.
For more information, call Weaver at 600-3142 or email email@example.com.