“I can taste the freshness.”
These five words were uttered by one of our homeless neighbors at Open Table, a Church of the Pilgrims lunch for hungry folks held each Sunday after our worship.
What prompted these words?
A plate of eggplant parmesan.
What made it so fresh? The eggplant was grown 20 feet from where Open Table is served and shared.
For the past three summers, Church of the Pilgrims has grown food in its backyard to supplement the produce needed to create healthy and hospitable meals for our homeless neighbors.
Our garden started from the initiative of several of our members and a $500 grant from the National Capital Presbytery. Using the gardening principles of simplicity and scale, we started off small with one raised bed. In three years we have expanded into four raised beds, an herb garden, a squash and bean garden, two standard compost bins, two vermiculture bins, and three beehives. We have transformed into what was our backyard into a subversive, revolutionary plot.
Hospitality and justice are at the core of Pilgrims’ expression of faith and what it means to be the body of Christ. In the 1960s Pilgrims marched on Washington. Today we participate in vigils at the Sudanese embassy to protest genocide and mass starvation. We are members of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), our local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which, as a broad-based community organizing network, advocates for affordable housing and safe, urban neighborhoods. Above our sanctuary hangs a rainbow flag with the words “All Are Welcome.” We welcome thousands of young people a year to stay at our Pilgrimage program which creates experiential learning experiences fusing Christian faith with the injustices of urban poverty.
So where does a little garden and urban farming fit in?
Today 900 million earthly, human creatures on the planet are hungry. World food prices are rising. The planetary population is increasing. In 2007 we moved from a primarily rural planet to an urban one, according to the United Nations. To keep up with the population growth, more food will have to be produced over the next 50 years than in the past 10,000 year combined. We will need to grow more food with less oil, less water, fewer farmlands, less genetic diversity and less climate stability.
We need new wineskins to feed the planet, particularly a hungry, starving planet. Jesus said no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into new wineskins (Luke 5:36-39)
Pilgrims’ urban garden is a new wineskin. It is a new way of practicing hospitality, of connecting ourselves to our local ecosystem and is part of a web of endeavors, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, INfants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that are low-barrier means for hungry people to receive food. And, since food is linked to systems of domination, we have the potential to radically alter the balance of power starting in our own backyard. Food is an experience of power.
Our garden is an act of creation and it is one powerful, subversive plot. As we amend the soil and water the land, sometimes alongside our Open Table brothers and sisters, we proclaim that those our society would rather do without, those our culture thinks deserve to be hungry, are receiving a meal that is full of prophetic, earth-honoring freshness.
Rev. Ashley Goff is ordained in the United Church of Christ and Minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C.