Tending the garden turns into mission

…This is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches. – Matthew 13:32

In the small Southern town of Macon, Georgia, God’s abundance has shown up in a big way. An empty lot behind an abandoned liquor store has become a place bounty.

Mulberry Street United Methodist Church, a large historic church in downtown, has created a place of communion, beauty and sanctuary. Jack Head, a retired from the insurance industry, has led a small and enthusiastic band of volunteers to create a community garden that has led to more than just a garden but a way to serve the under-served in their community.

The idea started with a simple community garden where neighbors and church members could rent out plots, but as is usual when a few are moved by the Holy Spirit, the garden grew from a few plots to an experiment in community gardening. The gardeners found that there weren’t many takers on the plots available so the gardeners planted the empty plots. Boy, did they plant. Once the plots got used, the gardeners, led by Jack, started planting blueberries, blackberries, apple trees and peach trees around the perimeter. They started experimenting with grafting. Once they filled in the fenced portion of the garden, they started planting flowers to help with pollination including sunflowers that grow over 6 feet tall.

And then it got better

The lot is less than a third of an acre. Most people don’t realize that a very small space can create an over-abundance of vegetables and fruits. The gardeners had extra plots they were tending. What to do with all the surplus? Enter in the mission that the church has been operating for years. The surplus produce now goes into the meals at the mission!

One of the things we always talk about at Southeast Green is the unintended benefits of sustainability. So, small community garden services neighbors and pollinators at first. Then the garden started feeding the homeless through the mission. Over half of the garden produce goes to help prepare 55,000 meals a year.

As the work grew in the garden, some of the men receiving meals got hired to help do the heavy lifting. So the garden created jobs.

Next step? Education. The garden now serves as a place of learning for young and old alike. Jack leads groups through the garden showing all the techniques they are using recycled old tires, pallets and even awning frames to assist growing plants. Girl Scouts and children from the church have walked the garden with Jack. There have even been children who have taken produce into the kitchen to learn how to can the food for enjoyment later. Jack’s eyes light with joy when he talks about the kids learning all these ways to grow and preserve.

You can recycle more than just plastic water bottles

So what happened to that abandoned liquor store on the front half of the lot? Well, the church decided to buy the whole property and transform the liquor store into a location for Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotic Anonymous groups. This allows the church to serve yet another community with privacy and dignity. Attendees also get to see the bounty of the garden as they pull up for meetings. There is something about a growing garden that brings hope and renewal to people, yet another unintended benefit of the garden.

Harvesting the spirit can come in many ways. It takes a lot of hard work to keep a garden up, but if the spirit leads then toil becomes passion and no longer feels like work. Tending the garden could arguably be the first call of the spirit in Genesis. How fortunate for Mulberry Street UMC to have loyal passionate garden tenders!

The last glimpse of the garden shows fluttering prayer flags dangling over the garden. How a small, weedy place could bring such joy, hope and opportunity to a community was unexpected and story of meeting God’s call where you are planted.

If you are ever in Macon and have some time, call the church and see if you can arrange a tour with Jack. It will be worth the effort and might give you some ideas for your own church or home garden.