Growing Community


Many churches have embraced community gardens as a ministry of their congregation. How they approach the operation and purpose of their agricultural ministry varies widely. This month we visit a small sample of gardens around the Conference to see what’s been growing. 

North Hills UMC in Ferguson,
Community Gardens of Hope Hill 

North Hills UMC in Ferguson partnered with Gateway Greening (now Seed St. Louis) to develop their Gardens of Hope Hill in 2017 with eight beds on the ground and three raised accessible beds. They also designed and built a prayer labyrinth under a flowering peach tree in the garden area. 

They tried starting with individual plots available for $10 for the season but had difficulty maintaining the beds and having individuals remain responsible for keeping their plots cleared of weeds and growing all season.

“Interaction seemed limited, and we wanted to build more community around the garden,” Cieslak said.

The next year the church designed a planting plan to plant a wider variety of vegetables and herbs, including anything any individual wanted to grow. Everyone helps with weeding, planting, watering, harvesting and upkeep of the gardens. 

In 2020 the church got a grant for $6,000 from Whole Foods. With this grant, they put a water pump in the center of the garden rather than running a hose 150 feet to the church. They also added a stone walkway around the accessible beds and a walkway from the accessible beds to the prayer labyrinth. At this time, they began taking our surplus produce to the food pantry in Ferguson. 

In 2021 they added six specialty beds for strawberries, hot peppers and melons. In 2022 they received another $8,000 grant from Whole Foods and purchased a shelter kit to provide a place to sit and rest, work in the shade, and eat lunch in the garden. They also started an arbor with six apple trees and two sweet cherry trees.   

This year they received an additional $8,000 grant from Whole Foods that they are using to add electricity to their garden shed and to plant two peach trees and two sour cherry trees. They are also adding a bed for pumpkins and one for melons away from the other beds to manage pests. 

“The garden has become a place of hope and community sharing joys and concerns among the gardeners,” Cieslak said. “We hope to continue to grow and develop in the coming years. It is a blessing to the two food pantries we serve as well as those in the community who share in the blessing of gardening together. The prayer labyrinth is always a place of quiet and reflection with a bench for resting in God’s love and grace.” 

Christ Community UMC, Jennings 

When Christ Community UMC moved from the city of St. Louis to Jennings, one of its first outreach ministries was the Blessings and Glory Community Garden. May 21, 2023 marked the 20th anniversary of the garden, which evolved into much more than a source of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

The church’s garden founders, Sylvester Bassett, Brunetta Jones and Willie Jones, envisioned the garden as a celebration of God’s blessing of food to humankind. It would bring one another in a shared space, facilitate the formation of relationships, and educate the children in the church and community. With the personal financial backing of the Director of Finance William Fort and support from Gateway Greening, the founders’ dream came true. As the garden founders reached their 80s over the years and their health begin to fail, Brunetta Jones turned the care of the garden over to its current coordinator Shirley J. Davis, who enlisted the support of Brunetta and Willie’s grandson, Lawrence Perkins, who serves as the current garden assistant.

Each spring, community residents are invited to reserve a free plot. They select which fruits and vegetables they want to grow and are responsible for planting, caring for their plot and harvesting the produce. Sometimes they make small donations to help cover the cost of water, garden tools and supplies. In addition to what is planted in the plots by the community gardeners, the church’s garden crew plants fruits and vegetables. It is responsible for the overall maintenance and nurturing of the garden. 

Because community engagement was a desire of the founders, in addition to providing free plots, they strategically placed picnic tables and a gazebo in the garden to facilitate socializing and gathering. Gardeners and non-gardeners would stop by the garden hoping to find Willie Jones there. Mr. Jones, known for his no-nonsense, straightforward approach to life, was in the garden on most days and always willing to sit, talk and impart wisdom. 

Gardening is one of the sessions taught each year at the church’s Joshua Nation Youth Leadership and Life Skills Summer Day Camp. Campers get real-time gardening experience in the Blessings and Glory Community Garden. Recently the church established sick and shut-in ministry and delivered fresh produce from the garden to church members and friends of the church last year. As part of the Connection Saturday Ministry, when church members sit out on the front lawn to interact with neighbors, the garden crew distributes free vegetables and fruit. 

Initially, the founders grew turnip greens, okra, lettuce, tomatoes, snap beans, string beans, brush beans, green onions, eggplant, corn, cucumbers, squash, sweet potatoes, peanuts and a cotton patch, which earned its youth gardeners an award from Gateway Greening. As part of the garden’s effort to educate children, they could plant, see how cotton grew and learn how slaves used to pick cotton. The children learned the significant role cotton played in the slave trade.

They added a flower garden that included roses, daylilies, surprise lilies, peonies, purple tulips, ornamental grasses, a butterfly bush and sage. The variety of fruits and vegetables was broadened to include kale, spinach greens, mustard greens, cabbage and watermelon. The year 2018 marked the beginning of an orchard in the garden with the planting of fruit trees, including peach, pear, and cherry. Gardeners are working on establishing a memorial garden to honor the people who contributed plants and flowers to the garden from their yards. 

Central in Shell Knob

Central Community United Methodist Church in Shell Knob started a community project seven years ago on their church property. Volunteers from the community work to provide food for others and sustainable agriculture education. Currently, there are 17 people involved in the garden in some way. In the last two years, they have given the community approximately 1,700 pounds of produce. 

They have partnered with the University of Missouri Extension Council for the past two years. The Extension office provides speakers and resource material for the community to engage in their home gardens. The Barry County Extension Council members liked the church’s garden so much they are now developing a community garden in the Cassville area.

This year Central Community UMC added space for our Noah’s Ark Daycare, located in the church, for kids to have their garden. Table Rock Lake Community Foundation and other community organizations have helped sponsor the project so now the garden has a large shed, four rainwater catchment tanks, brick and creek rock pathways and drip irrigation. 

Raytown Chapel Church

The Garden of Eatin’ at Raytown Chapel Church focuses on a green space that faces the neighborhood surrounding the church. Mike and Julie Levake, the main gardeners, recruited their small group at the beginning of the season to prepare the area. The produce harvested goes to one of three places:

It becomes an ingredient for the meal served at The Table, a dinner church serving a meal to those experiencing food insecurity, homelessness and isolation. 

It is given out through the church’s Grace Place Food Pantry.

It is put in the church’s outdoor little food pantry where people can receive or contribute food as needed or in abundance. 

In June, the garden produced enough lettuce to serve a salad with the dinner church spaghetti entree.

“Some of our neighbors do not have access to fresh veggies due to finances and/or their houseless status, so this is a special treat for them,” said Rev. Abby Peper. “We are now getting more of our neighbors involved in caring for the garden, especially during this hot summer. It has been a joy to see this green space go from looking unkept to an abundant garden that produces nourishment for our ministries to utilize.”

Manchester UMC

Manchester UMC in St. Louis has a garden on their church property just across the street from the main building. There are 16 plots which church members maintain. Recently the church opted to dedicate four of those plots specifically to producing food for Circle of Concern, a local food pantry. All gardeners are also encouraged to donate their extra produce to Circle. Gardeners plant strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peppers, peanuts, celery, carrots, etc. 

Manchester also has a second garden, One For the Crow, in South St. Louis in the Gravois Park Neighborhood. Established in 2014, this property is in a low-income area and provides an opportunity to grow a community in the neighborhood and provide fresh produce. There is an orchard side that produces cherries, plums, peaches, apples, and pawpaws (and soon blueberries) and a garden side that this year has produced lettuce, collard greens, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, chickpeas, thyme, mint, lavender, sage, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, basil, chives, etc. “We’re looking at companion planting and different ways that we can engage in more permaculture practices and polyculture planting to work with nature instead of against it,” Director of Missions Liz Shuburte said. “We also work to use natural remedies towards pests and weeds and the intentional use of pollinator plants so that care for creation as a larger system is also considered.”

The church tries to stay tuned into the community regarding what is grown. Some people in the community are unhoused, so ready-to-eat that don’t require cooking are considered. “When we grow peppers, we grow bell peppers, but we also grow sweet lunchbox peppers ready to be snacked on,” Shuburte said. “Greens are more in demand than kale. Growing community within the neighborhood is also important to what we do.”

Several Hispanic families in the neighborhood use hot peppers from the garden in their family dishes.

“One neighbor knew this and visited the garden to collect the produce. She then takes these peppers to her neighbors, and they share a meal, learning about each other and participating in this sacred act of breaking bread together,” Shuburte said. 

Getting Started with Community Gardens

Hale UMC

Some community gardens are just getting started. A couple of members of Hale UMC were inspired to start a community garden this year, and set about it with the following goals: 

Put food on peoples’ tables. 

Provide people in the community with an opportunity to be part of something. 

Share Christ with people in the community through relationships formed in the garden. 

This year the garden is growing corn, green beans, okra, beets, lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, chilis, banana peppers, melons and a variety of flowers.

The church is considering offering some kind of community dinner featuring produce from the garden. 

St. Mark’s UMC in Independence 
& Broadway UMC in Plattsburg

You don’t have to have your own community garden to help with them. Youth groups from St. Mark’s UMC in Independence and Broadway UMC in Plattsburg teamed up this summer to pitch in at the garden beds at the Northwest Community Development Corporation. 

Rev. Sarah Wimberly, pastor at St. Mark’s, serves on the Northwest CDC board and was able to the connect the nonprofit organization with the church youth groups. The garden beds were overgrown, but in a few days the youth were able to get them cleaned out to be back in useable condition. 

St. Mark’s hosted the nine youth, who also volunteered at the Northwest CDC clothes closet during the week.