A conversation with researcher and author, Karla Winham.
“With limited resources, places of worship can help the communities around them develop and heal. They can nourish people and accompany people. They can be models of what it means to walk gently on the earth.” Tom Urbaniak, Director, Tompkins Institute – Cape Breton University and Chair of the Board, Faith & the Common Good.
Thus begins the preface to researcher, Karla Winham’s study of 10 faith communities that have created gardens at their places of worship and the benefits such gardens entail. You can read her full essay, Gardens Built by Love: Faith-Based Community Gardens on our Resources page. Download the report here.
Communications Manager, Beatrice Ekoko sat down with Karla for a conversation about her research. We’ve condensed the conversation below.
B: Faith, love and gardens? I love it! Tell me more.
K: All the different faith traditions are based around love and showing love. As well, gardens are peaceful places. For faith communities, there are connections to healthy food, exercise, people; gardens give us an opportunity to know our neighbours.
B: Why the interest in faith-based community gardens?
K: We started a community garden at my church (John Clavin Christian Reformed Church, in Truro, Nova Scotia). Being involved in that very community-based initiative got me thinking. Gardens get at so many pressing issues; environmental stewardship, are we using our land well–growing food instead of a parking lot, are we being visible in the community? As well, I’m a gardener. I just love the fact that I stick something in the ground, and it grows. It’s just miraculous!
B: What really stood out for you in the study?
K: Opportunities! From the variety of sizes and types of gardens planted, everyone talked about opportunities that their gardens offer to build relationships and bridges with the community.
B: So, gardens are like ‘a way in’?
K: Yes. Many faith communities are trying to find ways to reach the broader community. Some have a lot of land, extra space, so planting a garden makes sense. Most people I spoke to were growing veggies to provide food security in their neighbourhoods. Plus, there’s something about working alongside and supporting one another. People told me that even if it was only people walking by, conversations were sparked.
B: Gardens can build trust.
K: Yes. Christian churches have been trying to attract people into church. Instead, the church has to come outside its own walls. Having a garden builds trust outside, on common ground. From there, we can work on other community initiatives together, or maybe they might venture into the church kitchen next!
B: Planting is one thing, maintenance is another..
K: Finding volunteers to keep things going tended to be easier in the large faith communities. In the smaller ones, it worked best if individuals cared for their own assigned garden plots.
It also helped to have access to gardening expertise. Some already had this within their faith communities, but others relied on local garden clubs or universities for help.
B: What should faith groups think about ahead of planting a garden?
K: Leadership is important, it has to be intentional. Often, it’s one person with a passion that gets it going but what if they burn out, or there is a crisis or they don’t want to do it anymore? So, setting up a plan for the leadership structure is so important from the get go.
It’s best if the broader community is involved in that plan, so that the community has ownership.
B: Do you have any tips on how to get broader engagement?
K: In our case, we held a community dinner and several other events. From there, we created a committee of people with the community from the start, we didn’t just plunk the garden down and call on the community after the fact.
B: What about gardening as a form of reconciliation, was this a consideration?
K: There’s great potential for this, however, that wasn’t specifically addressed in this study. Certainly, there is the opportunity to build cross-culture relationships, engage refugees and newcomer families in growing new veggies, and eating meals together.
B: Finally, what are your hopes for this work?
K: Initially, I intended it for faith groups who are considering reaching out to their community to consider planting a garden as an option. Doing something like this benefits the community and the faith group. But I think it’s also valuable for anyone interested in community development. Our culture trains us to look for needs and address that: “this is a problem that we have to fix”. I am talking about switching that mindset and instead, looking for assets, and doing community development together–asset-based community development, using our collective strength. So, it’s not charity, it’s about how faith groups can be part of transformational community engagement instead of transactional. Ultimately, what we are talking about is building social capital, through the opportunities and relationships that community gardens offer.