Church garden has ‘multiplier effect’

By Derek Maul | Dec. 7, 2009 {1108}

GAINESVILLE — Ten years ago Trinity United Methodist Church moved to an expansive 66-acre site that includes playing fields, woods and wetlands. Two years ago, the church added an organic vegetable garden that’s enabling members to embrace a new kind of outreach to the community.

Britain Ashley works in the church’s community garden. Photo courtesy of Trinity United Methodist Church. Photo #09-1345.
The garden project was designed to teach grade-school children at the 3,000-member congregation about the vital connection between human beings and the physical world. It was conceived by member Nigel Smith, a geography professor at University of Florida; Andrew Pridgen, the church’s director of mission and outreach; and Josh Fuller, Trinity’s facilities and event coordinator.

“I had been involved in children’s programs, making connections with food and where it comes from,” Smith said. As he saw how much the kids liked being outdoors — having Sunday school outside — he thought, “maybe a garden?” “There are a lot of biblical connections with the soil,” he says.

Smith, who has worshipped at Trinity since 1983, said he was initially attracted to the church because the faith community was receptive and open to new ideas and initiatives.

“My other agenda,” he said, “was environmental consciousness — safeguarding nature and sustaining our livelihoods and our culture through looking after this bounty.”

Practical applications

Pridgen says, for him, the garden serves a dual purpose — as a teaching tool and missional. “Churches can use what they’ve been given to help others,” he said. “We have plenty of land here, so why not?”

As if to prove Pridgen’s point the executive director at Gainesville Harvest thanked the church profusely in a letter recently for the produce the garden provided the nonprofit.

Mark Rogers, Andrew Pridgen and Nigel Smith (left to right) enjoy time in the garden. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1346.

“Iglesia Bautista Church was a recipient of the peppers, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers and herbs. ... Mt. Pleasant UMC volunteers were grateful for the squash and peppers,” the director wrote. “We were inspired to try raised bed gardens at several of our sites. … are truly dedicated to the mission of eliminating hunger in Alachua County and the surrounding area.”

And more members are embracing that mission. After Smith initially got the ball rolling, Mark and Kristin Rogers joined in. The couple has poured countless hours into the project since reading a simple bulletin announcement asking for help.

“My wife was interested, and we went from there,” Rogers said. “I’m an ‘on-the-ground’ guy, a production guy. For me there were plots here — so let’s make the best use we can. Let’s do it.”

Rogers said the garden is a learning process for everyone involved. “I learned there’s not much you can do with 150 cucumbers,” he said. “But then it’s kind of neat when a Bible study group starts a soup kitchen, and we can show up with fresh squash, cucumbers and beans. That’s what drives me — it’s what we can do.”

Pridgen, too, enjoys the practical application. “I’ve always been hands on, [a] visual learner,” he said. “Being out there, being the hands and feet of Christ, seeing time and effort produce something concrete — it’s what I’m geared towards.”

Mark Rogers (kneeling) and Nigel Smith inspect plants. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1347.

“Connecting the congregation to mission is about being the face of Jesus every day,” he added. “We’re using our talents to spread God’s love.”

For student ministries staff member Josh Pusey, the garden is a place where his own children have begun making the connection to life beyond the boundaries of the church property.

“They love it out there,” Pusey said. “My younger son, Andrew, is very interested. He said ‘Daddy I want to plant a little garden just like we have at church.’ ”

Pusey said Trinity’s approach to mission and outreach, in his experience, has been unique.

“I came here from a church where it was pews on Sunday, and that was it — no social consciousness,” he said. “One of the things that drew us here is the relationship to the community and the outreach. It’s not like anything I’ve ever experienced at another church.”

The big picture

Smith’s academic perspective as a geography professor gives him a “big picture” view of creation and the relationship of human beings to the physical world.

“This is God’s creation written large,” he said. “Noah’s Ark wasn’t just people. He took two of every living kind. People wage war against the environment, and I say, ‘Look, that’s not God’s plan.’ ”

That big picture is important to Pridgen, too, who says there are many aspects of teaching involved — “getting kids back in nature, taking care of the environment.”

“Fruits and vegetables certainly taste better when they’re fresh,” he said, “but they’re also not being transported, and that involves gas and emissions.”

Bottom line

The bottom line, according to the church’s garden gurus, is that everyone involved in the project is enriched by the experience.

In addition to eggplant, the garden produces herbs, peppers, tomatoes and a variety of other produce that’s given to various community groups and ministries. Photo by Derek Maul. Photo #09-1348.

“Watching kids crushing basil and rosemary and thrilled with the smell … sowing the seed of ‘you can grow this at home,’ ” Smith said. “I remember a grounds-man knocking off work. He saw the bountiful crop of tomatoes. He got his hat out and put some in [his hat], and he was going to have a decent dinner.” It’s the multiplier effect, Smith says.

Smith also says the garden is “anarchistic,” with no one really in charge, and the garden owned by everybody. It’s “take what you like and give what you can,” he says.

If churches have the space, Pridgens says a garden is a great teaching and missional tool. “Use the resources you have to be a vessel for God’s mission,” he said. “It’s only a little garden, but it’s just beginning.”

And any church can have a garden, Smith adds. “No mater what sized church you’re in, take out some of the landscaping and put in vegetables,” he said. “And then involve children’s ministries. If you can get the little ones involved it’s wide open after that.”

“Plant the seed,” Pridgen said. “Plant the seed.”

Related story

Community gardens: An Eden-oriented shift in church culture

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Maul is an author and freelance writer based in Valrico, Fla.

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