A Garden in Mission for Others
As the snow falls on the streets of Ottawa, a forest sprouts to life in the basement of 86 year old Cyril Benson. A member of Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, an avid gardener and a volunteer at Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, Cyril excels at growing trees from seed. His basement serves as nursery to all sorts and varieties that emerge in buckets and containers and slowly grow to take their places in the yards and fields of his neighbours, friends, and place of worship. Members at Mt. Calvary are regularly taken aback at the appearance of a tree or shrub or perennial where they are certain none had stood before. As Mt. Calvary’s pastor, my initial double takes became a matter of course once I grew accustomed to our congregation’s phantom forester.
Over the years, Cyril and I have shared a plethora of conversations: about the role trees play in an urban environment, the need of the human soul for peaceful places in a society fueled by stress, about our church’s carbon footprint as we mowed and maintained our carefully manicured lawn. I’m not certain that either of us can pin point with accuracy just when and where the idea of “a garden in mission for others” took thought and form. I think we both agree that it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the transformation that has taken place; on our lawn for certain, but more importantly, in our life together as a family of faith.
The first step in what has become the Mt. Calvary Public Garden took the form of a confirmation project by one student. When Amanda Nitschke was asked to connect her study of the First Article of the Apostles Creed to her everyday life, she thought immediately of the conservation of her planet’s natural resources. She decided to dig up a small portion of the grass in our green space and replace it with an environmentally friendly flower garden. In consultation with Cyril, sod was removed and perennial plants native to Ontario were planted in a plot about twenty feet long lying parallel to our parking lot. “Amanda’s Garden” represented the smallest of steps toward reversal of the catastrophic abuses visited upon the earth. It was the tiniest drop in a bucket of massive dimensions; but it got us thinking.
• we gradually replaced our grass with ground cover that required minimal if any mowing?
• we added plants and shrubs that attracted wildlife native to our environmental home?
• we placed some benches in the mix to create a place for meditation and prayer?
“What if” became a plan and proposal when Mt. Calvary sought and received a grant from the City of Ottawa for the purpose of creating just the kind of environmental green space we envisioned. The concept evolved still further as our Outreach Committee wrestled with ways to reach out to our neighbours in welcome, invitation and service.
• we publically identified our church “lawn” as a place where neighbours and passersby were encouraged to linger?
• we intentionally invited our neighbours to make use of the space we had previously thought of as “ours?”
• we expanded our efforts to include a labyrinth and invited not only our neighbours, but those working in the numerous medical facilities near our church building to make use of it?
Gradually, our motivation for transforming our grass to garden grew beyond the realm of stewardship to that of mission. If the earth is, indeed, the Lord’s, so also is our building and grounds. As such, our call and purpose is to not only manage it, but to give it away. The realization grew gradually in prayer and preaching and conversation until, by the time we broke ground on a hot, humid day in July of 2010, the Garden in Mission for Others was on its way.
In many ways, our garden is itself an invitation. Like a big front porch on a city block, it is a place where friends are welcome and strangers are asked to stop and sit a spell. An elderly woman moving slowly down the sidewalk with her groceries is invited to pause and rest. A couple walking their dog slows to admire the flowers and learns that the garden was created for their use whenever they please. A chemical dependency counselor steps off the bus on her way home and lingers at the labyrinth to ease her transition from stressed-out servant to loving mom. I sit outside with my laptop, working on the Sunday liturgy, and find myself counseling someone in crisis or grief. As Cyril weeds, generally on his knees with a floppy hat to ward off the sun’s rays, he is joined weekly by a neighbour from Congo. Their hands in God’s soil, the absence of a common language is without consequence. The two work in a friendship forged by God’s goodness. In the garden, there is community. In the care of creation they are met with the Creator’s gift of peace.
As it grew slowly over the course of the past two years, the garden in mission for others has taken on a witness of its own. Even in the dead of winter, the shimmer of its solar lights upon the snow reminds us of whose we are why we exist:
• We are a church whose meaning and purpose lies in being, like our Lord, a servant of others.
• We are a community whose ministry rests not in knowing all the answers but in the willingness to ask a few questions and see what we learn.
• Our success is measured not so much by what we attain as by what we give away.
• Our mission is like trees grown from seed in the cold of winter; like perennial roots, dry in the frozen ground, awaiting their season in God’s good time.
Cyril tells me that of those seeds sown in his basement, a mere fifty percent survive to maturity. Some fail to sprout. Others fall prey to hungry animals, fragile conditions, pollution or inclement weather. For all his skill, persistence and loving care, his control is limited and the result of his labour beyond his will.
It doesn’t matter.
Season by season, he continues to plant.
So too, by grace, do we.