According to Rev. Anna Woofenden, everyone has something to offer to feed other people. In a gated lot between two buildings in San Pedro, California, people are “fed in body, mind and spirit” at an urban garden sanctuary.
Woofenden, a Swedenborg Scholar, visited Urbana University’s campus to talk about “Food and Faith: Conversations from the Soil and Around the Table” and “Urban Gardening and Community Engagement.” Every year, UU hosts a scholar who has done research related to Swedenborgianism, the religion upon which UU was founded. Woofenden is the founder of The Garden Church and Feed and Be Fed Farm in Los Angeles, California. She co-hosts the Food and Faith Podcast (foodandfaithpodcast.org).
The Garden Church’s website states, “The Garden Church is re-imagining church as an interconnected organism, worshiping, loving and serving together as we transform a plot of land into a vibrant urban garden.”
The Church Garden is a 500-by-1,500-foot space that started as an empty lot in San Pedro. Now it serves as an active worshipping sanctuary for its community, as well as a vegetable, fruit, herb and flower garden. At the garden, people of the church and community grow more than 30 types of vegetables, about 15 types of flowers, about 10 types of herbs, and a few types of fruit.
Rev. Dr. Amanda Adams Riley, on The Garden Church’s Pastoral Team, said that in an average week, “we have 200 people through our gates. Some are just curious; some are regular church or volunteer people.”
Woofenden described the people of the garden as “not just hungry to receive, but hungry to give.”
Why start an urban garden sanctuary?
Woofenden said that people are “disconnected from food, the earth, each other and God.” The Garden Church interconnects all of those aspects. For about eight months, Woofenden, along with others, conducted a needs assessment for the community of San Pedro, which she said was “very informative for what we began to develop.” She began this study when she moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to “start a church that connected people with food, the earth, each other and God.”
Woofenden said that the area of San Pedro “had a reputation of being a rough part of town,” and so, she said, “that’s exactly where we need to put it.” She and her group even mapped out a 20-by-10 block radius of the community to determine where to put the garden.
She said that the garden provides a place to belong and gives a sense of ownership to un-housed people of the community. “For some, being able to garden was a gift to them,” she said, adding that it helped them to trust other people and to build relationships. “The biggest divide (in the community) is housed and un-housed.”
All of the food grown in The Church Garden goes back into the community in some way, whether used in the weekly Sunday community meal, sold at the farm stand for “pay what you can, take what you need,” or sold at a nearby restaurant to offset costs of the garden.
“I’ve always had a deep interest in how food brings us together and how it can divide us,” said Woofenden. “Food and church have always gone together. That’s nothing new.” But she said she hoped that The Church Garden would help “break down barriers between class … and bring people together across those divides.”
There is little crime at The Church Garden, and Woofenden said that it may be because it belongs to the community.
“Within our gates all people are seen with human dignity,” said Woofenden. “We are created to be of service together.”
Woofenden said that there are a lot of children involved with the garden. She took an informal poll, asking children if they ever had planted a seed. She said that about four in five children never had.
“When children grew their own food, they were willing to eat it,” said Woofenden.
The Church Garden is of the Swedenborg Church of North America. But Woofenden said that you don’t have to be a Swedenborgian to attend or help at The Church Garden.
For more information visit gardenchurchsp.org.