God In The Garden From Edible Idaho

BOISE - Religions frequently struggle to find a balance between the spiritual and material world. To some people Heaven and Earth often seem at odds. Today, though, many faith-based organizations are finding that balance...in the garden. In this installment of Edible Idaho, correspondent Guy Hand looks at Northwest churches that believe good soil can nurture the human soul. 

A Sunday service at an evangelical church, like the Treasure Valley's Vineyard Christian Fellowship, isn't the first place I'd go for a story on gardening. There are multiple video screens, a massive stage full of musicians and a sermon I assume will focus on Judgment Day more than top soil. But my assumptions falter as soon as I meet pastor Tri Robinson.

Tri Robinson: "There is a stereotype, that came out of primarily out of the 70's. And it basically said it's all going to burn anyway, so why should we care? As a result of that, evangelical Christians became sort of known to be anti-environmentalists."

Pastor Robinson, a former ecology major and a high school biology teacher, grew increasingly uncomfortable with that stereotype. So one day he pulled out his Bible.

Tri Robinson: "And I studied for about six months through the scriptures, being a good evangelical, and realized somehow we were totally missing God's council. So I preached a series of sermons why Christians should care for the environment and got standing ovations in my church. I had never had that in all the time I had been preaching, but it started something here.

What it started was a kind of evangelical environmentalism — and in 1998 a garden, what the congregation christened the "Garden O' Feedin'".

Tri Robinson: "It all sort of came together. Our organic garden was an expression of our attitude towards creation in many ways. We realized we could actually connect these two worlds, especially when it came to our responsibility to the poor."

To that end, all the produce harvested from the church's garden is given to the disadvantaged for free. Gardener and church member Sharmin Reynolds is working the dirt on a sunny Saturday.

Sharmin Reynolds: "The food is grown for, for one, the people in our own congregation that are in need of help, but it is grown for the people that come to the food bank. And out here under this arbor we set up what we call a farmers‘ market. None of the food is for sale, it's given to the people who come out from the food bank."

The Garden O' Feedin' started as six raised beds, but, as Reynolds says, “with God's help and a lot of compost” the garden has grown.

Sharmin Reynolds: "Last year we produced over 31,000 pounds of food on two-thirds of an acre, which is amazing."

Word of this little organic garden soon spread. The Christian Broadcast Network did a TV show on the garden. So did Bill Moyers. Environmental writer Bill McKibben even wrote a glowing article. As a result, more churches say they're seeing the spiritual value of good soil.

Craig Goodwin: "In fact one of the local reporters called us the food church."

That's pastor Craig Goodwin of the Millwood Presbyterian Church in Spokane. His congregation just broke ground on its own community garden. Goodwin thinks the blending of faith and food is natural.

Craig Goodwin: "If you look at the biblical story, food is just a thread that you can kind of pull throughout the whole thing whether it's the manna in the wilderness or Jesus gathering the disciples around the table or our central metaphor in our sanctuary is a communion table. It is a table with food on it for gathering around."

But Goodwin sees food as more than Biblical metaphor.

Craig Goodwin: "I've had to say to people that I'm not just using this as a carrot to kind of lead people along to somehow hopefully get involved with spiritual things, that I'm really concerned with real carrots in the world and that somehow God in my understanding and Jesus is redeeming all things and food is a big part of that."

Pastor Goodwin says that of the dozen or so community gardens in Spokane, more than half have faith-based groups involved. Nationally, new gardens — whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist — are popping up all over.

Back at the Vineyard Fellowship garden, workers are holding hands in a circle, praying. Sharmin Reynolds finds faith-based gardening a perfect blend of the spiritual and the practical.

Sharmin Reynolds: "With the economy the way that it is right now, people like myself all of a sudden have found themselves without a job, no way to support their family, no way to feed their family and they're terrified, they're embarrassed, they feel terrible. And honestly we've got some of our very best workers from that situation because we offer them the opportunity to come out and work in the garden. If you come out and work in the garden, you can feed your family."

Reynolds says there's no expectation that those new gardeners join the church.

Sharmin Reynolds: "You have people that come that probably won't go to church. It feels just a little too boxed in for them. But they'll come out here and they'll commune with people out here. And there's a lot of healing that goes on out here. There's a lot to be said for dirt. It's good for you."

Writer Wendell Berry says of dirt: “It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit.” Or as Sharmin Reynolds would say “Gardens feed the soul as well as the belly.”

Copyright 2010 Boise State Radio