The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd is a 60+ year old congregation in North Wilmington. We have grounds that span over four acres. We began a process about four years ago to look at ourselves and our mission in our community, and one of our most visible assets we had was our property. We looked for ways to use this asset to further our call to be Christ’s hands in the world. One of our long-standing mission partners, Lutheran Community Services, had recently experienced the reduction of the fresh fruits and vegetables that supplied their food pantries. Partners were asked to plant a strip of vegetables and deliver the harvest to the food pantries’ clients. Thus, began the idea that maybe this was to be our expanded calling. We had open space that baked in the sun for most of the day, a desire to feed those in need, and a team willing the champion a new ministry. The Shepherd’s Garden was born.
A generous grant from the Delaware Department of Agriculture and the New Castle County Conservancy funded the first three beds in the garden. We had a Girl Scout who wanted to earn her Gold Award with a sustainable project that would help others. That spirit along with volunteer expertise from within the congregation allowed us to design the first part of the garden, the beginning of an irrigation system and an extremely successful first year. Motivated by the success, we added four more beds the next year and a timer-based drip irrigation system. Our clients at the food pantry loved the fresh vegetables we provided, almost as much as we loved growing them. The ministry was becoming well established in our congregation and ‘what’s next?’ became the logical question.
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A visit to another church in Pennsylvania showed us how we could invite the wider community into this endeavor. We had reached the capacity of what we as a church could maintain, but we had more land and abundant sunshine, so we began the dream of a community garden. With the help of two Boy Scouts planning their Eagle Scout projects, we added 15 community beds, including three that are at waist height for accessibility. A 3-bin composting station with a rain barrel and a donation cart completed the expansion. Advertising for the beds began before building was done, and we were amazed and delighted to be fully subscribed in two weeks! The community that developed around this garden was life giving. We asked that the gardeners donate 10% of their harvest to the food pantry, but we found that they gave much more than that. The spirit of helping others was contagious and we were able to donate over one ton of food to the pantry.
We decided that we had the space for one more expansion of the community garden. Another Boy Scout planned to build the 15 beds, we advertised and filled up again (even generating a waiting list). And then … March 2020 happened. The shutdown due to the pandemic caused us pause in our plans, but the resourcefulness of our Scout provided us with a reworked project. The garden was expanded in a safe, socially distanced way and we were able to plant on schedule in May of 2020. This space provided not only food for the many more people experiencing food insecurity due to the pandemic, but also a much needed escape for those experiencing social distancing restrictions. Gardeners were able to come out and work, share stories (while masked) and give back to their community. It was a blessing to watch. We were able to provide over 3000 lbs of food for our clients. Delivery days became quite an event at the pantry as people were delighted with the variety of fresh produce offered.
Though we were done expanding our garden area, we were not done with our improved stewardship of our grounds. We still had quite a bit of open grass area that required mowing. We looked at it, and our need for pollinators for our garden and decided to begin the installation of a meadow area. A retired landscape gardener helped us design the area, and two grants from the DeMd Synod of the ELCA and the RCD (The First State Resource Conservation and Development Council) funded the purchase of native plants. The Covid pandemic changed some of our initial plans but we are happy to say the meadow was in bloom and attracting butterflies by the end of the summer. We are looking forward to watching the Shepherd’s Meadow develop and expand over the next few years.
We have learned so much over the last four years of gardening. We have discovered that there are many places to look for grants to fund new projects. Small grants can go a long way when combined with volunteers and community partners. We have learned to ‘talk up’ the project because you never know who might have the skill-set to contribute to this type of mission. We learned to start small and plan for success. Starting with three beds the first year allowed us to learn and flourish without being overwhelmed. Then, the idea of expanding was not so daunting. We learned that an irrigation system run by timers makes all the difference in the world. And finally, we learned people want to help others. Providing the mechanism for that to happen has been the key. We are looking forward to adding a shed to make things easier and more accessible for everyone, a bird bath for our feather friends and a seed library as we learn more about best plants for our area.
The ministry to change the way we think of and use our grounds has opened our eyes to new possibilities and partnerships within the community. What began as a new way to serve those experiencing food insecurity became that and so much more. We are always looking for ways to make are natural area pleasing to look at and a place for our wildlife to thrive. Our garden coordinators look for funding streams to stretch financial resources as far as possible. We have been on a panel sponsored by the Delaware Urban Food and Farm Coalition to promote faith-based gardening. But most importantly, in a year where we have been challenged to think about what it means to be church in in the world, we have delighted in our community that comes together to be church outside of our doors.