Back in the day, when I served for a score of years as what we used to call an “urban minister,” I and my neighborhood pastoral partners sometimes used to muse: what makes an urban church urban? Best answer at the time, for many of us: you can tell it’s an urban church when you see six feet of solid concrete between the church building and the street.
Things, happily, seem to have changed. In recent decades, I’ve noticed and I’ve read about many urban churches that have sought to transform their concrete settings. Among other things, many have planted gardens – wherever they could uncover some viable patch of God’s good earth. Some urban churches have even made gardening the main point of their summer outreach ministries. Others have participated in tree-planting ministries in their neighborhoods. Still others have joined neighborhood advocacy efforts to force the powers that be to plant trees in their own neighborhoods or to make available “discarded” lots for community gardens. An increasing number of congregations in all denominations are becoming “green congregations,” too. That’s now their identity. That’s now who they are. Some suburban congregations have even transformed their pretty, well-landscaped green settings into flower or vegetable gardens or places of mystery where the wild things can play. Topping it all off, hundreds of congregations have now begun to identify with effective grassroots ecojustice faith-movements like Lutherans Restoring Creation.
Gardening? Tens of thousands of scholars and local poets and moms and dads and senior citizens like me have written effusively about gardening over the centuries. If you want, you can consult a huge literature about gardening, which in the West alone goes back at least as far as Ancient Rome. I want to add a tiny footnote to this longstanding and sometimes overwhelmingly vast literature on gardening. My theme: gardening as resistance.
When you immerse yourself in the gardening life, you make a statement – or you can: this is the way life ought to be. For sure, we do need something like agribusiness around the world today – a totally re-formed, nature-friendly approach to producing good food for the people of the earth on a large scale, especially for the poor and the hungry. And we do need to end war (!), so that, among other things, the grain of Ukraine can be shipped to the world. That, as a matter of course, can be our dream.
But, in service of that dream, you can also make your own statement right now, like the urban churches I just mentioned already have done: capitalistic agribusiness and inner city concrete are not going to rule my life. I want to live in a world where everyone who wants to can enjoy the gardening life and where all can enjoy good, nutritious food and also the beauty of the earth – I think of my wife’s sometimes gorgeous perennial garden at our home-away-from-home in rural, southwestern Maine and the large vegetable garden nearby that both of us engage every summer.
All the more so, I want to live in a world where small towns and great cities can flourish, precisely because they’re rooted, directly or indirectly, in the gardening life. I want to live in a world where every inner city block everywhere can have its own tree canopy, if the people who live there so chose. I want to live in a peaceful world, above all, where we all can blessedly say: not damn the torpedoes full speed ahead, but damn the torpedoes plant your garden bed.
I’m going to keep gardening, therefore, with the early days of the Adam and Eve narrative always in mind, because this is who we humans are, I believe, whatever else we night be. We’re essentially made for the gardening life. We’re essentially made to build our towns and our great cities rooted in God’s fructuous earth. That’s why God fashioned us from and embedded us in the earth in the first place. So I’m going to keep doing all the gardening that I do not only as a joy forever, but also and self-consciously as an act of resistance to the powers that be in this world.
At this point, as at many others, I stand with Martin Luther – invoking a saying that I have seen quoted perhaps hundreds of times, by people of secular persuasions as well as by people of faith. When asked what he would do if the world were coming to an end, Luther reportedly responded: “I would plant an apple tree.” Luther knew what it meant to resist.