“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” Isaiah 35:1-2

Food evangelism? That’s what Highlands Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Fla., is up to.

Although the goal of the congregation’s community garden is to grow organic food, fight hunger and be a good steward of its five acres, the project has developed a great deal of community interest, garnered support from the oldest long term members and helped to grow the congregation.

Three years ago, when the Rev. Jack Donovan became the church’s commissioned lay pastor, he preached to a membership of 36 with an average attendance of 15 in a sanctuary that can hold several hundred. Today, the non-members attending worship often outnumber the members, with attendance now averaging about 30.

When he took over as their pastor, Donovan asked the congregation to re-visualize how it could use the five acres of land on which the church set, most of it vacant. Fortunately, two non-members were ready with some ideas that quickly took hold.

Denise Webber, a landscape designer, and Dave Reed, a map drafter, imagined a re-landscaped church using fruits and vegetables to replace the aging shrubs and weedy lawn. 

The idea took hold because the older people remembered growing up with family gardens and liked the idea of having fresh vegetables and fruits.

“Then the problem was getting traction for the idea, that is, getting from rhetoric to doing something,” Reed said.

As with all projects, finances are an issue. There is a great need for tools and a truck for transporting the materials needed for gardening and then delivering the food. Early on, the project did receive a grant from Florida Organic Growers (FOG) for the first plantings. FOG also provided assistance in deciding on what to plant.

“The grant helped get some traction for the project,” Reed said. “The rest has seemed automatic.”

Webber went to work on ideas for raised gardens, location of fruit trees and the replacement of the shrubs with blueberry bushes and vegetables. Reed put his mapping skills to work to provide a picture of the plan, which he and Webber say is constantly evolving.

The demographics of Northeast Gainesville have changed over the years, from mostly young families with children to older families, students and an international presence.

“People connect through food,” Webber said. “It is essential, and people come by when we are working on the gardens and stop to look. We’ll say, ‘Want to help?’ and they often do. Even kids on bikes.”

The garden brings joy to those who see and eat from it.

“Food connects us to each other, to the earth and to the creator,” Donovan said. “This transition provides change to the community that leads to spiritual growth.”

The community garden at Highlands has adapted from the traditional model of individual plots to having one plot that belongs to all and is cared for by all.

“It’s sort of amazing,” Webber said. “We come every day and discover people have just shown up and done something.”

As the group toured the garden, an example appeared. “Here’s a bed prepared to plant blueberry bushes in,” she said. “Someone has planted what looks like melons of some sort. We’ll have to figure out what to do. It’s a problem, but a happy one.”

The cost of watering the garden is a significant one for the church. But in addition to the community recognition and response, the church has also benefitted from being able to provide fresh produce in backpacks for needy children.

Highlands is seeking other connections, obvious ones being the local food bank and the University of Florida. The church would also like to connect with local restaurants and their customers to let them know Highlands cares for them and — most importantly — that God wants to provide healthy food for body and soul.

Parrish W. Jones, Ph.D., lives in St. Augustine, Fla., and is a minister at large in the Presbytery of St. Augustine. He has been a mission volunteer for Frontera de Cristo and in Colombia. He speaks and writes on mission, immigration, border ministry and Colombia.