For the Rev. Susan Arnold and her co-pastor husband John, the seeds for a downtown community garden were planted early upon their arrival three and a half years ago.
“It takes a while to learn a community and the church you’re working in,” said Arnold. But as she entered into that process at First Presbyterian Church of Texarkana, she realized the church was beautifully situated downtown, providing some unique ministry opportunities.
“I love to be outside and dig in the dirt — so thoughts of a community garden kept coming through my mind,” she said. “So literally for about 18 months, my husband and I planted that seed everywhere we could.”
During that same time, the Arnolds began to resurrect what had once been an active downtown ministerial association that was neglected as various ministers moved to different congregations. The association includes FPC as well Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Christian and Episcopal churches, whose pastors meet for lunch a few times a year.
“One of the first things that I brought up to the ministers there was the idea of this community garden,” Arnold said.
The group was enthusiastic about the idea and met last summer to discuss it further with their members.
“From there, this thing sort of took on a life of its own,” Arnold said. “All of the pieces — from the irrigation meter to the faucet and an inspection — were being donated by people who were volunteering their time and efforts, but they had to happen in a particular order. But as it happened, things were put in exactly when they needed to be.”
Arnold’s 84-year-old mother even got in on things when she came to town to attend a play. She shared the story of her daughter’s community garden project with the woman she just so happened to sit next to at the dinner theater — a woman who also just so happened to be a master gardener who has now donated her skills and time to the project.
Mike Naples, from St. Edward’s Catholic Church, has been involved in the garden from the beginning. Two weeks ago, as the collected group of Christians were up to their elbows in dirt, they found themselves in the midst of a fascinating theological conversation.
“It was just like Father Paul’s message,” Naples said. “You’ve got to learn from each other — and to do that we’ve got to know each other.”
Betty Anthony, a member of FPC, has also been involved since the beginning. She remembered an early conversation about how the group would ‘protect’ the garden from those who might take a sample of its produce.
“We have a lot of homeless in the area, and there were those who asked, ‘Are we going to fence it in to keep people out?’” said Anthony. “But we decided that if they want to go in there and pick a tomato, let them eat a tomato — that is what it is here for.”
In addition to tomatoes, the group has already planted onions, three kinds of peppers, cucumbers, green beans, lima beans and okra.
But a sense of community is being planted as well.
Though initially FPC had considered using a vacant lot adjacent to its building, a lot next to the Methodist church ended up having the best soil and sun exposure.
The city has donated 2,000 gallons of water per month for use in the garden.
“It has been wonderful to see all the people from all of the different churches pitching in and doing what needs to be done,” said Anthony, who describes herself as someone who doesn’t often put a lot of faith in people. “It has been good for me to put this out there and to let God do with it what He wants to do with it — I have been amazed at how wonderful it has been.”
For those who might consider such an endeavor in their own neighborhood, Susan Arnold has a bit of advice: “Go with the skills of the people who are interested. You have to design it around who you have and what you have and let the people build their own vision.”
Mike Naples, the Catholic turned gardener, has this advice: “We start with a prayer and it just forms from there.”
In Texarkana, it seems, this seed of downtown community is finding fertile ground.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.