garden church: feed and be fed

The rain patters steadily on my windshield as I drive down highway 110 to the southernmost tip of Los Angeles. It’s my first time in the city, and I’m told these extensive rains are unusual.

I’ve come for the purpose of visiting Garden Church, a community that, as you might guess, meets outdoors. Across the country, churches are embodying God’s boundary-breaking method of building community by setting tables for the least of these.

Garden Church sets theirs in the squishy mud, surrounded by basil and lettuce and chard.

“God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

Through the rain I snap photos of the beds, row upon row of carefully tended fennel and cauliflower. Reverend Anna Woofenden guides me to the shed that houses their tabernacle, a portable alter allowing them to set up church wherever they might be. It’s reminiscent of wandering Israel, and a convenient feature given our need for an alternate location today.

The church's Sunday service takes place in three different steps: work together, worship together, and eat together. Those who participate flow in and out over the course of the evening, some to work, others to eat, and a few stay all the way through. 

But the impact of Garden Church extends far beyond their Sunday worship. The open gates throughout the week create a space not only to get hands dirty, but to reconcile relationships between homeowners and unhoused, a space to grow food and eat, to make music and pray.

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“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at the break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; God lifts God’s voice, the earth melts.”

I’m shown a coffee shop down the street where many of the church’s participants gather throughout the week. I meet a man that I’ll call J, with a wrist adorned in a bracelet of long spikes and arm tattooed with the names of women—those he promises to protect, he says. My name is actually on there, he points near his elbow, though it wasn’t meant to refer to me.

I tear lettuce alongside a high schooler I’ll call D. He tells me that he’s not here for religious purposes, because no one can prove to him without a doubt that there is a God. Rather, he’s here for the most important part—tending to the growing life. But another churchgoer tells me later that she’s been watching God slowly tend life in him too.

I make a new friend, I’ll call her L. It’s her first time at Garden Church as well. We discover we are the same age. Apart from D—who sits alone by the door during worship—L and I are the youngest in the room. She’s wet from the rain, like the rest of us, but once she’s dry she’ll be heading back into the showers to sleep.

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations God has brought on the earth. God makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. God breaks the bow and shatters the spear; God burns the shields with fire.”

Rather than a sermon, today we are going through the process of Lectio Divina. A spiritual practice that involves reading a passage of Scripture over and over four or five times. Each round of reading, we ask God to reveal to us something new.

As we hear the words of Psalm 46, God is our refuge and our strength, I pray for these words to empower the Church. I pray she embodies her call to build the upside-down kin-dom of heaven here on earth. One that claims allegiance to God rather than nation, a citizenship not of this world; that says the first shall be last, that loves enemies, and gives up everything to serve the least of these. That follows a God who breaks bows and shatters spears, who turns weapons of warfare into tools of hope, who tears down walls, who lessened Himself to live amongst the poor and vulnerable in order to reconcile and repair.

It is because of communities like Garden Church that I remain sure the psalm's promise will ring true.

“God says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

As we enter into a season of new political leadership, I find strength and hope in the movement of the Holy Spirit taking place in gardens and at tables across the country. Through the worship of these diverse communities, I see the Lord Almighty present among us. A fortress who tears down all other walls, breaking bows and shattering spears.

I pray that as a Church universal we move forward together in this spirit of unwavering hope. I pray that we cling to the knowledge that the Lord Almighty is with us establishing the upside down kin-dom of heaven in the very places where it began—in gardens and at tables.

And I pray that we will do our job of tending and keeping the earth, eating and remembering Christ.

Dismantling hate.

Tearing down walls.

Making the last first.

Loving those who are different.

Boldly proclaiming a citizenship that is not of this world or to any earthly power, but to God’s boundless community alone.

“God says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”