Come and See What’s Growing!

Date posted: Wednesday 06 February 2019

“Pastor, come and see what’s growing!”


Last summer, this enthusiastic call greeted Pastor Nate Toso as he made his way across the parking lot at Beaver Lake Lutheran Church in Maplewood. The women beckoning to him were members of Calvary’s Cross, the Hmong congregation that has been sharing space at Beaver Lake for 15 years. They were cultivating vegetables in the church’s new community garden, which had been started with the help of an ELCA World Hunger Domestic Hunger Grant received by Beaver Lake in Spring 2018.


Listening to the community

Three years ago, when Pastor Nate was called to Beaver Lake Lutheran Church, he took time to get to know the neighborhood. We are an urban community filled with starter homes, apartments, town homes and a diverse population of Hmong, Bhutanese, Karen, African American, Caucasian, African immigrant and Latino neighbors. Those who he talked to unanimously indicated that food insecurity was a huge issue. The local grade school provides free or reduced lunches to more than 85% of its student body; Minnesota’s average is 31%.


In 2017, members of Beaver Lake Lutheran Church attended a workshop hosted by Arrive Ministries. Arrive Ministries is a local organization that helps faith communities establish community gardens and build relationships with newly arrived immigrants and refugees. Inspired by local needs and the witness of this organization, Beaver Lake decided to apply for a Domestic Hunger Grant from ELCA World Hunger with the hopes of establishing a community garden.


“Beaver Lake Lutheran Church is unique in that it is very urban, but blessed with an enormous property,” says Pastor Nate. “We wanted to put it to good use for our neighbors.”


Pastor Karl Mua from Calvary’s Cross wrote a letter of support for the garden project. When asked if members of his congregation might want to participate, Pastor Karl said that he didn’t think his congregation would be interested in being involved.


Preparing the garden

Beaver Lake received notification in April 2018 that they would receive a $2,500 Domestic Hunger Grant. Preparation commenced rapidly. The garden space was marked off, sod was cut, compost was delivered and fencing installed. By the middle of June, the garden was ready for occupancy and looked very inviting. The congregation contacted Arrive Ministries, but due to the late date, all those who wanted to garden had already found plots.


Members of the congregation were afraid that the garden would go unused. Then Pastor Sue Mua, Pastor Karl’s wife, asked Pastor Nate if she could have a plot. Delighted that the garden would be used, he responded, “Of course!”


Women from the Hmong congregation immediately began to work in the garden. The elderly women worked with joy and energy. They hoed and tilled – one on each side of the tiller because it was too heavy for just one – breaking up clods of dirt, mixing in the compost until they had worked the ground and it was suitable for seeds. They went on to prepare the entire community garden space! One morning when Pastor Nate arrived, he found the women hard at work painting the fence posts.


Furrows were created, seeds were planted, and soon enough, the women were calling to Pastor Nate to ‘come and see.’


A closer relationship

Prior to the garden, Beaver Lake Lutheran Church and Calvary’s Cross lived together peacefully, but completely on the parallel. We were smiling and respectful of one another, but rarely exchanged comments beyond, “Good morning.” The two congregations came together once a year in a combined service celebrated under a tent in the back parking lot. Beaver Lake congregants sat on one side and Calvary’s Cross congregants on the other.


But as the produce grew, so did the relationships. After years of simply coexisting, suddenly these two communities had something to talk about. Dirt – in the form of a community garden – had opened the door!


We learned about how much gardening meant to the Hmong women. Gardening plays an important part in their culture and they had been longing for the opportunity to till the soil again. They are teaching us about the vegetables they are growing, such as bok choy, and how to prepare and eat them. Their joy and enthusiasm is palpable and life-giving.


Many of the members of Beaver Lake grew up on farms or in farming communities. They are very engaged in the garden, admiring the growing produce and asking questions about the plants they are unfamiliar with. The Hmong gardeners are not only sharing information but also bubbling about how the ripe produce will be shared together in both faith communities. “We will make you a dinner!” they say.


Continuing the garden

In December, Beaver Lake Lutheran Church members learned they would receive another Domestic Hunger Grant – this time for three years of guaranteed funding.


“When we were planning the location of our community garden, we investigated another area on our property that, because of position and sunlight, would also be ideal for a garden,” said Pastor Nate.


The expansion will double available gardening space by adding 12 large garden plots. It will also seek to reflect the diversity of the community by inviting all people who live, study, work, or worship near Beaver Lake to participate.


The community garden is building on local strength: the large plot of land at Beaver Lake, the lifelong gardening experience of Calvary Cross’s women, and the relationships cultivated by Arrive Ministries. The other exciting new partnership will be with Achieve Academy, where one of the 7th grade classes has been learning about compost. They raised money to buy a composting bin for their school and will use the compost they produce to fertilize the community garden this summer.


The Beaver Lake community garden expansion project will provide the opportunity for those who don't have access to land to grow fresh, culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables. Equally important, it provides new opportunities to build relationships between diverse communities of people who might not otherwise have a chance to get to know each other.


“Come and see what’s growing,” indeed!


Deb Houtkooper

Parish Nurse

Beaver Lake Lutheran, Maplewood