Growing in faith
By Holly Meyer on August 16, 2013
Church gardens produce a bounty of vegetables for the Fox Valley’s needy, but it’s not just seeds and sunlight producing vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh green beans every growing season. Faith is in the roots.
“From Genesis on, God set humanity in the midst of a garden and asked humanity to tend and care for it and tend and care for creation,” said the Rev. Jane Anderson, of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Appleton.
Members of Anderson’s church are working to fulfill God’s request on a plot of land north of Appleton. This season they are tending about 1,200 plants, which are expected to produce at least 3,000 pounds of vegetables, said Jack Harris, the congregant who oversees the garden.
“It’s really the people who make this thing go. It really is the desire of all of us to be of help to some folks that need it. The folks we deliver food to — they are desperate folks,” Harris said. “It’s that need to be benevolent. It’s part of who we are as a church.”
The fresh food is donated to community groups like the St. Joseph Food Program and Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley to supplement dried and canned food items on their shelves.
“They don’t have fresh produce to share. That was the impetus behind this,” Anderson said. “A sense of honoring humanity and dignity by feeding the whole person, not just spiritual hunger but also physical hunger, and how can we do that in healthy whole giving ways.”
Feeding is in God’s nature and it can be followed throughout Scripture, said the Rev. Gary Cook of Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group that lobbies to keep government food programs in place.
Cook said the examples of feeding start in the creation story. God put a food supply in place before creating humans and it was one of the first points he discussed in Genesis. God provided manna and quail for the people in the wilderness, Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people with loaves and fishes and one of the final visions in the last book of the Bible was of a place where everyone was fed.
“It’s just kind of engrained in our life to understand that God’s intention is that people should not be hungry and if that’s God’s intention then that’s part of our mission as God’s people,” said Cook, adding that food is also a common theme in religions other than Christianity.
Filling a vital need
More than 48 million Americans lived in households in 2010 that struggled to put food on the table, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 report on household food security. Those adults and children made up 14.5 percent of all U.S. households.
Cook said government programs provide the majority of the food that makes its way to the hungry people in the country, but churches and other charitable groups still play a critical role, both in food donations and showing support for government nutrition programs. The advocacy group’s promotional materials cite internal Feeding America data and U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that say $4.1 billion of food was distributed by private charities in 2011 compared with $96.9 billion in food benefits that came from federal nutrition programs that year.
Cindy Huxtable said the vegetable garden at First Presbyterian Church in Neenah cannot possibly solve the world’s food problems, but that doesn’t mean the congregation can’t make an impact.
“We can’t possibly fix hunger, but we can help one family or we can help two families,” said Huxtable, who is also married to the church’s associate pastor.
Huxtable added that food was central to Jesus’ life; it was a lot of what he talked about and he shared many of his messages over meals. The centrality of food in the Presbyterian faith seeds the church’s four raised gardens that are helping feed the patients of Affinity Visiting Nurses, a hospice care service. The church has had a garden for years, but recently joined Just Good Food, a pilot charitable gardening initiative by regional Presbyterian synods.
Although feeding is in the nature of God, he and Jesus make it clear to the faithful that it is their responsibility to fulfill the mission. Jill Beverlin, a minister at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Neenah, said members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America believe they have a vocation to finish what Jesus started. She points to the book of John, where Jesus specifically said “feed my sheep” as a guide to growing fresh produce for Fox Valley food pantries.
The church started its vegetable and flower plot at Clearwater Community Garden near the Neenah police station four years ago.
Seeing Jesus in the needy
“In the Bible, Jesus is very clear about the importance of feeding the flock and it’s another way for our congregation’s members to use their gifts and talents and serve others. As a Christian, that’s one of your biggest responsibilities, to discover how you’re being called to use your gifts,” Beverlin said.
Who the food goes to is as important as giving it away. Anderson said the book of Luke explains that generosity must be selfless. Jesus says that when hosting a luncheon you should not invite friends, family or rich neighbors because they would be able to return the invitation.
“It’s the outreach to those who can’t repay you, who need your help, who need to be fed in body and in soul and spirit,” Anderson said. “Our faith, you understand that all that we have in this world is not ours, it’s God’s and to share of our resources abundantly. Generosity is central to our faith and to think that any of our resources are ours alone or of our own making solely is pretty egotistical.”
Jesus throws weight behind the responsibility in Matthew 25 with the sheep and the goats judgment parable. The piece of Scripture talks about how Jesus will decide who gets to heaven based on how they treated the less fortunate, Cook said.
“He’ll say you were cursed because I was hungry and you didn’t feed me. I was naked and you didn’t clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit me,” Cook said. “One version of final judgment comes down to whether when we saw Jesus in the form of somebody who was hungry whether we fed them or not.”
— Holly Meyer: 920-993-1000, ext. 426, email@example.com; on Twitter @HollyAMeyer