Community Garden puts People before Plants

Written by: Dan Veeneman

“If you are interested in exploring further what a community garden here at Gateway CRC could look like, please reach out to Pastor Marcel”. So went the bulletin announcement in the middle of January this year. I emailed Marcel de Regt, the Pastor of faith formation at Gateway CRC of Abbotsford BC, and told him I was interested in exploring this idea further. In sending my email, I had visions of providing some manual labour, some fundraising, and getting my hands a little dirty; I did not anticipate or expect the journey that I would become a part of. 

When asked where the idea for a community garden came from, deRegt noted that the idea came to him as he was looking out over some of the church property, wondering how that “resource” could be better utilized to serve their broader community. He also shared about Gateway’s desire to be so involved and impactful in the community, that if they were to close their doors, the broader community would not just notice the vacant building, but would be grieved at the loss. He wondered if the community gardens could be another way the church could invest in and work with their local community.

It was clear from everyone involved that while the garden was a place to put plants in the ground, the first and foremost concern was the gardeners.

The first meeting of the Gateway Community Garden Committee followed a few weeks after that bulletin announcement. It was filled with all of the usual excitement that comes with new ministries and ideas. However, as the meeting progressed a few key ideas and themes began to bubble to the surface;

  • This should not become another ministry of Gateway CRC. If this were to succeed, it had to become community-driven and led.
  • This was more about the people than the plants.
  • This required outside knowledge and resources from the broader community.
  • This was part of a larger story at play in our community about food, access to food, food justice, and how we as a church can play a role in working towards solutions.

Early in the process of planning for the Gardens, the committee adopted a value/mission statement that says, “Our aim is to create an environment where both people and plants can flourish and grow.” It was clear from everyone involved that while the garden was a place to put plants in the ground, the first and foremost concern was the gardeners. As well, these gardens were not being developed because there was a shortage of tillable soil in the Abbotsford area, but instead to build and create deeper connections and relationships between our church and our greater community.

A first step that the Gateway Garden Committee took was to reach out to several other local churches that have successful community gardens. The committee also talked to Archway (formerly Abbotsford Community Services) to gather information about their urban farm and to have broader discussions around the issues of food scarcity and food justice. While Gateway has already been working with Archway in other areas to address this (the church is a centre for the Starfish backpack program), we began to realize that a community garden would be another avenue for the church to be involved in this area of social justice.

One of the strengths that has often been noticed amongst the congregation of Gateway CRC is the desire and ability of its members to serve, walk alongside, and just do life with people of our community. This made a community garden a perfect fit. “These Gardens went from an idea to seeds in the ground in less than 3 months,” deRegt recalls. “That is unheard of for a new ministry. The idea that the committee was able to tap into the strengths and passions of the church and run with it is amazing.”

It should be noted that while the community gardens are on the church property and they officially fall under the umbrella of Gateway CRC, the startup was not funded by the church and they are not being financially supported by the church. While this may seem unusual, this encouraged the committee to leverage community support and to raise excitement amongst the supporters for the vision of the community gardens. Financial support, discounted materials and soil, labour, and seedling for the garden plots were donated by Church members, community members, and local businesses.  

On Saturday, May 22, the Community Gardens were officially opened for planting. There are currently 24 raised plots in a newly fenced area of the church property. The plots are rented to community members (both churched and unchurched), Gateway church members, and Archway’s urban farm. Some of the community members were referred to the Gateway gardens when they were put on wait lists at other garden sites around town. All 24 plots are now growing produce and flowers while being tended to by the gardeners. 

There are other things growing in these gardens as well…Relationships are budding… Connections are being established!

However, there are other things growing in these gardens as well. One of the garden committee members has noted that while tending to his own garden plot, he has had more conversations about life struggles, faith, church, and God than he has about the plants that he is tending to. Relationships are budding! Another one of the gardeners who rents a plot (who was referred by a neighbour) has not attended church for many years. It turns out that the last church she attended was Gateway CRC, decades earlier, when it was known as First CRC of Abbotsford, and was located about 3 kilometres from its current location. Connections are being established!

The Garden Committee is currently made up of members of Gateway, but as relationships continue to be built, they hope to ask some of the gardeners from the community to join the leadership committee.

Above all, one thing remains clear: as the garden plots begin to turn green and the beans, tomatoes, dahlias, lettuce, and carrots all begin to sprout and grow, we know that we can plant the seeds, but only God can make them grow.

Dan Veeneman lives in Abbotsford, B.C., with his wife and three children. He is a member of Gateway Community Church. We are excited to welcome Dan to our team of writers!