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Outdoor sanctuaries: Churches find potential in their property


Ministry flourishing in church lawns and fields

August 29, 2020

Lori Mercer helps harvest wheat that was planted around the perimeters of Emmanuel Farm, a ministry of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Bothell, Wash., that focuses on sustainable farming techniques. Courtesy of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church

It’s a weekday afternoon in Parsippany, New Jersey. The bumper-to-bumper morning commute has long been over; the harried evening rush home has yet to begin. Still, the traffic whizzing by Parsippany Presbyterian Church has not let up — nor will it. “Thousands of cars” easily pass by the church daily, the Rev. Donald A. Bragg explains.

Like many 18th century buildings that have been spared the wrecking ball of development, the church — founded in 1755 — now sits on a major thoroughfare known as U.S. Route 46. As one of New Jersey’s notoriously congested roads — a 2014 Department of Transportation report cited 40% of the Garden State’s roads to be operating at or near capacity — Route 46 has become even busier in recent years, with families seeking a better quality of living that is still commutable to Manhattan. Parsippany lies just 30 miles west of the city.

Yet beyond the busyness of the road in front of the church lies a surprising secret garden of sorts known as Parsippany Presbyterian’s Meadow Garden. It’s a space where native plants have been allowed to grow back, where wildflowers provide much-needed pollen and nectar for bees, and where chickens — “Yes, we have chickens running around the church,” Bragg says — scratch at the ground foraging for insects.

Parsippany Presbyterian’s property wasn’t always this magical. “A large part of the property was neglected,” said Bragg, who came to the church as pastor 23 years ago.

In 2014, the congregation took a closer look at the potential of its property. A walk around it revealed places where garbage was being dumped and where weeds were choking native flowers that once bloomed. In addition to the property that was neglected and abused, there was also a budgetary matter to consider. “We have a lot of property and it was a lot to maintain,” said Bragg. “Why not return most of it back to nature, rather than spending thousands of dollars to keep part of the property well-manicured?”

The idea of a Meadow Garden emerged and began with the transformation of the church’s 50-foot-by-50-foot picnic area into plots to grow an abundance of vegetables. Herbs were also planted that would then be dried and packaged and sold through the church. Five additional gardens were established solely to help nature’s pollinators — including butterflies, beetles and the most vulnerable of all pollinators, the bee. Bragg’s interest in bees led to the addition of five hives on the church property, where the pastor-turned-beekeeper now collects and bottles the honey for his church family and community. Of course, one cannot forget the chickens, Bragg laughs.

The Meadow Garden has not only become a refuge for those in Parsippany in need of a little green therapy in an ever-growing asphalt jungle, it has also provided educational and spiritual opportunities for all ages. Bragg also intentionally placed one of the pollinator gardens near the church’s playground so that children could see the butterflies and not be scared of the bees. In the summer, the youth make meals using the produce grown in the garden while the preschoolers enjoy growing their own popping corn, Bragg says, adding that “they are all learning to appreciate nature.”

Another church that found a new use for their three acres is Emmanuel Presbyterian in Bothell, Washington. In the spring of 2018, Emmanuel Farm was created. Ground was broken, seeds were planted and raised beds — with “lips on the edges, allowing seniors a comfortable place to sit as they garden,” church member Lori Mercer says — were built. The adventure in sustainable food production soon broadened to include classes on canning and seed saving. Among the highlights of Emmanuel Farm has been the planting of wheat within the fence line of the farm, which led to the baking of many loaves of communion bread.

And Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, turned two acres of land into a food forest and outdoor classroom. “We’ve been commanded to be good stewards, and this includes how we use the church’s land,” said the Rev. Leanne Masters.

 Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor, Presbyterians Today

Today’s Focus:  Outdoor Sanctuaries

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Catherine Lynch, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program
Teresa Mader, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Dear God, please open our eyes to the mission fields in our neighborhoods. Help to make us bold in sharing Jesus’ love by giving our time and energy as your missionaries. Amen.

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