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Louisville’s Beechmont Presbyterian Church constructs a Peace Garden and then celebrates its many healing effects

The church’s pastor and a ruling elder share their story during a Presbyterian Association of Musicians online forum

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Peace Garden at Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has been appreciated by groups that nest inside the church and by its neighbors. (Photo courtesy of Beechmont Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — On Thursday, Lionel Derenoncourt and the Rev. Marissa Galván Valle of Beechmont Presbyterian Church (Iglesia Presbiteriana) in Louisville, Kentucky, used a monthly online town hall forum offered by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians to discuss a feature near and dear to the hearts of Beechmont and its neighbors: the Peace Garden the church constructed during the pandemic and dedicated last year.

Derenoncourt, who’s originally from Haiti, has served as a regional representative for Church World Service and worked for the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Galván Valle is the part-time pastor at Beechmont Presbyterian Church, an intercultural faith community, and is the senior editor for Spanish-language resources at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Their article “The Work of Our Hands: The Story of Beechmont Presbyterian Church’s Peace Garden” appeared in the most recent issue of Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching and the Arts.

The Rev. Claudia Aguilar Rubalcava, a PC(USA) pastor serving an intentional interim ministry in Colorado, moderated the conversation.

The original idea, Galván Valle explained, was to create a beautiful space that could be used by the church as well as by other groups who share the facility, including a Sudanese Christian fellowship, South Louisville Community Ministries and Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston Highway. “It made sense,” Galván Valle said, “to make something that communicates peace in a very concrete way.”

“What I didn’t know was we happened to have this person who had the knowledge to create beautiful things,” she said with a nod to Derenoncourt, who’d studied architecture in his native Haiti. “Lionel just went, ‘I’ll do it.’ It was right in the midst of the pandemic.”

Many Beechmont members had fled violence in their native lands, especially Sudanese and South- and Central American members and friends, Derenoncourt said. “The response to violence seemed to be a challenge to us. We wanted to invite the community to discuss the issues peacefully.”

“We wanted to create a place for people who want a breather can come and sit,” Galván Valle said. Before the garden was built, “we had no seating capacity outside. When people want to get out of the church, they sit down and talk to each other.”

The wood for the benches, which Derenoncourt took three months to construct, came from a nearby camp, Cedar Ridge Camp & Retreat Center. “They are beautiful and comfy,” Galván Valle said of the sturdy benches. Groups and families designed and decorated each of the four peace poles that were installed. The poles are topped by birdhouses, thus giving rest and sanctuary for even more of God’s creatures.

All the flowers were donated, and they’re seasonably appropriate. “We could have easily gotten plants and flowers from nurseries,” Derenoncourt said. “But we wanted the Peace Garden to be the garden of the congregation, so we invited people to contribute, and they did — roses and impatiens. It’s a creation of the congregation by the congregation. It’s not my garden; it’s the garden of the church and the wider community as well. People come and sit while they wait for services” provided by South Louisville Community Ministries.

Beechmont Presbyterian Church decorates the Peace Garden for worship events including communion, then shares photographs like this with those joining online worship. (Photo courtesy of Beechmont Presbyterian Church)

The Peace Garden was completed before the pandemic waned, and so Beechmont worship leaders got creative with online worship services. They’d decorate the Peace Garden for Easter or other special occasions and use the photograph as a backdrop during online worship. Rather than flowering the cross, Beechmont Presbyterian Church butterflies the cross. “Butterflies,” Galván Valle explained, “are a potent symbol of the resurrection.”

Another cherished activity has been Peace Garden Conversations. “We decided we needed to get to know each other better,” Galván Valle said. “As weather permits, we gather [at the Peace Garden] to talk about where we came from and what we bring. That’s where I found out Lionel [studied architecture] and wrote poetry — all these things we didn’t know about.”

During a question-and-answer session following their talk, Aguilar Rubalcava asked how the Peace Garden has enhanced Beechmont’s relationship with its neighbors.

“The process gave us the impetus for a closer connection with the surrounding community,” Derenoncourt replied. A member of the Louisville Metro Council stopped by for a visit one day, “and we had a good conversation on peace in the larger community,” he said. “A firehouse is nearby, and firefighters come over just to be there. It’s played a significant role opening the church to the larger community.”

“It has helped organizations feel like the church is open,” Galván Valle said. “The message it sends is, ‘we are open and welcoming.’”

“At a time when people thought many churches would close down, we emerged from that crisis alive and vibrant and blossoming,” Derenoncourt said. “This garden has been just one manifestation of the little church that could.”

“The challenge for us is not just to have people from different places,” Galván Valle said, “but to honor people and give everyone the chance to be themselves and have the church be a place they can call home.” Even though church members come from different parts of the world, speak different languages and have different styles of worship, “we try to listen to each other and adapt, which is not assimilating. That is taboo at our church.”

Asked for any advice they might offer to churches envisioning a similar project, Derenoncourt said not to be afraid of envisioning “the creation of something like this. Study how to do it and see the resources you have within your church, your presbytery and your community.”

“We don’t have a big lot of land,” Galván Valle said of the church of about 60 members, “so we looked around at places where we could do something different, and we put it there.”

“The thing is,” Galván Valle said with a smile, “we have the privilege of having folks who like to build and fix things … Small projects with a beginning and an end, that’s the way to go. Look at what you have, and then come up with the project.”

“Trust in the Holy Spirit,” said Derenoncourt, a ruling elder at Beechmont Presbyterian Church. “You will find a gift within your community, within your congregation … You have to trust in the creativity of the Holy Spirit.”

“Without love, there is nothing. We die,” he said. “That’s how this garden has helped.”

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