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Peas and joy at Okra Abbey

Young Adult Volunteer harvests a bushel of blessings through a year of service in New Orleans

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Okra Abbey, a worshiping community in a garden in New Orleans, takes its name from a beloved vegetable and a sanctuary of respite. (Photo courtesy of Okra Abbey)

LOUISVILLE  — As the team tore down the last of the vines covering the garden gates, Young Adult Volunteer Regi Jones realized they had just helped to unwrap the gift of Okra Abbey for the Pigeon Town neighborhood in New Orleans.

Established by the Presbytery of South Louisiana in 2017 as a 1001 New Worshiping Community, Okra Abbey is a thriving community garden that combines work and worship in a down-to-earth way. The food grown in the garden is shared with neighbors through “Grace & Greens,” a weekly community meal and through the “Peas & Love” delivery of fresh, locally-grown food to home-bound neighbors.

“Community members who pass by can now read the quotes that hang on the fence. They can now walk by and read the signs of the veggies that are growing. They can shout through the fence and ask us how our day is going. The present of presence has been unwrapped,” Jones wrote in a blog she is keeping about her year of volunteer service.

A native of Fayetteville, N.C., and a graduate of Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C., with a Bachelor of Arts in religion, Jones finds strength in listening to better understand the perspectives of others. She is passionate about the important work of reconciliation, peacemaking and social justice. Her mission work thus far has included disaster assistance after Hurricane Matthew devastated Lumberton, N.C., and other rural areas of the state. “I helped to repair houses, put in some flooring, painted some walls.” She also traveled to Gastonia, N.C., with her church youth group to install wheelchair ramps for people experiencing mobility issues.

Jones served two summers at a church in Louisville, Ky., working with Karen (Kor-in) refugee children from Myanmar (formerly Burma). It was during this short-term mission internship that she learned about the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s YAV program, an ecumenical, faith-based, one-year service opportunity for young adults ages 19-30, at sites in the U.S. and abroad.

Regi Jones, right, and another gardener help harvest lettuce at Okra Abbey, a Young Adult Volunteer program site in New Orleans that is a 1001 new worshiping community and community garden. (Photo courtesy of Okra Abbey)

“I had an interest in doing farming,” Jones said. “I was really drawn to New Orleans because of the Okra Abbey site. When I looked at the website, I saw Okra Abbey was this really colorful space in the middle of a community that is mostly people of color.” After serving in ministry in a predominately white congregation, the opportunity to live and work in an African American majority context was exciting. “I wanted to see people like me,” she said.

“We garden here. We eat here. We celebrate here. We sit in sorrow here. We do all the things that happens in life in this space. It’s also a spiritual space, so we also do daily devotionals, we walk a labyrinth painted on the ground, we sit with Scripture and talk about how it has affected our lives, how we view it. We kind of toss Scripture around. It’s like everything in one. It’s like a school, it’s like a garden, it’s a welcoming space, it’s one big learning experience. It’s really great to be part of a space where those things can take place,” she said.

The Community of Pigeon Town is changing, Jones said, with people moving in and moving out. “We want to continue to find a way to make that bridge between individuals and let them know that we see everyone,” she said. “We offer this space to everyone, no matter how you want to stop in and worship and find your space or footing here.”

Children work in the garden at Okra Abbey. (Photo by Crawford Brubaker)

Listening to one community member’s story recently really made Jones think how hard it must be for people who want to work but struggle with mental health challenges. “I know this person, and I see this person. He’s come into the garden so many times, offering his help in working. He has such a great work ethic, but what he deals with mentally affects his work,” she said. “It’s clear he wants to work, but he can’t because he can’t get the help he needs to deal with his mental health. It makes me sad and frustrated.”

She added that for people who don’t know this man, they might look at him and say, “Oh, he doesn’t want to work, or he doesn’t want to be a participant in society.”

After serving as a Young Adult Volunteer, Regi Jones plans to attend seminary in Austin, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Okra Abbey)

“I just know that not to be true,” Jones said. “On a macro scale, thinking about this was life-changing because as I move on from Okra Abbey, there are going to be people I don’t have the opportunity to sit down and have nine months to get to know. There are going to be people that I pass on the street, and I won’t know their story. I won’t have the ability to connect with them and build a relationship. But what I do have is the ability to continue to show that compassion, to show that understanding. Like, ‘I see you.’”

“I plan to go to Austin Presbyterian [Theological Seminary] in the fall and continue to focus on the spiritual discipline of farming, while also focusing on how sustainable gardens can help marginalized or disenfranchised communities, what that can look like, and how I can be a part of that movement,” she said.

The Young Adult Volunteer Program is one of the ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) supported by the Pentecost Offering. The offering is traditionally received on Pentecost Sunday, which this year falls on June 9.

Apply to be a YAV
There’s still time to apply for a year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer in the 2019–20 year (August to August). Spots are available at several national sites. To learn more, follow @yavprogram on Twitter and apply by June 1.

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