‘Elite’ Church Puts the Needs of the Hungry Up Front—By Planting a Garden

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


Westminster Presbyterian Church holds a place of prestige in a Midwest urban center. It stands on grounds that take up almost an entire block in one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. For decades, the elegant Gothic structure served as a gathering place for wealthy and successful urbanites.

The Rev. Amy Chen, fresh from seminary and a Transition into Ministry program, knew this would be very different from the congregation in which she was raised, a small Asian-American Presbyterian church with a praise band.

When interviewing for the position of associate pastor at Westminster, she noted the pride members took in their “high church” worship services and the choir and organ music. While these features made the church a destination for classical music fans, the membership’s reputation as elitist, emotionally cold, and overly educated deterred a range of potential newcomers.

Gardening - earth apples - Cropped“We’re recovering from an image of being a very elite social club,” she said.

One thing that’s helped has been the church’s vegetable garden. Westminster’s senior pastor and its mission outreach committee returned from a retreat enthusiastic about the idea of planting a large garden in front of the church. Chen helped work out the details of an arrangement through which all fresh produce grown would be given to a local non-profit that distributes food to immigrants, refugees, and other low-income people.

Although she calls herself conflict-avoidant, she played a key role in working with the city council to resolve permitting issues over the placement of the garden and the fence around it. Members of the city’s powerful historic preservation commission objected to the change, saying it was historically inappropriate for the street lined with Victorian houses and churches, and asked that the garden be relocated to the back of the church property.

But Chen said the visibility of the vegetable garden has been part of its impact, on the neighborhood and on the congregation itself.

“The garden is out on [the main street], as opposed to in the back, purposefully—to bear witness to what we are called to do, and to bear witness to the fact that even though no one is hungry on [this street], there are people who are hungry in the city.

“I think the controversy that it created in the neighborhood has really kind of jazzed up people in the congregation in a way, feeling like ‘Yeah, this is our mission! Yeah, that’s what the church is about! We’re here to bear witness to the things that are unjust in this world, share that with the world and bring notice to it—and then do something about it.’ I think that really has been a cool thing for them.”

This was a significant change for Westminster, Chen felt. Traditionally its members have been generous with donations but reluctant to get personally involved in the lives and problems of people outside their comfort zone.

“We’re really good at trying to transform the world from far away…. There are a lot of people who do invest their time, but it’s more of the ‘Here’s what I will provide for you’ kind of ministry. ‘Here’s the food that I am providing you, and I will stand behind this line, and you will go eat there, and I will have dinner at home.’ [There’s] less space to engage with people.”

Gardening - turning the soil - Cropped

She encourages this shift in what ministry means at Westminster because she believes it reflects more closely the message of the Gospel: “I just feel like Jesus’ ministry was so hands-on. It was the touching of the leper; it was the eating with the outcasts. It was just so lived—it was so messy. We don’t like getting messy here. We like keeping our hands clean.”

Chen has used the garden as a bridge to engage the congregation with the community in other ways. For instance, she helped create a mission weekend for middle school students around the theme of local food issues, with participants volunteering at the non-profit that distributes the garden’s produce.

Still, she said she’d like to see an even deeper level of engagement.

“I think it hasn’t fully lived into what I can see it being. The idea was that people who were receiving food—a lot of them who were farmers and planters—would come help us garden and teach us to garden. So that there would be sort of that [sense of] ‘Yes, we have a garden, we’re providing some food, but you’re teaching us how to garden….’ And that hasn’t happened quite as much.”

Chen feels encouraged by a new partnership the church recently formed with some Presbyterian churches in South America.

“I think sometimes we learn to do things a certain way abroad, and then we can learn to bring it back to the States. What we’re doing in [South America] in terms of mission is much more of a partnership model, not ‘Hey, the American church knows what you need— here’s what we’re going to provide.’ But it’s much more listening and then letting them, on their terms, decide what we might be able to do alongside them.”

Meanwhile, the garden has produced approximately 1,000 pounds of fresh vegetables several years in a row, and membership at Westminster is strong and growing.

“I think some people think it’s, like, a museum almost when they go past it, [but] we have a garden now that actually makes it look like we have people coming inside and taking care of that. And I think that does send a visual message to people—it’s not just a stone building.”


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Practicing a Theology of Love — A Baptist Church Votes on Whether to Become “Welcoming and Affirming”

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


A definite theme emerges when Pastor Pat Taylor talks about her ministry at First Baptist Church.

“I know I keep repeating myself,” she says, laughing, “but everyone is welcome here, whether we like it or not. Everyone is welcome, and how we do that—love God and love the person right in front of you. I think it all flows from there. It can get more theological than that, but I think that’s what it really boils down to.”

She points to a passage in First John as being key to her ministry in the American Baptist congregation: “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”1

Taylor explains, “I think our ministry is this very immediate one— it really hits the road right here. It’s easy to love those folks over there, but what about your neighbor who never turns down their stereo? Can you really love them? How do you really live with the people you live with? I’m not talking about the face you put on for a certain number of hours every day or a week, but when you let all that go, how are you then? And then maybe conversely, as a community, what does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people, because that’s harder than you think … and it’s richer too.”

What does it mean to be committed to a theology of love in light of some of today’s contemporary issues? Taylor challenged the people of First Baptist to wrestle with their own faith and commitment by examining questions of inclusion and human sexuality.

In her first year at this church in the Great Lakes region, she urged the congregation to vote on whether it would join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. She knew that some members would find it challenging to openly welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to the church, but for her taking such a stance was a natural part of following Jesus.

“My understanding of Jesus is that he practiced such radical hospitality, and I think if we only do that, we’re doing something very well. That idea that you are to love God with everything you have and love the person right in front of you. Even if we don’t get anything else, if we can take that practice very seriously, we’ll go a long way toward creating the realm that God intends for us to create. And I think that, at its best, that’s what we do in church—we don’t, obviously, always get it right, but we aim for that.”

Homosexuality wasn’t a new issue at First Baptist: Taylor’s predecessor had started a productive conversation within the church’s Christian Education program, including inviting members of PFLAG (formerly called Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) to speak. When Taylor interviewed for the role of solo pastor, she mentioned “out” churches in her candidating sermon, and she noticed that members of the congregation responded positively to the idea.

Still, it was risky. Many church members seemed uncertain about the change—she didn’t know which families might leave the church, taking their financial support with them. Taylor thought the issue was important, though, for both her integrity and the congregation’s.

“I felt like we couldn’t stay where we were. We couldn’t stay where we were and expect to continue to grow in meaningful ways. I couldn’t in good faith represent a place where people known and loved and related to me couldn’t fully come. I couldn’t go out into the community and say, “Yeah, really, you can come here—except for that part [of you], no, not that.’”

Some of the worries evaporated after the vote passed. “One couple left, but we have had so many more people come,” Taylor says. “I think part of the concern was that we would be this big gay church. And, I think to the surprise of many people, it was straight families who came, who wanted to raise their children where everyone was welcome, because you never know who their uncle is or who their daughter is.

Gortner church music

“It was interesting also that a number of the people who were initially resistant had their own adult children come out to [them] within a year of the church making that decision. This wasn’t a surprise to me; it had a positive effect. And we were able to do this in part based on the history of the church—to say we’ve made decisions in the past that we’re very proud of that seemed very risky at the time.”

Being a welcoming and affirming congregation has been challenging in other ways. Members who felt secure in their acceptance of gays and lesbians have admitted to her that they sometimes feel uncomfortable around transgender people who attend the church. Also, Taylor says, some liberal members of the church were unprepared to meet LGBTQ people who were theologically conservative.

“I think there was this mistaken idea that if someone is gay they are liberal, which is wrong, because if they were, they would go join a different kind of church. But they come to a queer-friendly Baptist church because they want to hear about Jesus—and they want to hear it out of the King James if you will do that. And this church certainly has a continuum theologically and politically, but I would say their left-turn signal is on, and they tend to fall on that side of things. It has been surprising to them that the LGBT folks who’ve come here maybe in their prior history were pretty fundamentalist.”

“It’s been a real struggle on all sides of that,” Taylor continues, “for the queer folks in our community who are used to a different kind of reading of scripture, a different interpretation and application, and then the people who have been more established here who can’t believe what comes out of other people’s mouths. So Sunday school has gotten very lively. And the challenge is for us to say, ‘If you are a place of welcome for all people, that’s what this means. It can’t [just] be the ones that agree with you.’”

As conversations about matters sexual, political, and theological continued at First Baptist, the pastor found she sometimes had to bite her tongue to keep from interjecting her own strong opinions in ways that might be dismissive of other people.

“If I shut my mouth and listen, I can learn a lot,” she explains. “I think my discipline is to do that and to try to articulate that, ’cause sometimes we can’t hear one another. Sometimes it’s just enough to say ‘What I hear you saying is this’ and to tie that in with what someone else is saying—make it palatable or even appealing in some ways to each other … to open people as resources to one another, not as someone to shut down.

“And just to remind people that if we’re serious about being a church, if we’re trying to have this piece of heaven on earth—and heaven isn’t just who we pick, and it’s going to be pretty broad and all-encompassing, God willing— if we can’t do this here, where we say that we love each other, then why are we surprised when things are happening in some of the big cities around here and in Washington D.C., where people are rabidly tearing one another apart? So we have to start to practice that here. And of course it isn’t easy or we would do it with ease.

“My role is to help us to hear each other, I think, and to want to hear each other, which is a bigger piece of work than it sounds like.”



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1 1 John 4: 19–21 (New Revised Standard Version)