In 2010, the congregation of Kimball Avenue United Church of Christ worshipped in a historic building, located in the Logan Square community of Chicago…until a steam boiler pipe burst and damaged the building beyond affordable repair. So, in 2011, the congregation boldly moved forward in disassembling the building and opening the space for God to fill it in.
A community group was first to ask about the open space to expand their garden program. Within three years, the property, now called The Oasis, added ponds, a turtle sanctuary, a waterfall, a stone wall for moss, walkways with fruit trees, and a meditation labyrinth – one of the only ADA-compliant labyrinths in the state.
“We really see it as a part of our community outreach,” says Pastor Bruce Ray. “We’re trying to do more than just grow food. We really want to grow relationships, use it to connect people who normally wouldn’t be connected.”
The initial gardening partnership served 17 families, but they didn’t necessarily reflect the full range of families in the community. “Gardening in this community has tended to be among millennial whites. We wanted to make it a little more colorful, and that is a challenge…it’s hard to bridge certain demographics.” But Pastor Ray is excited about the way it has evolved.
Today, the garden consists of 34 in-ground growing plots and four standing garden boxes enabling people with mobility issues to participate in growing their own food. Six of the plots grow food that is given to Community Dinners, a weekly meal for the community that is prepared and served at St. Nicolai United Church of Christ, Chicago.
Over the years, the congregation has collaborated with the After School Matters program to give teens the opportunity to explore their passions and develop their talents.
“We have now watched more than 200 high school students go through the program!” Pastor Ray says. “At the recommendation of the students, we now have two hives of honeybees which produced over 10 gallons of honey. The teens learned all about honey harvesting and sold the honey as a fundraiser for the program.”
In addition, eight of the plots are used by the Design.Build.Grow.Eat. program, which gives youth an opportunity to learn gardening and seasonal cooking.
“We initially thought about putting up a fence, but eventually decided against it. We watch when families with young kids come by – not necessarily to take produce, although some of that happens – but we watch the parents and kids walk up and down the rows. There’s evidence of the benefits of green space that increases a sense of well-being…and we’re glad we didn’t put up a fence because we want our community to know they are welcome to find rest and refreshment here. Just the other day two people stopped in to tell me how thankful they are for the green space here… they don’t garden but just love having the green space available for the community.”
Ray says the footprint of the old building has become more than just a mission of the church. “It’s a way of connecting them to us and us to them. I really think we need to rethink how church is done and get it outside of a building more and more.”
If you would like to garden at Kimball Avenue United Church of Christ, contact the church to be placed on the waiting list. Even if you cannot garden at KAC, you are welcome to volunteer to help with garden projects and Harvest Days. Contact the church for upcoming Volunteer Opportunities.