Wiping my forehead on my sleeve, I turn from the outdoor oven I’m tending and join the circle, grateful to step away from the blazing heat on this summer’s day. We squeeze ourselves under the structure at Anathoth Community Garden, all the folks who have come to our summer celebration. We hold hands in a wobbly, tall-and-short, old-and-young circle around our potluck tables. These tables are laden heavy with dough and cheese and sun-warmed veggies, waiting patiently to be transformed by fire into a bubbly, baked meal for many.
We have worked hard in the heat all morning. We have tended and harvested. The beautified garden and neat stacks of boxes filled with vegetables for various families offer visible reminder of the morning’s accomplishment. We hold hands, surveying our work and offering thanks for one another and the food we are about to enjoy.
This moment of stillness between work and rest is my favorite part of the week. It’s the part that consistently reminds me what Anathoth is about. We are a garden that seeks reconciliation—reconciliation with land, with one another, and with the God who loves the land and us infinitely. There is much work to be done. Our garden was the community’s response to a racially charged murder that occurred almost a dozen years ago. Hundreds of years of injustice and division have created deep wounds. Cracked and depleted hearts are harder to amend than cracked and depleted soil, but we work daily to offer life to both.
At Anathoth, we strive to offer life in specific ways: we see the need for reconciliation and friendship between neighbors, but in our town of Cedar Grove there are few places to gather. We offer the garden as a space for folks to come together, for all to belong. We see the need to care well for the soil that has long been depleted by overuse and lack of care, so we practice sustainable methods like crop rotation and cover-cropping so the health of the soil can be restored. There is also a need for families to have access to good food regardless of socioeconomic status–despite being an agricultural community, Cedar Grove is a food desert. So we offer our CSA program on a sliding scale basis, and half of the 160+ families who receive a box of vegetables weekly receive it for free. This is made possible by generous donations of families and churches in the area. We believe that reconciliation with God, neighbor, and land invites deep theological reflection, so our summer interns read and discuss issues surrounding faith and land. We believe reconciliation with the community looks like providing meaningful, dignifying work for its members, so we hire local high school interns during the summers and pay them competitive wages. And we believe that reconciliation looks like a space at the table for everyone, so we host potlucks and feast together.
Our work is quite literally the dirty work. On a weekly basis, seeking this reconciliation looks like early mornings and hot days, tending soil and plants and produce. It is sweaty work as we dig and harvest and weed in the heat of North Carolina summers. It is the work of attentiveness as we learn from the land what it needs and try to do the next right thing based on these needs, weighing priorities as everything explodes with growth. It looks like finding new ways to harvest more efficiently, and also finding new ways to know and listen to one another better, while we are harvesting more efficiently. It looks like managing interns in the summer and managing their lack after they’ve left but the tomatoes haven’t. It looks like washing veggies and boxing them with care, hurrying so we can deliver them to neighbors in time to sit and chat for a while. It looks like hoping, every year, that we will have enough CSA subscriptions and donations to keep everything afloat for one more season. It looks like planting seeds in faith that they will, again this year, miraculously appear out of their soil graves and become life for us again. And we do these daily tasks, hoping and trusting that they are little offerings of love that work toward a bigger picture: the picture of reconciliation with God and land and neighbor that invites the Kingdom of God to visit and stay a while.
Sometimes the work seems hopeless. We wonder if we are making a difference, if our offering is enough. Sometimes, people do not come, and we work long lonely hours, wondering how we can build community if the community doesn’t show up. And then, miraculously, a beautiful crop comes up from the soil we have so painstakingly tended, and folks come to help us weed and tend and harvest the fruit of our labor. Conversations flow and lives are shared and life is furthered. And sometimes, it all comes together in a glorious summer afternoon, with a crowd and a hot oven and a pizza party. And we hold hands and give thanks for the work that has been done to get us to that point—the amendment of soil that allows us to eat this food and the amendment of hearts that allows us to stand here, together.
It is always this moment, where strangers who have become friends across rows of dirt stand hand-in- hand, that I can see most clearly the reconciliation that is happening. These moments are a visible picture of the invisible work that occurs.
It is long-day work, and sweaty-brow work, this work of reconciliation. It is often expectant work, done in trust that somehow by picking and bunching kale we are making space for the Kingdom. But it is also hopeful work, made all the more hopeful by summer days when our biggest crowd ever gathers to hold hands around a pizza oven and pray. It is the moments like those when, warmed by the radiant heat of the oven on an already excessively warm day, that I can see God’s kingdom come.