Cultivating the garden of community


For more than 20 years, our family lived in the sacred Lucy Depp Park Underground Railroad homeplace of Delaware County. Youth from a nearby African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, with their mentors, became prolific community gardeners on this land.

In an effort to creatively engage, this participatory approach was intended to build genuine relationships and imagine agricultural life of freed slave Abram Depp and family who settled there. Companioning them integrated the art of gardening, cultivating and tending.

My grandmother used to “bring her garden in” during the winter months. She would “force bulbs” and there would be magnificent blooms even in the darkest days of winter hibernation. She taught me gardening is a 365-day commitment. Not one to be pushed off until spring and summer. Instead a way of life.

In the biblical garden story, we learn everyone was unclothed. When the apple was nibbled nakedness became a source of shame. Interestingly, these days, transparency is considered a best practice or the appropriate thing to do. While in seminary, I read a liberation researcher’s book about the concept of “naked learning.” In our birthday-suit kind of vulnerability, an authentic education happens that just can’t be faked. Recovering persons have long called this “rigorous honesty.” My kids used to say, “scratch and sniff.” You can tell if it’s the real thing. My friend, Pastor Debbie, simply said, “I got tired of surface living.”

A commitment to a deeper kind of life grows out of this tiling of life’s soil. Seeds just don’t grow when they aren’t planted deep enough.

For many years, I hosted interfaith open houses or special dinner parties with inclusive invitation. The focus post 9-11 was on conversation, consultation and community-building. Folks showed up again and again simply to be present, listening, sharing and cultivating the garden of community yet again. These pandemic days, I, like many, long for the spontaneity of shared table, mask-off-naked again. Judy Chicago, I think, says it best in “The Dinner Party”:

And then all that has divided us will merge

And then compassion will be wedded to power

And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle

And then both women and men will be strong

And then no person will be subject to another’s will

And then all will be rich and free and varied

And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young

And then all will cherish life’s creatures

And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.


By Gwyn Stetler

Your Pastor Speaks

Gwyn Stetler is a community minister and executive director at Family Promise of Delaware County.

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