Dallas church grows as community garden feeds neighbors

By Lori Stahl
Posted Nov 22, 2011

[Faith & Leadership] Members of the tiny Episcopal Church of Our Saviour asked themselves this question eight years ago: If the church closed, would it be missed?

The answer, congregants sadly agreed, was no. They cast about for ideas to help the church connect with the surrounding neighborhood, eventually deciding to start a community garden as an outreach ministry. It was truly a leap of faith in 2003, well before the “eat local” craze and before Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn.

Church members chose the project for one simple reason: “We had no money,” said garden coordinator Becky Smith.

The only thing they had was land; the one-story brick church sits on four acres in Pleasant Grove, an older, lower-income neighborhood eight miles from the glittering skyline of downtown Dallas. And they had Smith, a lifelong gardener whose mother descended from sharecroppers in rural Arkansas.

Our Saviour members recall how amazed they were when crops from six 10-by-24-foot plots yielded more than 1,000 pounds of vegetables the first year. They donated the crops to a nearby food pantry, reversing the sense of irrelevance they’d had just a year earlier.

“They were just very down in the dumps,” said Bishop Suffragan Paul E. Lambert of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. “The next thing I know, they’ve got this garden out here.”

“It’s on a giant piece of property that if it’d been in another part of the city would’ve been sold and it’d be a Wal-Mart,” Lambert said, referring to the development boom going on in other parts of Dallas.

By the time Our Saviour’s garden reached the five-year mark, it had produced 11 tons for charity alone. With a partner agency, church gardeners quickly leveraged grant funding that helped them get tools, seeds, trees and other key equipment for expanding and sustaining the project.

Donations snowballed. They got a rainwater cistern and a roofed pavilion. Area Wal-Marts awarded a matching grant for a plant sale. JPMorgan Chase Bank donated picnic tables and money for fencing. Starbucks sponsored a plot.

As Thanksgiving approaches and the harvest season winds down, church members say that the total yield since the garden started is approaching 20 tons. (It likely would have passed that mark but for the severe drought this summer.) Regardless of the precise number, church members say they are amazed they’ve been able to grow so much just outside the church doors.

Sophia Brown, a longtime church member, said, “It’s awesome to see what God can do with a little bit of something.”

— Lori Stahl is a Dallas writer who has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and college professor. She earned a master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern University and spent much of her career at The Dallas Morning News. She also taught journalism at Southern Methodist University. This article was first published on Faith & Leadership, a publication of Duke Divinity School.