By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer
The bustling Friday farmers market in San Pedro was starting to close. The prayer garden was the first area I saw as I entered the Garden Church. Bedded in the west corner, a space for offerings blooms in perennials of red, yellow and pink. Ribbons of the same color are tied on the lattice. Here you can plant a seedling or tie a ribbon on the lattice as a tangible way to offer a prayer.
The Garden Church is the inspiration of Rev. Anna Woofenden of the Swedenborgian Church. She has partnered with Green Girl Farms to create this space for the community. Green Girl Farms is a group whose mission is to create a system that provides communities with food grown locally. Green Girl Farms designed this space. It collaborates with the Garden Church to help maintain this site.
The Garden Church is looking for interns and volunteers who can come weekly. People who not only want to come and participate, but also to help form it and hold it for others to come and participate.
Within three months, a vacant dirt lot on 6th Street, which was occasionally utilized, was transformed into a bountiful vegetable garden for the community. We sat in the garden as Woofenden told me about the Garden Church’s vision, which is to feed and be fed.
Ninety percent of this garden of edibles is grown from seed, right here in town. Lara Hughey from Green Girl Farms is the master gardener. Everything happens right here, including the compost, which they started this past January.
Gatherings take place from 3 to 4 p.m. Sundays. The reverend says there’s always gardening to be done as well as art projects, music and ways of engaging with one another in this intergenerational space. At 4 p.m. they gather around the altar, befittingly a tree stump in the middle of a seating area with benches. They have worship along with singing, prayers, scripture readings and a message, and always have communion.
Woofenden explained her calling, which over the years has been to reimagine what church can look like.
“I’m the tail end of Generation X,” Woofenden said. “Many of my friends have left religion and I get that. But I haven’t given up on God or the need to come together in spiritual community. I’ve been asking, ‘What are the needs in the world?’ ‘What is it that the church can be to not just respond, but be in conversation to those needs?’ Four needs kept jumping out at me… We are disconnected from our food, from the earth, from each other, and from God.”
She wanted to create a place where people could reconnect with putting their hands in the soil. To know where our food comes from and connect with people who wouldn’t interact otherwise across race, class and/or ideology.
“I thought, what is the best human leveler?’” she said. “When we put our hands in the dirt, some of these other things just fade away.”
The reverend is particularly interested in mixing different classes together, which she feels is needed. She calls it an urban sanctuary here, a hub where good transformation can happen individually and collectively.
The Garden Church is kin to the Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes. Both are part of the same Christian-based denomination, the Swedenborgian Church of North America.
“You can come here with any faith background or no faith background at all and you’re welcome and are a part of it,” Woofenden said. “We are not about conversion; we are about transformation.”
“What I love about Southern California is everything grows here,” Hughey said. “In this garden alone we have chard, basil, zucchini, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, fennel and sage. Winter squash beets and corn are coming. You name it. We either already grew it or we are growing it.”
Hughey believes education is very important and every time they open the gates in this garden it is an educational opportunity for San Pedro. Her expectations were surpassed.
“We realized this space, given its proximity and location to the farmer’s market and being downtown, has just had such a synergistic effect on all of our goals here,” Hughey said. “So many people come in and interact with the soil and each other that this would not necessarily have happened in another location. I’m impressed. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“We hope to be doing this work here for a long time,” Woofenden said. “Whether it’s physically in this spot, or not, is unknown. This is a big experiment but we are very committed to this community and feeding and look forward to partner with anyone who wants to be part of that.”
The Garden Church is open on First Thursdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 3 to 6 p.m. The Garden Church builds out the hours as volunteers come. Its lease started May 1 and goes through the end of October 2015.