How would you feel if you were a farmer, and suddenly, you were landless? Feeling a lack of purpose, connection, even depression would all make sense. These feelings are all too common for refugees, many of whom were involved in working the land back home, and who are now renting apartments in the Twin Cities.
After 26 years serving in Tanzania, Dennis Murnyak had an audacious idea, when he returned home to the Twin Cities. Murnyak saw that many churches in the area had extensive lawns, plus he notices a growing urban gardening movement.
“We had nine acres we weren’t using. So we offered the use of it to the Hmong congregation that met in our building at the time.”
Murnyak approached Arrive Ministries, a Christian refugee resettlement agency based out of Richfield, with the suggestion that churches could transform their lawns into community gardens to provide fresh produce for local food pantries. Arrive Ministries suggested inviting the large population of local refugees to participate as gardeners; and the idea for Church Refugee Gardens was born.
With a few brave churches leading the way, more churches were able to take field trips to see the church refugee gardens in action, and to begin imagining how things could look in their own contexts.
“We had nine acres we weren’t using,” says Jon Addington, an elder at First Evangelical Free Church (FEFC) in Maplewood, MN. “So we offered the use of it to the Hmong congregation that met in our building at the time.”
Hmong gardeners gave the community garden idea a try, but ran into water supply issues. Eventually, they were able to connect spigots to the city water supply and run water underground throughout the ever-expanding plots. First Free Church Maplewood is now in its 11th growing season and has close to 1,200 plots gardened mostly by Hmong and Karen refugee families!
Volunteers from First Free Church Maplewood are encouraged to walk the garden, hand out water bottles, and talk with gardeners, resulting in a rich network of relationships.
“The refugees we talk with have incredible stories of survival,” Addington says. “And many share our (Christian) faith. We’re very interested in each one of their faith journeys, because we’re on a faith journey too.”
“I think gardening is one of the best ways to bring humans together,” says Darby Laing of New Life Presbyterian Church (NLPC) in Roseville, MN.
Through the support of a denominational grant, New Life’s community garden is in its 11th season. Of their gardeners, one-third are church members, one-third are refugees and immigrants, and one-third are community members.
“As a refugee, I receive, receive, receive… But after a while of gardening, I have grown cucumbers, and I am going to give them to my friend. I feel like a full human again because I can give and not just receive.”
“When you participate in a community garden, there are two parts: there’s the gardening, and there’s also the community, which keeps us doing what we’re doing,” shares Laing.
Galilee Lutheran Church in Roseville, MN, is a small urban congregation with a big garden made possible through a partnership with the city of Roseville to borrow unused land across the street from their building. This lead to the creation of the Rice Street Community Garden, which has become a rallying point for community collaboration.
“So much is going on that is bigger than Galilee’s involvement,” says Pastor Dana Nelson.
A local coffee shop provides coffee grounds to enrich the compost. A neighboring pub traded their well water for the church’s city water in a mutually beneficial deal. A local school of earth science brings a load of dirt to the garden once a week. Busloads of youth come from other states to serve, observe, and learn.
Pastor Nelson tells of a refugee gardener who shared the deeper meaning of her first harvest season:
“As a refugee, I receive, receive, receive. I need help to rent an apartment, help to get my kids in school, I need help to get clothes, I need help to get a driver’s license. But after a while of gardening, I have grown cucumbers, and I am going to give them to my friend. I feel like a full human again because I can give and not just receive.”
“In community gardens, people can be close to each other,” says Nelson. “They are empowered here, they are in control, growing their food. The sun is shining. They are really beginning to heal after trauma.”
Would you like to be part of a ministry that provides a space of healing, personal empowerment, social connection, and hope for refugees? Consider cultivating a community garden! It doesn’t have to be big.
“Some churches have 1,000 plots, some have 10!” says Dennis Murnyak.
If you would like to get advice on how to start a church refugee garden in your area, contact Dennis Murnyak.
This article first appeared in the Presbyterian Church in America’s March 2020 edition of Mission to North America’s Refugee and Immigrant Ministry Newsletter. You can find more work by the author, Jessie Udall at lovingthestrangerblog.com.