Jana Riess on if We’re Reimagining Church, Let’s Take It Outside

In 2014, the Rev. Anna Woofenden moved to Los Angeles to try a bold experiment: to reenvision church as an outdoor community centered on a garden. As a church, the community would grow food, prepare it and eat it together, and share it with the neighborhood.

What happened next is a story she chronicles in her beautiful memoir “This Is God’s Table: Finding Church Beyond the Walls, out just in time for Earth Day. Moving and full of innovative ideas at any time, now that a pandemic is upending all the ways we traditionally do church, it feels prophetic. — JKR

Why did you found the Garden Church?  

The Garden Church grew out of my hunger, and my questions about how we reconnect to our food, to the Earth, to each other and to God or a spiritual community. There was a curiosity about would happen if you did all four of those things in the same place and overlapping. So it started in an empty lot on the outskirts of LA, where we created an urban farm and outdoor sanctuary, a place where people could work together, worship together and eat together.

It was a bold and wild idea. I embodied the Holy Fool and took a big risk and had no idea whether it was going to work or not. And many people wondered the same thing.

The Rev. Anna Woofenden. Photos courtesy of the Rev.
Anna Woofenden

What was involved in fundraising and finding a space?

We were able to bring together a cultivation team of more than 100 people around the world who committed to praying for us, to pledge in some way, from seminary students giving $10 a month to other people giving large grants. When I started it was just me, but it was also people across the globe who were holding the vision.

When I arrived, I did a lot of listening and walking the streets of San Pedro. Where are the empty lots? Where are people hungry? What are the gifts and the needs of this community? It was in that prayerful walking that we found the empty lot on Sixth Street that became the Garden Church.

Describe what that space looked like.

It’s a narrow lot in between two buildings. It had a sagging fence at the back made out of landscape material and a nice, green, wrought-iron fence at the front that had always been locked. Occasionally the space would be used for a Christmas tree lot or a beer garden, but it was mostly empty. We discovered lots of nails and broken glass and years of debris that had been packed into the soil. I could also mention the 12-foot, garishly painted dinosaur, but that probably takes too much to explain!

That sounds like it was a huge job. How did you make this a church?

I had to keep showing up every day. That meant talking to a lot of people, and partnering with a local farmer so we could work together to build above-ground garden beds and plant all sorts of seedlings. It meant figuring out how to do worship outside, with wind blowing over shade tents and the noise of traffic and sirens going by. And it meant stretching my heart to be ready to see the image of God in everyone who walked through the gate, no matter who it was.

What happened?

On May 1 of 2015, we took a big cedar stump, placed it in the center of this empty lot, anointed it with oil and consecrated it as God’s table, where all are welcome to feed and be fed.

And then people started being drawn around God’s table, to work in the garden and cultivate food together, to worship with the earth beneath our feet and the sky above our heads, to share in the sacred meal of Holy Communion and then to share in the large community meal of farm-to-table dinner that we had all grown and cultivated together.

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Source: Religion News Service