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By Alan F.H. Wisdom

People who grow tomatoes in a garden patch may regard the endeavor as a mere seasonal pastime; however, panelists at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) conference discerned deeper theological and political significance. The Rev. Ashley Goff, Minister of Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, DC, exalted “growing as an act of resistance,” “compost as resurrection,” and “eating as an act of remembrance.”

In a presentation of slides and commentary at the April 5 “Food Justice” conference, Goff described her church’s “Sacred Greens” garden that supplies vegetables for the congregation’s “open table” lunch on Sundays. She disdained store-bought produce: “So the tomato pretty much represents hell, right? So the tomato represents migrant workers…. The tomato was actually created to make the trip from California to Harris Teeter [grocery chain] in Virginia. But we are resisting this model of a food system that is just absurd, that exploits and uses people. We are resisting a powerful dominating system by growing tomatoes.”

“The garden is a never-ended possibility of creativity,” Goff rhapsodized. It represents “embodiment,” as “people are using their bodies” in a “whole beautiful way of being outside together.” The young minister announced, to the delight of the gathered Presbyterian activists, that “we are going to start growing hops so that we can brew our own beer”—perhaps enabling a different kind of transcendence.

Goff mentioned that the “Sacred Greens” gardeners had experienced problems with rats eating their tomatoes, and consequently were acquiring cats to hunt the rats. She did not offer a theological interpretation of this episode.

Although the carrots, eggplants, beans, and such were intended for church lunches, Goff had no objection to human passersby helping themselves. With anti-capitalist bravado echoing 1960s radical Abby Hoffman, she declared: “You cannot steal food from us…. It’s not really our food to begin with. We want to have signs that say, like, ‘Free food. No questions asked.’”

Goff trumpeted the garden as a sort of theological manifesto: “The uncontained, spaceless God is our God of our Sacred Greens garden—a God not contained by human insight.” She invited her audience: “Come to our garden in mid-summer, and it looks like an uncontained God.” She did not explain how this quasi-pantheistic “uncontained God” was related to the God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Referring to the garden, or to the theology it represented in her mind, Goff proclaimed: “This is where the future of Church of the Pilgrims rests. You can take those books on church growth and management, leadership development and recycle them, burn them into ashes, and turn them into compost. I’ll take composted soil and the stings of honeybees and the sharing of food any day as a means of growth and healing and justice-making.” The PCUSA-affiliated Church of Pilgrims, located in the hip Dupont Circle neighborhood, reported 94 members in 2011—down from 140 a decade earlier.

The second speaker on the “Models for Food Justice Organizing” panel also promoted community gardens, albeit less dramatically. Cynthia White, Director of the PCUSA Committee on Self-Development of People (SDOP), told of how her committee supported a number of community-based agricultural and food-related projects.

SDOP, White said, was particularly concerned about “food deserts”—areas with “little or no access to stores that offer fresh fruit, vegetables, and affordable food needed to maintain a healthy diet.” She described a number of SDOP-funded projects to address the problem: a Sudanese-American church that had a garden out back, an Appalachian community that banded together to buy and transport healthy food, a group on the South Side of Chicago that planted a garden and sponsored a farmers’ market, and a cooperative established among food cart operators in downtown Chicago.

White praised the Oakland Avenue Community Garden in Detroit as a bright spot amidst an “urban disaster area.” She recounted that the community garden had been approached by Whole Foods Market about the possibility of becoming a supplier for the chain. But Oakland Avenue leaders “realized they weren’t ready yet, so they said, ‘No, not right now.’”

The SDOP director briefly noted a SDOP-backed group that persuaded a major grocery chain to open a store in an under-served area of southwest Seattle. It seemed likely, although she did not remark on the fact, that this single outpost of corporate America probably delivered a larger volume of affordable food to poor consumers than all the community gardens combined.