Seven years ago when I transferred to White Rock United Methodist Church, it was an act of radical hope. Charming though it was, the little church gave no indication that it was capable of stopping the steep decline in membership resulting from an aging congregation and changing demographics. But it was within walking distance of my new green home and I was writing a book on sustainable living. If for no other reason than to walk my own talk, I decided to stop driving across town to the "big church" and start putting down roots in my own neighborhood.
In pre-Recession Dallas, voluntarily moving from a thriving congregation in the heart of the city to a church in decline felt revolutionary. Times are changing, though, and localism is taking root in our city's culture. Here in East Dallas, a nearby Baptist church hosts a green fair every other weekend in their parking lot. But no sign of progress has been so inspiring as the garden springing up over our own church parking lot.
Thanks to a new partnership between the Promise of Peace community garden and White Rock UMC, neighbors are enjoying the view of a garden where they once gazed over a black square of asphalt. A colorful shed and greenhouse complement several dozen 4' X 14' plots in neat cedar boxes over fresh mounds of mulch. On Saturday mornings, children play in the playground while visitors play the guitar and gardeners tend their plots. Seeing the cultural vitality the garden brings to a neglected corner of our neighborhood is like watching a minor miracle.
"A seed is nothing if not hope," says Elizabeth Dry, executive director of the Promise of Peace garden, and a public school educator for more than 30 years. Elizabeth started the garden in 2008 on another parking lot, but her move to White Rock UMC holds the promise of more collaboration, space and access.
Dry's new office, an old room in the church, represents a big step up from the shed at her former location. Holding up seed packets from the garden's seed library, Elizabeth talks about the volunteers who catalog seeds and handle other tasks related to administering the garden.
"During these tough times, lots of people just need a sense of purpose," says Dry.
And purposeful work she is giving us. My 8-year old daughter came home from school last week and announced, "Stevie and I planted broccoli in the garden next door." St. Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic School has a few of the garden plots at the Promise of Peace garden. While churches are generally known for their inability to work together, the Promise of Peace community garden has become a place where all faiths - and the faithless - work together side by side.
"What I love about this experience," said Dry, "is that I'm seeing a church walk its own talk. It's like a sermon in action."
Shamed as I am to admit it, I tried to jump ship several times during my tenure as a member of White Rock UMC. Once every two years I was seized by sudden misgivings. Should I be somewhere with more programs to offer the kids? Was this church able to feed my family's spiritual needs? Underneath these questions lay my real worry. Could I trust where I was led, even if it didn't make sense in the face of "better" options? Reverend George Fisk stepped in a few times to talk me off the ledge.
"If you stick around, you are going to learn something," Rev. Fisk told me. "We can try some things that we couldn't before, but it's going to take time. I guarantee that something special is happening here."
George's prediction came true, although it would take two more years to see further signs of progress. Last year, the church board approved the hiring of 28-year Rev. Mitchell Boone as associate pastor. The combination of a seasoned pastor nearing retirement mentoring a younger protégé breathed new life into the place. Rev. Boone didn't arrive a vision of reform so much as renewal. At last, we had the leadership to cultivate the seeds we had begun scattering five years ago.
Back in 2009, when I launched the "Come as You Are" discussion group at White Rock UMC, it was mainly out of need for a place to drink coffee while my kids were in Sunday school. I also nursed the hope that this group might become an incubator for more youthful and eclectic churchgoers, one that could support green initiative like a community garden. For years I showed up to a room containing a handful of people, which has since expanded to a steady flow that you can now count on two or three hands (not mega improvement, but a 200-300 percent increase nevertheless).
Although we managed to tackle the issue of Styrofoam cups, our group did not itself spawn the "green" culture I was hoping for. That ended up coming from the garden over the church parking lot instead.
Rev. Fisk was right. I have learned some things by staying at White Rock UMC. For example, culture change cannot be forced. At our church, behind-the-scenes stewards planted seeds of change for years until catalysts like Elizabeth Dry and Mitchell Boone could bring these ideas to life. The Promise of Peace community garden has emerged as a lovely sign of hope for a church with nothing left to lose. And neighbors from this largely "un-churched" community are taking notice of a building that for too long seemed irrelevant.
At the height of White Rock UMC's membership, as many as 1,400 people attended worship services on Sundays. Today, Sunday attendees number about 10 percent of that.
"Hitting the bottom can freeing," says Rev. Boone. "There's nowhere to go but up."
White Rock UMC is still waiting for a swarm of new members, and we may be waiting for some time yet. But maybe growing membership inside the walls of the building was never the point. As Mitchell told us on a recent tour of the garden for Dallas Interfaith Power and Light:
"The politics of churches trying to navigate to new areas is finicky. But our reality is that we are sitting here with 57,000 square feet. We know that this space will not be filled to capacity as it once was in this church's heyday. It's our job as stewards to put it to some good use and turn these assets back to the community. Also, in these moments of gentrification, the church should be helping people adapt. Growing a garden and giving away some of the produce to help feed our neighbors is what we should be doing."
Nurturing a garden over an empty parking lot is a bold initiative for a small church with limited funds, but to a non-profit community garden, this church is rich in resources. As more churches struggle to stay vital, White Rock UMC is cultivating a model for adaptation in a world destined to be very different from the past.