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Ministering in the Garden: Reverend Rachel Collins

One of Reverend Rachel Collins’ chickens. Photo courtesy of Burks United Methodist Church.

Now entering its third year of harvests, the Ministry Garden (aka #givinggarden) behind Burks United Methodist Church spans an impressive 1,000 square feet of rich Tennessee soil, grown from a vision that seminary student Rachel Collins had for a space of “intentional intergenerational interaction.” In a lively conversation with Reverend Collins, she laid out a veritable playbook for growing a successful community garden, even in the midst of COVID, sharing her refreshing perspective on being a steward of God’s creation.

The Ministry Garden is a community garden, but it’s also a place of worship. Tell me how this works.  

At Garden Worship we spend time working together as a community to envision what a future of sustainability, communal care, and justice could be through the lens of scripture and other sacred texts. While Burks cannot end world hunger, we can make a difference for the people who come in the doors for assistance. All ages, abilities, and faiths are welcome at Garden Worship. There are no traditional barriers to worship in this safe space service. This is a family-friendly service where children are encouraged to participate in making bread, playing with chickens and puppies, harvesting vegetables and playing in sprinklers when the weather is right.

Sounds like fun! As a commissioned Earthkeeper, what does creation care mean to you? 

There has been a lot of change around the idea of stewardship in the past twenty years, and the thing that has stuck with me is not the ‘dominion over the earth’ mentality. Instead of [interpreting] dominion as doing whatever we want to the earth with no consequences, I view the word dominion through other places it is used in the Biblical narrative. In Leviticus, the same Hebrew word is used to describe the power the priest has over the people. Creation care is a priestly calling to be present and intentional in our relationship with all of God’s creation. Ultimately, the entirety of creation is longing and crying out for redemption, as is humankind. So, the idea of humanity having dominion over the earth takes on a whole new meaning when you look at it as priestly guidance towards the Triune God, who redeems all of creation–not just humanity.

How has the garden and the process of being out in nature, impacted your faith and the faith of your congregants?

I came to creation care through my undergraduate degree in organic and sustainable farming. I found the connection through a creation care conference that was subtitled ‘growing seeds of faith.’ It changed the way that I looked at my ability to integrate what I was passionate about and what I’m faithful in. I have had a relationship with God for as long as I can remember, but it really intensified my relationship through my practice, through reading things like Animal Vegetable Miracle and Good Food Grounded in Practical Theology, or Inhabitants, both of those by Jennifer Ayres. And Belonging by Bell Hooks just really spoke to that kind of relationship and the regenerative reform that it can take with the earth. 

I’ve seen for my congregants the work impacting their faith in a different way. They came because they thought it was a faithful thing that they should support. But through working in sustainable ways and through the Scripture, they’ve started to change some of the things that they do at home. Joe, for instance, was an ag extension agent for forty years in Hamilton County, and we’ve butted heads on what sustainable farming means. He wants to use herbicides and pesticides and I do not, and we won’t. We’ve had the clashing of the wills, but through this we’ve come to a place where we take a look at the practices that we’re doing and how they impact the whole system. We take the Genesis text and we say how does this impact the larger picture? It’s more of a holistic approach, and that’s a change that I’ve seen in him and one that I’ve been privileged to watch. I think that it’s made us more aware of one another’s feelings, one another’s viewpoints and ways in which we practice our faithfulness through our actions. That definitely comes through long conversations and many hours diving in together and examining the consequences of our actions, through a Biblical lens.

Eucharist. Photo courtesy of Burks United Methodist Church. 

What are some scriptures you’ve turned to in your practice of creation care? 

The first one would be in Genesis 2: ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ The imagery of God being dusty and digging hands into the earth, put it on the map for me in a way that I hadn’t seen before–how much God cared about creation. I can get dusty. And God gets dusty, and that’s poignant for me. 

Isaiah 55 with the entirety of creation calling out for God and for redemption, it’s just over and over in the Biblical narrative. I try to bring that to life for the people in the garden ministry through liturgy, scripture reading, meditation, and the intentionality of reading the Scripture and then working. 

What’s your favorite thing that you grow in the garden? 

Definitely okra. Last year, our okra was over nine feet tall. We literally had to bend the stocks over to harvest. This year, until about July, they were only three feet tall. I had this fear that the okra crop was going to fail. It’s now as tall as I am. I don’t know what the difference was. June was fairly cool and rainy so I thought it would do nicely, but it didn’t kick into high gear until three weeks ago and now we’re harvesting okra every other day just to keep up. It makes for an impressive show because not everybody comes to the garden, but they often drive by and see that it was beautiful. 

Do people come to walk in the garden? Is it a space anyone can enter? 

Yes. We don’t have a fence around the garden. Last year, the rabbits were horrendous and we used all of the natural things like human hair, pet hair. I brought my dogs a lot and it got to the point that the rabbits were so common that my dog Khaleesi, she’s a black lab, she would just look at them like, ‘what’s up, I know you’re here today,’ and not chase them at all. If you need a tip, just cut Irish Spring soap into thirds — it deters rabbits and it doesn’t harm your plants. We used a lot of Irish Spring last year. This year they ate all of our beans. They don’t like our peas for some reason. We use Cream 40s, which are a cousin to the black-eyed pea. They have this kind of buttery taste and they love the heat. They’re South Georgia field peas and the rabbits don’t like them, but they love green beans so we’ve never had green beans in the garden. But a hawk moved in, found out that we had the fattest rabbits in the area, and has taken out quite a few. 

Nature finds a way. What is a good first step you would encourage people to take toward creation care? 

The books I mentioned earlier were essential to my learning. Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver is not a Biblical book, but it has several parallels and her journey through that narrative pushed me to work on being a 100 mile eater. I try to eat things that are produced within 100 mile radius as much as possible and that’s not always practical. Actually, in the COVID world it’s become a lot easier. I’m a part of herd share down the road. I drive up the mountain once a week and get goat milk. I started a garden at my parents house. We have 15 chickens in our backyard. We’re trying to close that hundred mile loop.

Also, find something that you love to do outdoors. For me, I find myself in the garden. My best friend’s husband volunteers at a national park. He walks the trails and helps people find things and that’s where he finds peace outdoors. Even if it’s just sitting on your back porch with a cup of coffee in the morning, find the place where you inhabit the creation of the world. That is essential to finding where you can go to make intentional choices towards creation care.

Beyond that, get involved with local charities in your community, find a place like the ministry garden, or there’s a CSA farm not far from here where several people volunteer just for fun. Find a place where you can be involved.

What is your one word? Do you have one word that describes you or that you keep in your mind as a sort of intention? 

Probably ‘intention.’ I try to do things with intentionality. Maybe more than that, I’m gonna change it — ‘presence.’ I try to be present everywhere I go, and with each person that I meet, and that’s a theme that’s really come up as I’ve gone through seminary. How can I best be present in this moment, as a witness, as a friend, as a colleague, and as a steward of creation?

Our longing to be one with nature often takes on this overwhelming feeling that leads to ecological grief. The problems of climate change are massive and overwhelming. Instead of trying to fix the world, the Garden Ministry is there to address a need in the community for fresh, local produce available to everyone. I believe the place where ecological ventures fail is that they push the obligation of a creation care mindset. I don’t want this to be an obligation. Instead, we’re creating a space to inhabit, so our dispositions towards creation are altered. This comes through first beginning to be present and then moving forward with intention.

Reverend Rachel Collins in the Ministry Garden. Photo courtesy of Burks United Methodist Church

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