For Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” For students and faculty at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, that place is the garden.
In 2019, Karen Pepmeier, then a student at Eden, reached out to Rev. Dr. Kristen Leslie, the Harold Peters Schultz Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Eden. Pepmeier was in distress. She told Leslie that in her rural Indiana farming community, there was all sorts of produce in the field rotting while people all over suffered from food insecurity. Pepmeier asked Leslie if there was anyone she knew in the St. Louis area that might be willing to take 1,000 pounds of potatoes.
If no one wanted them, they would be tilled back into the soil.
Once farmers go through a field once, “It isn’t financially viable for them to do a second harvest,” said Leslie. And yet, there’s all of this produce left, waiting to be harvested. The farmers in the area were losing sleep, knowing there was this great need and yet not being able to afford to fill it.
So Pepmeier and Leslie gathered together a group of kids and parents to harvest a potato field. They found a ministry in St. Louis that could use them. They began to develop a program for the following farming season just as the pandemic hit. With indoor classrooms closed, what could have been an obstacle for learning became an opportunity to grow something new.
“What would it mean to have a garden on our campus?” asked Leslie. “The Garden of Eden, if you will!”
It seems as if the more you ask God, “What if?” the bigger and greater the adventure becomes. From that initial gleaning, ministries, people, and communities across multiple states have been impacted.
How the Garden of Eden Grew
The garden of Eden—or the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project—used to be a parking lot, but over the last four years, it has gradually grown into a large garden plot. The garden uses what is available to it, from plants in plastic buckets to locally grown bamboo shoots.
In its developmental phase, individuals from the seminary met with local food ministries to learn about their needs.
“If it didn’t serve them then it missed the point,” Leslie said. “We put in a garden with the understanding that it would have educational value. It would teach people how to use what you have.”
At the same time, the team continued to develop and formalize more gleaning connections. Through partnerships with area churches, volunteers, and farmers, the group was able to harvest over 14,000 pounds of food, distributed by local food ministries and food banks in 2022.
Four Missional Goals of the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project
The Eden Gleaning and Garden Project is about more than just food insecurity. There are plenty of places that are trying to do that already, said Leslie. The project has four missional goals:
- To provide ways for churches to live into their missional call
The Eden Gleaning and Garden Project provides a missional partner in the community for churches to connect with and volunteer at without needing to develop more infrastructure and programming. Through the garden of Eden and its gleaning work, individuals who want to live out the call of Christ in their lives can get their hands dirty quickly.
- To educate rural communities about food insecurities, urban communities about food production and waste, and suburban communities about both
Depending on where you live, every community lacks awareness about the other community’s needs. The Eden Gleaning and Garden Project is an opportunity to bridge the gaps between rural, urban, and suburban communities so that all three communities can begin to see how their needs and their activities impact one another.
- To provide opportunities for churches to build relationships
Education is not enough. After all, the body of Christ doesn’t function well just by knowing that you have a toe and it’s broken. The whole body has to feel the pain of the brokenness, connected by nerves and blood vessels, and then be so moved to respond to that pain. The Eden Project seeks to find ways to connect these three communities through strategic partnerships with urban ministries, rural churches and farmers, and suburban ministries so that everyone begins to listen and respond to the needs of the other.
- To look at food insecurity and racism’s impact
According to the USDA, over 18% of St. Louis residents live in regions known as “food deserts,” or places where there’s no easy access to grocery stores. In addition to this, a study done by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law indicates that Black residents of St. Louis are more than twice as likely as white residents to have limited access to healthy food. The Eden Project has partnered with organizations like the Black Church Food Security Network to
The Eden Gleaning and Garden Project addresses all four of these issues through the hands-on work of food harvesting.
The Harvest Is Plentiful, the Laborers Are Few
When volunteers from Eden go out to the field to glean, they have to drive 3.5 hours through farms that exclusively grow feed for livestock in order to reach the produce farms. It’s an all-day affair involving both international students and domestic students, many of which have never been on a farm.
In the process of picking, volunteers learn about both food production and food waste. They see migrant workers in the fields, hear their stories and learn the history behind their work. They discover the economics that fuel the reason why farmers only harvest a field once, why produce is left in the field, and why it eventually all gets tilled under.
“When we know how much food disparity there is, it is pretty humbling to see all that produce that can be used that isn’t being used, simply because financially the farmers can’t afford to pick it,” said Leslie.
The work of the Eden project has inspired greater generosity and a new vision for how people can serve God’s kingdom. Since the first gleaning project, some farmers have actually hired workers to do a second picking with the express intent of donating the harvested crops.
And the project continues to grow. Churches have started their own garden beds, partnered with area schools and other organizations, and looked for more and more ways to build connections and community around local gardens and across racial dividing lines.
The Long, Biblical History of Gleaning
There’s nearly 4,000 years of scriptural backing for the practice of gleaning. After that first picking, Deuteronomy 24:19-22 instructed farmers to leave what remained for “the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”
“We’re plugging into a long history of gleaning,” said Leslie.
God continues to multiply the fruits of the Eden Gleaning and Garden Project in ways far beyond just food. It’s a resource for food, a place for connection, a place for healing, and a place for relationships.
What began as a small seed of need has grown into a flourishing garden of hope and healing.