Cultivating a heavenly way of being—right here in the dirt
In 2014, Rev. Anna Woofenden founded an unusual sort of church: a sacred outdoor space planted in Los Angeles’s diverse San Pedro community. At the Garden Church, growing and sharing food with neighbors and strangers is an essential element of liturgy. On Sunday afternoons people gather at the small plot to work, worship, and then eat together.
“In the gospels Jesus talks about how the kingdom of God is like mustard seeds and yeast, lost coins and lost sheep. Ordinary, basic things,” says Rev. Anna. “When we think of our churches as places that don’t produce the kingdom of God, but instead notice and engage the kingdom of God, then all of a sudden we’ll realize that it was right there around us all the time. And that our work is to notice it, nurture it, grow it within ourselves and each other.”
By weaving corporate worship into rhythms of farming and feeding, the Garden Church re-imagines church as an interconnected organism: loving God and others while transforming a plot of land into a vibrant urban farm and sanctuary. Since its founding, Rev. Anna has become a leading voice in the food and faith movement, particularly in the area of liturgy and innovative ministry. She says the Garden Church transformed—and continues to transform—her understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ in every way.
“Coming around God’s table where all are welcome to feed and be fed has shown me how the image of God is in all people and that we need one another. We belong to one another, because we belong to God.”
Now a chaplain at Amherst College and host of the Food and Faith Podcast, she carries the lessons from the Garden Church into her ministry of nourishing others. Below, Rev. Anna writes about noticing and nurturing the kingdom of God through the founding of the Garden Church.
The oil sizzled as I poured it over the surface of the cedar stump table sitting in the May sun.
“We consecrate this table with the anointing of oil,” I said as I continued pouring. “The oil that runs over the heads of those who are prophets and priests of God’s message in the world. We anoint our table—the center of our worship space and our life together—with oil as it bears God’s prophetic message to the world. This is God’s table. All are welcome here.”
Our unlikely group was standing in the middle of an empty lot in old-town San Pedro, a neighborhood nestled in the southern outskirts of Los Angeles. On either side of us were the brick walls of neighboring buildings. Along the back of the lot, a sagging fence separated the space from a public parking lot. A green fence, accented with wrought-iron grape leaves, opened to the street out front.
Just a few hours before, in my jeans and black clerical-collared shirt, I had walked out of the landlord’s office with the code to the fence’s padlock and the key for the water spigot. The office manager had given them to me nonchalantly; she had no idea what a monumental moment it was.
I was about to open the gates of the Garden Church for the first time.
Farmer Lara, a local master gardener I had been working with over the past months, walked to the site with me. We turned the numbers to the code on the padlock, opened the gates, and walked onto our lot—ours for the next six months, at least. It was a plot of littered, hard-packed, scruffy dirt contaminated by years of parked cars and city waste. All we saw was potential and possibility.
This was where the urban farm and outdoor sanctuary I had dreamed of for years would have its start. We were going to reimagine church here as we worked together, worshiped together, and ate together with all kinds of people. We would grow food, establish community, and connect with nature, God, and each other. This was it. Today was the day.
Farmer Lara, with her big straw hat to protect her from the California sun, and I got to work. We stretched a carpenter’s measuring tape across the fifty-foot-wide plot, bringing to life the pencil sketches from my journal and the plans that Lara and her husband, Scott, and I had worked on around their kitchen table. We found the middle of the central circle we had envisioned and rolled the cedar stump over to it, scraping the ground so the stump would rest level.
When I had gone to the garden center earlier that morning to pick up the stump, the man who cut it and sold it to me had asked, “What are you going to do with this, ma’am?”
As the words came out of my mouth, I knew they were unexpected and perhaps a bit odd. “I’m starting a church that’s in a garden, a garden that is a church.”
“Wait. So, the church is, like . . . outside?”
“Exactly,” I said with a smile, curious what he was thinking.
“So this stump is, like, church furniture . . . well now, that will be neat,” he said.
“Yup, come down and see it anytime,” I replied. “We’ll be in the empty lot on 6th Street across the street and a bit down from the Warner Grand Theatre.”
Karen had shown up as we were setting the stump in place. I first met Karen at Wayfarers Chapel, our sister church up the hill in the next town over, when I was on a scouting mission to see if Los Angeles could be the place to plant the Garden Church. After preaching at Wayfarers about this wild idea of a church in a garden and a garden in a church, Karen had come up to me after worship and said, “I see it, I really see it.” When I arrived in August to bring the dream to life, she was one of the first people to seek me out, press a generous check into my hand, and say, “It’s to grow the Garden Church.”
We were going to reimagine church here as we worked together, worshiped together, and ate together with all kinds of people.
We’d met a few times over the fall, and she continued to pray for the work—and ask the hard questions. “Is it really okay to be meeting in public parks, and do you know how rough that area of town is?” “How will it be funded?” “Do you really just move here and start this so quickly?” We talked through my research and my unanswered questions. I was open about the anxiety that comes from starting a church from scratch. Karen was the perfect foil. I had the vision, but needed to know more about the heart of the community. And even though that vision may have been outside Karen’s comfort zone, she had a heart for the community.
“Look at this place!” she said as she began plopping ice into cups and pouring the juice she’d brought for each of us. “It doesn’t look like much now, but I can see it, Reverend Anna, I can see it—this will be God’s church.”
I got the rolled-up sign from the car and Farmer Lara held it up on the front gate while I attached it with zip ties. With each tie, we secured ourselves a bit more to 6th Street. The sign read
Pop Up Garden and Gathering Space
A Collaboration between the Garden Church and Green Girl Farms
Reimagining church as we work together, worship together, and eat together.
We hung the sign not realizing we were providing a blank canvas for graffiti to come. For now, it was crisp and new.
Even as we hung it up, we began to make good on our hope that the “location, location, location” investment of renting this space was going to pay for itself in marketing. Right away, people walking by paused to ask what we were doing. We chatted with them, and Karen handed out postcards, sharing what we were doing and inviting people to join us. Our street, 6th Street, held the weekly farmers’ market. People were hanging out, picking up lunch and produce. The sound of live music drifted down the street. We decided then and there we would be open every Friday during the market to welcome people into the space. I didn’t know how exactly this would work; I just knew the gates needed to be open whenever there was a flow of people on the sidewalk.
After our initial setup was complete, we had gathered around the cedar stump for a time of blessing. I watched the oil I’d poured on the table soak into the freshly hewn wood. Above the chatter of the shoppers at the produce stand outside the gate, I lifted my hands and prayed:
As we open our gates, we ask you, O Lord, to watch over our going out and our coming in from this time forth, and forevermore. May everyone who enters here feel your love and the love of the beloved community. May this be a space of refuge and sanctuary, delight and abundance, honoring God and peace. Alleluia. Amen.
At our center, we consecrate the table, the table that holds the symbols of our life together:
The Bible, the Word of God, for the people of God.
The candle, the light of Christ and the light in all people.
The water of life that nourishes and renews.
The bread that feeds us and the cup that reconciles us.
And the icon of the tree of life. Reminding us of why we are here—to cultivate a little more heavenly way of being, right here in the dirt of the earth.
People poked their heads in, wondering what was going on. I smiled and waved as we sang “Alleluia” together. With each refrain, we became more and more of a church, a sacred sanctuary, in the middle of the city.
My voice caught as I poured the rest of the oil over the table. Years of calling, wonder, hard work, and a hope that this wild idea could be realized were culminating in this moment. This was the beginning of the church I had dreamed of pastoring. “This is God’s table,” I repeated. “Where all are welcome, to feed and be fed.”
Farmer Lara poured out parsley seeds saved from her husband’s grandmother’s garden. As they scattered over the table, Lara voiced the remembrance of those who had come before us and put their faith in our efforts and our hope to grow something wonderful for the future. We committed ourselves to the new seeds we would plant and nurture here.
Beside the stump we had placed a rosemary bush in a big pot. Rosemary is traditionally for remembrance—the perfect companion for the communion table, where Christ calls us to celebrate and share the bread and the cup and to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Those of us gathered around the table took sprigs from the rosemary bush and dipped them in the water of the baptismal bowl, shaking the water toward each corner of the lot. We asked God’s blessing, and dedicated the lot as sacred space—a place where people could find hope, a table where everyone could find belonging. We named it as a church, a spiritual community dedicated to loving God and loving each other together and being faithful, here and now, in our generation.
“This is God’s table,” I repeated. “Where all are welcome, to feed and be fed.”
We were gathering in a centuries-old gesture of wanting to be a church together, but we were committing to doing it in a new way. It was not our intent to eschew tradition, yet we knew many traditional churches weren’t serving some people and were completely missing others. We prayed that the people who would never walk through the doors of a traditional church might find a home here at the Garden Church. After years of longing, wondering, and planning what it might look like to reimagine church in this way, here I was, in my new city, bringing it to life.
Photos by Stanton Sharpe
Excerpt from This is God’s Table: Finding God Beyond the Walls by Anna Woofenden. © 2020 by Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Used with permission. All rights reserved.