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Growing community: How Colorado religious leaders are farming food — and a new variety of faithful

Jewish and Christian congregations gather to eat supper together, feed immigrant and refugee communities and deliver nutrition to the needy

RJ Monroe preps the free produce stand in the yard of the home where she and her husband, Sean, have a “yard garden” planted and maintained by The Denver Table to grow fresh local produce to be given to neighbors. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)
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“I’m going to garden!” is not quite what one would expect to hear from a Yale Divinity School student mulling summer internship possibilities. Yet, instead of working in a traditional church setting, Jenna Van Donselaar, a bright and dedicated millennial, figured that working at The Table, an urban farm in Denver, would best further her spiritual growth. She’s definitely the envy of her friends at seminary who chose more conventional internships. 

As fewer people, especially young people, are part of traditional faith communities, religious leaders struggle to attract and keep people like Van Donselaar in their fold. More are turning to growing food as a way to engage those disconnected from, or uninterested in, church, as well as nourish the bodies and souls of their faithful followers. Could this be a new paradigm for contemporary churches? 

Here are five food-based ministries in the Denver metropolitan area seeking answers to that question. 

The Urban Farm at the United Church of Montbello

Tomatoes ripen on vines growing at Urban Farm @ United Church of Montbello. The multi-denominational church devotes about an acre of land to food production, some of it tended by individuals in the 5 Loaves Community Garden and the rest by Urban Farm. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Donna Garnett has fond memories of growing up on her grandparents’ farm in Alabama, and she’s spent her life sharing with others her love of growing food and raising animals. Long a force in Denver’s urban gardening scene, Garnett made an improbable stop in 2013 at the United Church of Montbello, a predominantly black, multidenominational Christian church. 

“I hadn’t belonged to church in 45 years, but my partner, Khadija Haynes, tricked me into coming to this church,” Garrett explained with a smile. “After church, I went outside, and I saw a huge plot of vacant land, and I asked Khadija, ‘What do you think that they’re going to do with all that land? We could grow a lot of food here.’ I had been dreaming about doing an urban farm in northeast Denver, but I needed to find some land. There it was right in front of me.”

Garnett spoke with the church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James Fouther, and he shared that he had been praying for 12 years to find a suitable use for the land that buffers nearby houses and the church parking lot. With his blessing, Garnett brought the idea of an expansive garden to the church leadership, and eventually, the plan was approved.

The Urban Farm @ UC Montbello is an active ministry of the church, but the farm itself is managed by Children’s Farms of America, a nonprofit organization that Garnett founded. “We’ve created local partnerships with several schools, and we have about 500 youth every spring and early summer who help get the farm ready, plant the vegetables and do all of the initial preparation,” she said.

The seeds planted in the church’s acre of land have sprouted in numerous ways. The urban farm produces, on average, 10,000 pounds of food each growing season. This food is given away after Sunday church services and it supplies the church’s food bank ministries. In addition to this prolific garden, neighborhood residents may grow their own food in the 5 Loaves Community Garden at the church. 

Kale and other greens grow in beds at 5 Loaves Community Garden at United Church of Montbello. The multi-denominational church devotes about an acre of land to food production, some of it tended by individuals in the community garden and the rest by Urban Farm @ United Church of Montbello. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Five of the partner schools now have their own dedicated space for gardening, and several neighbors help supply the ministry from gardens in their backyards. The church participates in a regular farmer’s market, and they are a part of the FreshLo initiative that aims to create a grocery-anchored, cultural hub that will include 120 units of affordable housing.

Garnett still dreams of solving the world’s problems, and children play a vital role. “I believe that children are the real change agents. If your child comes home and says ‘I want a tomato,’ or ‘We learned about tofu today, can I have some?’ parents usually capitulate,” Garnett said with a hearty laugh. 

Otherwise, Garnett’s dreams rely on a common vegetable. “I believe that we could solve world hunger with just the zucchini. They grow so easily, but we have to teach people, one, to develop a taste for it, and two, how to prepare it . . . Oh my gosh, just drop a seed and you’ll have a 150 zucchini before you know it.”

Ekar Farm

Natalie Bergner of One Table lights candles as Michelle Jacobson and Sam Tabachnik block the wind at a Shabbat dinner at Ekar Farm. One Table is an organization that encourages young adults to host Shabbat dinners on Friday evenings to kick off the weekly day of rest. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In Denver’s Crestmoor neighborhood, farmers coax food for immigrant and refugee communities from gardens planted on a parochial school campus while also tending to the spirits of people in their community.  

Ekar Farm is part of the larger Jewish food and farming movement. It’s a really growing area,” explains Sue Salinger, a lay person and the farm’s executive director. “I work for an organization called Hazon, a national organization that attracts Jewish people to the (faith) tradition, connection, and environmental work, largely through food.” 

Hazon (“vision” in Hebrew) has been around for two decades and is based in New York. It has a retreat center with an active farm in Connecticut called Adamah (Hebrew for “the ground”), where a three-month immersive training program for people in their 30s and younger on faith and farming runs. The program intentionally seeks young people who are disconnected from the Jewish faith. Five hundred people have gone through the program, and they have created 25 farms and food programs around the country.

Eight years ago, Amy Berkowitz Caplan, an executive at the orthodox Denver Academy of Torah, attended one of Hazon’s national conferences on Jewish food and farming. She was so impressed with what she experienced that she wanted to start a farm on the vacant land next to the school. With the volunteer help of a school parents and funding from the Rose Community Foundation, Ekar Farm was born, with the mission of bringing to bear the resources of the Jewish community to address hunger.

“At that time, growing food seemed to be what people did. Now, 10 years later, we’re looking at it from a systems approach,” Salinger said.

Yona Browne harvests dill in his community garden plot at Ekar Farm. Browne is saving his cornstalks for the upcoming Jewish holiday Sukkot. (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The amount of land farmed and the harvest has varied over the years. At its peak in 2017, a full acre yielded 17,000 pounds of food, Salinger said. Today, about a half an acre is being farmed and the goal is to raise 5,000 pounds.

Many urban farms have faltered because land is so expensive to acquire and maintain in Denver. The land set aside by Denver Academy of Torah has restrictions on commercial development. Salinger knows this is an opportunity that must not be squandered. She openly ponders, “What is the possibility of bringing people together across economic differences? What can a space like this represent and means as a commons? What’s the highest and best use of the gift of this space?” 

The farm provides some answers. There is a community garden with 40 active plots. A beekeeper has also taken up residence. The farm connects with the broader community by hosting innovative classes. On the day that Salinger was interviewed, a local chef taught an evening class on cooking and making non-alcoholic drinks with edible flowers from the garden. Ekar Farm also works with Jewish schools and synagogues to train future gardeners.

Executive Director Sue Salinger weighs beans that will be donated to Kavod Senior Life. The suburban farm is inspired by Jewish values. Ekar is a Hebrew word that means “the most important things.” (Valerie Mosley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Going forward, Ekar Farm is more intentional about what growing “culturally-relevant” food.

 “We went to the places where we donate food,” Salinger said. “We asked them to poll their participants to see who are the people coming to the food pantry and rely on our produce for food, and ask them what they want to eat. We found out that a lot of the food pantries are serving a lot of the same populations: aging Russian immigrants, East African and Southeast Asian refugees. We’re now growing the food that they want to eat . . . long beans and Thai basil for the Southeast Asians, sorghum and field peas for the East Africans, and for the Russians, dill, potatoes and cabbages.” 

Ultimately, Salinger adds, “faith-based food and farming is about who’s going to take care of people and how are we going to grow food for people.”

The Land Congregation

People sharing a meal after a Sunday evening worship services at the firepit and canopy sanctuary location on The Land. (Photo provided by The Land)

On 10 acres of land on the northeastern edge of Aurora, Rev. Stephanie Price pastors a United Methodist Church congregation called The Land

Price grew up in Lisle, a dairy-farming community in upstate New York. Though she wasn’t actually raised on a farm, her family’s home included 5 acres of open space. She developed a love for the outdoors that receded when she moved to Broomfield during her high school years. Being in a suburban area didn’t have the same feel for Price as did living in a rural area. Price eventually decided to go into ministry while working at Urban Peak, an organization serving homeless youth in Denver. 

“I was really intrigued by the spiritual questions those young people asked,” Price recalled. 

Price earned a Master’s of Divinity at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

After seminary, Price became active with the United Methodist Church, and she was placed on a food and justice initiative that began in 2011. It is a subcommittee of the UMC’s Church and Society umbrella. “The concept was to encourage and educate congregations to move the way in which they utilized food from a charity model to a justice model,” Price explained. “So, purchasing local food for their meals to build community wealth and support local farmers. Instead of a food bank, is there a way that a congregation could turn it into a cooperative? Another aspect was using church land for farming.” 

Yet, using land at established churches proved challenging, and committee members considered the possibility of breaking ground on undeveloped land. Thus, The Land was born.

The Land has been in development since 2013, but worship services have taken place only within the last year and a half.  “For me, I guess, the image of church is very closely tied to that idea of togetherness,” Price said. “So, for me to have The Land, where it brings back this idea of safety in the world and exploration, connection and relationships that are dependable. ” 

The long-range plan for The Land is to create a 2-acre, edible labyrinth where 1 acre would be used to grow produce. The bounty would be shared with community-supported agriculture and partner organizations, and there would be a food stand where anyone who wanted food could stop by and get some. That won’t happen unless this church can raise $2 million.

Silvie Schoenfelder offering communion to Jerry Brewster last winter during a worship service at The Land. (Photo provided by The Land)

Meanwhile, The Land relies on volunteers to help do the hard work. The day of my visit, a youth group from Oklahoma was doing various chores on the farm as part of a service trip. The outdoor worship services at The Land vary during the year. “Right now, in July and August, we’re worshipping on Sunday evenings at 6 p.m. We have a 30-minute worship service that is very simple. We have, usually, two to three songs in between communion, a message, an opening reading, and then we have a meal together. We had a meatless barbecue a couple of weeks ago.”  

Challenges certainly loom for The Land, but Price is hopeful for the real impact that this ministry could have. 

“The goal of being a worshipping community is to transform the way we live. To be more reflective of this idea of discipleship. Jesus was radical, and did things that no one understood at the time, but now we do,” she said. “For us, it’s around food and environmental inclusion of all creation. Flattening the hierarchy of creation and caring for all creatures is kind of the whole missional aspect of our community.”

The Table

Sean Monroe loads another basket full of harvested produce for the stand that he and his wife RJ put up in their yard as part of The Denver Table’s yard garden program. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

What does a worshipping community in Denver look like, or should it sound like, feel like, or taste like? Those are questions that Pastor Craig Broek and Jeanine Kopaska Broek grapple with as they lead The Table, a church they started in 2011. 

Craig was previously pastoring a congregation in northern New Jersey, but he and Jeanine yearned for a transition. They sought guidance from some of the higher ups in their denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, and were encouraged to plant a new church in either Houston or Denver.

The Broeks knew that they wanted to start an urban farm-based church. Though Houston had fewer zoning hurdles and higher levels of religiosity. Denver’s culture was more amenable. “If we were going to present a new way of thinking about church we needed to do it in a way that connected with some of their cultural values. Growing food in the city felt like a much closer match here than in Houston,” Craig explained. 

They landed in Denver’s Platt Park neighborhood and Jeanine wondered aloud, “Where are we going to get the land to grow food?” By passing out flyers and socializing with their neighbors, they began with 15 gardens at homes in their neighborhood. Today, they manage 13 home gardens throughout the Denver metro area.

A sign explaining the concept of The Table’s yard gardens. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“Food plays a double role for us,” Pastor Broek elaborated. “There’s a sacramental nature in that for us. As Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his friends in the context of a meal, we believe that communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist ought to be done in the context of a meal with one’s friends.  It’s a double meaning. We’re feeding the body, but we’re also feeding the soul.” A typical worship service is a potluck meal for 20 people that begins with 10 to 15 minutes of checking in with folks. Pastor Broek blesses the food, and then a weekly discussion topic is introduced. One recent example is: “Where did you see the divine this week?”

This church has a service component that involves doing volunteer work for other organizations, or working in one of The Table’s gardens. The congregation is a mix of Christians who love what they do, but want nothing to do with the garden; non-Christians who just love the farming aspect; and people who just like the Broeks.

One of the biggest challenges has been getting regular volunteers to help with the gardening. I wondered why that was the case because it seemed to be one of the most compelling aspects of this ministry. With a knowing look of being the lead farmer, Jeanine sighed, “Farming is hard work, my friend.”

This is where Jenna Van Donselaar, The Table’s summer garden and ministry intern.  “I would categorize myself as a ‘questioning Christian’ right now,” she said. “I’m in divinity school and surrounded by a lot of different types of Christianity, some of which is really intriguing, some of which is not. I’ve found the work at The Table to be an imaginative expansion of what it means to be a Christian, and that’s been really cool.” 

Craig underscored her point. “I think the future of the church looks like what’s happening here.”

Be3 “Dinner” Church

New Be3 Church members fill their plates before dinner, which anchors its Thursday evening services. (Dan Honore, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Be3 Church — the three B’s are: Believe, belong, become — is another United Methodist Church congregation, and that’s known as “the dinner church.” It’s an interesting nod to early Christianity. As the church’s website explains, “Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus started his ministry by eating with others. dinner church is the original church.”

Indeed, growth in the early Christian church which was fueled by potluck dinners hosted by believers in their homes. “I’m a Florida girl who learned ‘y’all,’ monograms, and ‘Southernese’ from living in Nashville,” Be3 pastor Lauren Boyd said by way of introduction.

Given the church’s mission, it’s surprising that she left out “hospitality.”

After graduating from Duke Divinity School, Boyd on the staff at Park Hill UMC and Hope UMC before pastoring Montclair Community UMC. 

Montclair was a dwindling, aging congregation when Boyd arrived. She hoped to revive the congregation, but Montclair was eventually closed and reopened as Be3. Boyd’s initial strategy was to host a service that would be more convenient for families who weren’t regularly attending church on Sunday mornings. Boyd settled on having dinner on Thursday evenings. She recruited key staff, especially the cook, and families to form the initial congregation, Their first worship service took place in December 2016. 

Thursday night worship service begins at 6 p.m. with Rev. Boyd saying, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregants responding, “And also with y’all.” Boyd gives a welcome, reads the litany for the night, and then the congregation sings two songs. The same songs are sung for an entire month, so that the congregation can learn them. After the songs, one of the youth prays for the meal. Then people get their food, sit down, eat, and then talk with others at their table.

In Boyd’s words, “They literally break bread.” 

As the meal is winding down, someone, usually another young person, will read scripture. After that, the kids go to another room for supervised activity that connects to the sermon that Boyd preaches to the adults. Church members are asked to share a joy or a concern, and the service ends with prayer. It is through this sustained fellowship that the congregants see the divine within each other.

“I would love to have satellites of Be3 churches throughout the Denver metro area,” Boyd aspired. “Because where I live in southeast Aurora, anytime I buy anything that’s for the church, I tell the person at the counter why I’m buying it. And oftentimes they will say, ‘A Methodist dinner church. What’s that? I’m so interested in coming.’ But 6 p.m. on a Thursday night, driving across town, no one wants to do that. My grand plan is to have interns who, after being with me for a year, would start churches in all these burbs that we have, and other areas of town would be incredible.” 

Boyd’s congregation shows that dinner not only evokes the church’s past, but it may be a vibrant part of the church’s future.

Rising Sun