St. Francis is credited with saying, “When you preach, use words only if necessary”—in more general terms, “Actions speak louder than words.’’
A year ago Pope Francis gave us his extraordinary letter Laudato Si’—Care of Creation. Three parishes that I know have taken that letter and creatively shared its spirit in extraordinary ways not only in their parishes, but beyond. One specific project they all have in common is that they use God’s gift of gardens to enrich parish life and help others.
These parish gardens provide fresh produce to soup kitchens in Rockland County, N.Y.; the South Bronx; and Bergen, and Union counties and East Brunswick, all in New Jersey.
The Catholic Community of St. John Neumann, in rural Califon, N.J., has had a parish community garden for 10 years and expanded it this year in response to Laudato Si’. The parish invited those who use the parish food pantry to claim a raised bed in the garden and learn to grow their own food. Not only has this garden filled a practical purpose, but also a more important spiritual one. Parishioners who had left the church have returned, and local Protestant churches have provided volunteer gardeners. A college ministry, youth groups, and passers-by have all gotten involved. “It has become an evangelization opportunity,” says Ann Geronimo, who heads the project.
In the classic suburban town Upper Saddle River, the Church of the Presentation has nurtured small faith-sharing groups for the past 30 years. Their garden at Presentation was created by the St. Francis Ministry as an educational and social-justice outreach. Garden teams are responsible for various crops and activities; the entire parish is invited to bring compost materials with them to Mass on Sundays and visit the garden. Children attending Bible Vacation Camp planted their own raised bed; in spring, when the plants are sprouting from seed, they are presented at Sunday Mass and blessed. In the fall when the harvest is plentiful, the crops are again presented at Mass.
The garden provides for the parish’s own food pantry as well as ones in Newark; Rockland County, N.Y. and the South Bronx. Garden tours, educational classes, and connections and imagery in the Sunday homilies, all reinforce why and how to “Care for Creation.” The parish has also installed five bee hives and has a bee keeper to care for them.
In a busy commuter town, Holy Trinity Parish in Westfield, N.J., initiated small faith-sharing groups this past Lent and used Creation at the Crossroads, a RENEW International publication, as the resource. Over one hundred people met in small groups during Lent and reflected on the Scripture and the pope’s letter. As a result, each group came up with a project that was presented on a weekend to the entire parish at hospitality hour in the parish center. The parishioners voted using green stickers.
As a result, this October the groups will launch an Environmental Awareness and Action effort. The first priority is to work with Catholic Relief Services and raise awareness and funds for a water project in Ethiopia where water is scarce or non-existent, especially for those who are poor. Each Sunday in October, the groups will focus on involving young parishioners who are in the religious education program and youth ministry. They will install water fountains that allow parishioners to refill reusable water bottles (which the groups will sell as a fund raiser); develop a parish meditation garden; support the food pantry in new ways and have those who volunteer at the food pantry read and reflect on the section of Creation at the Crossroads that deals with food scarcity in the world.
When God had created the world, he said to the first human beings, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen 1:29-30). God made clear two things—that the food we harvest is for all people and that it provides nourishment. These parishes are cooperating in that work with their own gardens, making sure that even those people without food are fed, because they too are God’s beloved creatures, and that they are nourished by it. Even further, in these parishes both the harvesters and the reapers are enriched spiritually through giving and fellowship.
All three of these parishes are connecting faith with action, involving all generations, reaching out to the least among us, educating the next generation, and bringing it all to the Sunday Eucharist where we are given food for our life’s journey.
Sister Honora is the Assistant Director and Director of Development at RENEW and a Dominican Sister of Amityville, NY.
“Is that all there is?” asks the song of the ‘60s. It is a fact that so many are longing for more—more time, more peace, more health, etc. What is it that you long for? Lent is a time when Catholics traditionally have fasted and prayed with the hope that they would have time to think about the more important things in life. Why not try something different for Lent? In your parish, you can have the opportunity to gather in small groups of eight to ten people, once a week for six weeks starting the week of Ash Wednesday. When the small groups gather, members read Scripture, pray, and share their faith. This experience can provide more than you can imagine. You will not be sorry.
Is your heart ready to be changed? Lent is a time to change one’s heart. That is not an easy thing to do. Jesus, in the midst of activity, always took time for silence and prayer; we realize how important it is for us to do the same. Why not take some time this Lent for quiet, prayer, and sharing in a small community? The change you will find will be well worth the time.
Why small groups? That is a reasonable question as we live in a culture that is so inclined to the philosophy of individualism. There are two reasons:
First, small groups are biblical. Jesus chose his small group—the apostles
Members of the early church followed Jesus’ example. They gathered regularly in their homes for small-group fellowship (Acts 2:42).
The Apostle John stressed group fellowship (1 John 1:7). The Greek word John used for fellowship, koinonia, means much more than a kind of social interaction occurring in many fellowship halls or at church potluck suppers. It is a very intimate, life-sharing type of association. Koinonia is the sort of in-depth camaraderie Jesus shared with his disciples.
Second, scholars recommend small groups as extremely beneficial. For most of history, group life was a given. But in today’s fast-paced global society, the culture is very different. Community scholars concur in describing people in contemporary society as alienated, rootless, lonely, and lacking a sense of belonging. This is heightened because most of us will never get back to the extended family, the parish, and the village of our earlier lives. That’s why there is such a proliferation of support groups in our country for all kinds of causes—a positive development that speaks of the human need to be in community. Sociological studies and scholarly opinions support this.
For example, pastoral psychologist Robert Leslie says:
God is not found in objective law, in sterile formulas, in impersonal rules. God is found in participation, in involvement, in celebration. God is found in relationships, in encounters, in the joys and sorrows of human experience, in the give and take of dialogue. In the miracle of relatedness we discover that we are no longer strangers, but members together in a household, bound together in common loyalty to God.
What happens in small groups? In many church small groups the participants share their experiences in trying to understand and live the Word of God. They experience an openness to talk about the more important things in their lives—to listen and care, to provide support and strength. Group members experience sufficient freedom to be themselves without judgment from others. From such openness and acceptance, including prayer for one another, they experience a powerful kind of bonding or warmth that brings growth and change—a feeling of being rejuvenated.
Fr. Abraham Orapankal is pastor of St. John Neumann Parish, Califon, NJ. He is a member of the RENEW International Board of Trustees. Previously, Fr. Orapankal was a member of the RENEW International
Pastoral Services Team.
What People Are Saying About Lenten Longings
Here are some testimonies from men and women who have experienced Lenten Longings:
“Lenten Longings helped our family connect with cousins, siblings, and each other. We especially enjoyed the trust we built as a group and the singing we shared. We learned more about the importance of reading Scripture before Mass and felt more prepared for Easter as a family. Lenten Longings pushed us out of our comfort zones and challenged us to commit to action in our lives. God always gives us what we need. He provided this tie of fellowship so we could see him at work in our home and in our hearts.”
“The sharing of faith, family, and God’s presence in our lives is already making a positive difference in our daily activities.”
“We are a lively group. I am deeply impressed by the quality of the members’ responses which I find highly spiritual and thought-provoking. We have had such a profound spiritual experience; we now feel we have a much closer tie with the parish community, with each other, and most specially a greater love for our God.”
“The faith sharing has been very helpful in that the readings become more relevant and actionable when discussed from different viewpoints. These are some of the actions that our group has put based on the Lenten Longings experience:
-Greet someone new at church on Sundays. Stay a little longer after Mass to talk
-Send in food items that are in high demand at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.
-Volunteer as a group at the food pantry where a team member volunteers.
-Prepare a meal as a group for the Women’s Shelter.”