In 1982, two really awesome things happened: (1) I was born; (2) a garden was born—the first community garden in the city of St. Louis, Metropolitan Village Garden—when Wade Grandberry of Wade Funeral Home turned over the lots at 3111-3115 Franklin St. to seniors living in the Metropolitan Village Apartments, a retirement community just outside downtown. Land designated for death became land designated for life.
But, as in all stories of redemption, thorns and thistles began to invade the garden land and choke out the seeds of life. Being a retirement home, the city address book and city obituary are constantly fighting to claim the names from its list of residents. It only takes one generation of neglect for the garden to be overcome with weeds—just one.
In 2012, the garden had been reduced to a few greens and tomato plants struggling to survive amidst an abundance of weeds. Last year, however, the city recognized the value of the garden, both its immediate and symbolic value, which eventuated the mobilization of a few students from St. Louis University who have been hard at work to bring it back to life. It is now flourishing more than ever before. The work that remains now is just around the edges. There’s just a lot that needs to be done around the edges to let the light in for the plants nearest the fence. There is only one problem: the church next door.
Yesterday, Jacob Dorrell and I took 20 kids from First Alliance Church to participate in the restoration project. Alex Leary, a student at SLU, has been heading up this project for the past year. When we arrived, he pointed us to the east fence line. Our job was to clear the weeds, shrubs, and small trees, and to lay mulch in its place. Over the next three hours, we declared war on the weeds—and won. But the fence line opposite the Garden was just as overgrown. So I asked Alex if we could go to the other side and send the weeds to the hell they belong. We could not. It was church property. The church had been asked to clear the weeds on their side of the fence to let the light in. The community had a light problem. They needed the church’s help. They asked the church to help them see the light.
The church refused.
So the project leaders asked permission to come onto church property to clear the weeds. The church of Jesus Christ was asked if outsiders could come and clear their weeds so that its neighbors could see the light.
The church refused.
They “didn’t want to see the garden.” They did not want to see the garden. The church of Jesus Christ did not want to see the garden—And I am certain of this, the church that does not want to see the Garden will never get to see the Garden. The church next door did not want to see the garden even if it meant that the outsiders could not see the light.
In retrospect, there are a lot of things about my response that probably fall into the category of foolishness, certainly impulsiveness, for how I responded, but it felt right in the moment. Impulsive things always feel right in the moment. I’m well aware that giving money to beggars, telling strangers about Jesus, trespassing on church property and vandalizing their weed garden all run the risk of doing more harm than good, but I also aware of a story Jesus once told of a bunch of strategic world changers who failed to see their neighbor and an impulsive Samaritan who did not. And it was up to that Samaritan in that moment to give that one person a different picture of the Church next door.
Besides, I think it’s at least theologically true that any Church property is my property too. And it is certainly true that all Church property is really God’s property. And I know at least two things about God: he hates weeds and loves light. I also know at least two things about the Church. The Church is called to clear weeds and let in the light. So given these premises and a little—I mean very little—bit of human reasoning, it seemed appropriate to me to make an executive decision: to go to the other side of the fence to give our neighbors, to give Alex Leary, another picture of the Church.
So in keeping with God’s law of love and some command about the Church letting its light shine before the world, I broke the law, “trespassing” and “vandalizing” in the name of Jesus Christ (to be fair to how I am judged for this, I didn’t take any of the youth to the other side…though I’m not convinced I shouldn’t have). I didn’t have much time, but with the little time I did have, I sent as many weeds to hell as I could. I not only wanted the church’s neighbors to see the light, but I wanted the garden’s neighbors to see what happens to weeds. Jesus said that when he returns he’s going to gather up the garden food and cast the weeds into hell, that fiery place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t want anyone to go to hell, even that church next door.
The weeds will grow back. And if the church next door says anything, Alex has my permission to blame that random Church from Kentucky. I’m not sure they’ll be able to appreciate what has been done to their weed garden. But I know this: even if that community is stuck beside the church next door from now to the end of the age, they at least now have another picture of the Church, one that corresponds to the light it let in, even if only for a moment.