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Churches in Action

On Sunday, June 28, we did a workshop at Many Peoples Church in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago. The church grew out of the community networking and development work of Pastor John Hoekwater, though he would credit any number of other local people for their integral participation. The church is next door to The Common Cup, a coffee shop owned and run by the John and Ruth Hoekwater. Each month, the proceeds from the coffee shop tip jar are donated to a non-profit organization that benefits the residents of Rogers Park.

One of the things that struck us about Many Peoples is how thoroughly it was woven into the surrounding neighborhood. Their space on Morse Avenue is used by a number of community groups and it was actually difficult to keep up with the many ways the workshop participants were connected to the church and other community organizations. There were a couple of Americorps volunteers, some folks from another local church, a seminary intern--it was kind of dizzying, but in a good way.


One project that came up several times in conversation was the Gale Greenhouse. It just so happens that the only Chicago public school with a greenhouse is located within walking distance of the church. After learning that it was just being used for storage, John received permission to begin growing things there about four years ago in partnership with the Local School Council. Since then, it's been an organic process of figuring out how to encourage teachers and other community groups to get involved.

Roger's Park planter

This past year, John received a contract to grow flowers for several planters in Rogers Park. Jennifer Bricker, associate director at a tutoring organization called Family Matters, also got involved in the greenhouse this year with a group of third graders through a project called T-GROw (Third Graders Reaching Objectives). After school several days a week, students and their one-on-one volunteer tutors worked with the plants in the greenhouse and then spread their desks throughout the space to work on homework together. Jennifer said that even though they only had a few students participating in T-GROw, they soon had participants (and others) asking if they could be in the greenhouse on Saturdays and through the summer. Plant sales helped raise money for the group to attend a summer camp at Angelic Organics. The greenhouse project even spilled onto the school lawn this summer in the form of a community garden that was planted by T-GROw students, their parents and, as a last-minute surprise, a group of farmer refugees from Bhutan.

I got the impression that working in Rogers Park can be like putting together an extremely complicated puzzle of permissions, spaces, needs and commitment levels--frustrating at times, and yet when the pieces fit, very rewarding. Jennifer credits John's willingness to let people run with ideas, even if they mess up or fail, for providing fertile soil for creativity in the neighborhood. The greenhouse project is up in the air for next year as the school will have yet another new principal, but from our short time there, I have confidence that the projects rooted at Many Peoples Church will always find a place to spring up, like a wild morning glory.

One of the things that's accompanied us these 1,300 miles so far is a crate of food-related resources, including two cookbooks created by the Mennonite Central Committee. One is Extending the Table, featuring recipes from around the world and stories to connect cooks to other cultures in meaningful ways. Another that we have with us is Simply in Season, which organizes recipes according to vegetables that are in season simultaneously. Simply in Season has been getting rave reviews by everyone we know who owns it.

The inaugural collection in the MCC series was More With Less, which we don't have in our crate because we don't own it, though we really should. Released in 1976, More With Less has been hugely influential for people of faith who seek to cook simple, healthy dishes not just for health reasons, but for reasons of Christian stewardship. We've heard from many folks who refer to their tattered 30-year-old copy or have bought a second copy because the original was falling apart from so much use. It's amazing how the creation of these three cookbooks, beginning with More With Less, has proven such a subtle, powerful act of culture making. Blessings, stories and tips help contextualize a way of cooking that values a fully formed sense of justice, offering both an outlet for and a means of shaping good cooking. I think it would be great to see more cookbooks from churches, Christian schools and other faith-based groups reflecting the holistic Christian consciousness of the MCC cookbooks, as opposed to just random collections of easy, overly processed foods.

If you don't have these cookbooks yet, I'd highly recommend them. They make wonderful wedding, graduation and housewarming gifts as well. You can purchase them online or at your favorite local fair trade or independent bookstore. By way of whetting your appetite, here's one of my new favorites from Simply in Season that I made this afternoon for our dinner tonight. Admittedly, it's slightly out of season, as this one is from the winter section, but in Grand Rapids, we can still buy Michigan apples from last fall at our local grocery store.

Apple Lentil Salad

  • 1 c. lentils
Soak 15 minutes in hot water.


  • 1/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
In large sauce pan, heat olive oil. Add salt and curry powder and heat until bubbly. Drain lentils, add to saucepan, and fry briefly.


  • 2 c. water
Add and cook until absorbed (adding more water if needed to cook lentils until tender), about 20 minutes. Drain any excess water. Cool.


  • 2 tart apples (cored and diced)
  • 1/4 c. lemon juice or cider vinegar
Combine to prevent browning. Mix with cooled lentils.


  • 2 potatoes (cooked, cooled, peeled and chopped)
  • 1/2 - 1 small onion (thinly sliced)
  • handful of fresh or frozen parsley (chopped)
Mix in with salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.


My notes:
  • Leave the extra liquid in the lentils when done cooking, which makes the salad a little more saucy and eliminates the need for extra salt at the end.
  • Definitely go with the cider vinegar.
  • Forego the potatoes to save a little time. Replace their bulk with things like fresh, chopped asparagus, zucchini or summer squash depending on the time of year.
  • Instead of or in addition to the parsley, use a handful of fresh cilantro.
  • Can substitute green onions for white or yellow.

The relatively new Creation Tenders group at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Sioux Center, Iowa, has been doing some wonderful work for creation care, from collecting electronics for recycling (inspiring a new city-wide program?) to developing a Creation Care Day Camp curriculum for kids. Covenant also has a table at church during the growing season where people can share excess produce from their gardens, which has been very popular, even early in the season.

Community Garden Partnership

Another project has been a community garden in collaboration with Christ Community Evangelical Free Church. The garden, located in a trailer park on vacant lots owned by Habitat for Humanity, has 18 plots, about half of which are cultivated by Latino families who live in the park. The partnership between Christ Community and Covenant is a great example of the Spirit moving to inspire creativity across denominations, as the Covenant group showed up one day to several plots that had been mysteriously tilled, only to find out that Christ Community had been pursuing the exact same idea through other channels. Habitat the city arts and recreation community both chipped in to provide water access.

We've heard people at several churches on the tour reflecting on how much land their churches have that could be used for community gardens, which are beneficial on so many levels. They provide an opportunity for people from various backgrounds to come together in one place, inevitably inspiring conversations. They provide a wonderful space for teaching children about stewardship of creation. They provide food for church and community members. They stand as a beautiful, living metaphor for the work of soil preparation and seed planting that happens within the church. So we say, if you're considering starting a community garden at your church or on other land in your neighborhood, go for it!

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to talk with Bruce Dooyema of Center Fresh Egg Farm in Sioux Center, Iowa. With 5.5 million laying hens, Center Fresh is #14 on the United Egg Producers' rankings of just under 300 members--quite a different style of operation than the heritage breeds in chicken tractors that we've been seeing elsewhere on the tour. It was good to sit down face-to-face with someone who often gets ironically dehumanized by folks in various food movements. Though I wouldn't say we were converted to the necessity of such large-scale operations in feeding the world, we were grateful for the civil dialogue.

Sioux County contains the most productive agricultural land in the state of Iowa, primarily due to multiple large hog, cattle, chicken, corn and soybean operations. Bruce, and his pastor John Lee from Bethel Christian Reformed Church, emphasized the desire of Iowa farmers not just to revel in local success, but to contribute to global issues like hunger and unemployment through overseas partnerships. Working with Partners Worldwide, Bruce and his brothers are involved in a project to start an egg-laying operation in Mozambique. Other area farmers and churches are involved with Partners Worldwide in a Farmer-to-Farmer project:

Because many in Nicaragua are not privileged to own their own land they are forced to rent land or work for larger farmers. Farmers in Iowa understand the importance of owning land and the stability and security that comes with it. As a result, they started a Farmer-to-Farmer partnership and are purchasing large tracts of land in rural Nicaragua, subdividing it, and selling it to landless farmers. By addressing the problem of farmers with "no land and no capital," the partnership has grown to 54 thriving farms on 260 acres. Now, the farmers are growing high value crops, exporting coffee, have put in water systems for their communities and are sending their children to school. Each year for the past four years the Iowa farmers have returned to work along side these new land owners, encouraging them in their shared language--a mutual love for the land.

Though we still see a need for collective discernment and imagination in farming and eating congregations alike in this rural area, the pervasive consciousness of abundance and global justice is a hopeful sign of more good things to come out of Sioux County. Pastor John Lee's efforts in the community are also a sign of hope. Having grown up in a farming family in northern Michigan and served for three years in Nicaragua, Pastor John brings a unique ability for building bridges and challenging both eaters and farmers to deeper understanding of how theology, business and agriculture are interconnected.

Over the weekend in Sheboygan, we stayed with our friends Chris and Amy Nonhof, along with their children Alex, Sam and Chloe. We had a wonderful time visiting with them and exploring what their region of Wisconsin has to offer in the way of locally produced food. The Nonhofs are members of Oostburg Christian Reformed Church in a small hamlet just south of Sheboygan.

One of the things Oostburg CRC has organized to help address hunger issues in their area is a monthly Harvest Outreach Sunday. Basically, they realized that food pantries really struggle after the boom months of November and December when many congregations remember the hungry alongside their holiday feasting. In response, Oostburg CRC holds a food drive on the first Sunday of every month. The Sunday before, there's an announcement about what the pantry needs and the following Sunday, the congregation responds with gifts out of their abundance.

Chris and Amy, who are members of a local CSA and maintain a small back yard garden, hope to figure out this year how they can contribute fresh produce for the food pantry.

We had lunch this past weekend with our friend Mary Lagerwey, who also participated in our tour at Perkins' Wholesome Harvest Farm and workshop in Demotte. She mentioned a creative new ministry that I just had to share about.

A member of Peace Christian Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois, Mary is involved in something called Soul Food. Basically, people get together in the church kitchen for an evening to make a simple meal in a large batch. One week, it might be chicken soup and banana bread; another, chili and corn bread. The group divides the prepared food into individual servings in re-used containers, labels the containers and puts them in the church freezer. People in the church who know others in need of food or a gesture of care in a difficult time--or themselves are in need--are free to grab homemade meals from the freezer at any time.

I love how this project provides good, wholesome food for people who are hungry, sick or grieving, while also creating a community of friendship and creativity around the preparation of the food itself.