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.
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.