Kevin Riordan: A church garden bursting with the spirit of giving

Members of Faith Church with some of their harvest. "The only thing we haven't grown is the mozzarella," said a church elder.
Members of Faith Church with some of their harvest. "The only thing we haven't grown is the mozzarella," said a church elder. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: September 03, 2012

In a Medford garden called HOPE, the acronym (Helping Other People Eat) is just part of the story.

This modest patch of vegetables at Faith Church not only enriches the diets of needy people in South Jersey but also provides food for the souls of volunteer gardeners.

"It's not just about vegetables," notes the Rev. Richard Carter, pastor of the 300-member church on Stokes Road.

Members of the Presbyterian congregation are making new connections with their neighbors, as well as distant communities. They collect, weigh, bag, and deliver a weekly cornucopia to My Brother's Keeper in Camden and the Christian Caring Center in Pemberton Township.

So far this year, a total of a half-ton of tomatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and other produce.

"This is asparagus, and we're talking about doing rhubarb and strawberries in raised beds," says Jim Frederick, 56, a church elder.

HOPE Garden is very much about camaraderie, as I learn when I meet about a dozen volunteers there after services on a recent Sunday. The humid air is heavy, but the spirit among the weeders, waterers, and pickers is light.

"We call ourselves the ringleaders," says Jack Carman, a landscape architect who helped start the garden last year.

"The church had a lot of green space that provided curb appeal but really was a waste of productive land," explains Carman, 58, of Medford. "Turning some of it into a garden seemed like a win-win."

"The garden is all of our responsibility," he says, noting it has grown to 25 by 125 feet - more than two times larger than last year.

"We divide the chores among everybody," adds Tracey Brunetti, 50, of Medford, who describes herself as a professional gardener.

There's plenty to do during a long, hot summer. Weeds and potato beetles have been abundant, but so have tomatoes, squash, and other heat-loving veggies.

Amid a buzz of collegial conversation, the volunteers, all of whom are adults, move steadily through dense rows of lush foliage.

"I'm a good harvester and weeder," says Debbie Jensen, a math teacher at Lenape Regional High School.

The volunteers fill plastic bags with glossy green peppers, tomatoes in a variety of vivid hues, and basil so aromatic, it permeates the air like perfume.

"The only thing we haven't grown is the mozzarella," chuckles George F. Anderson III, 71, of Shamong, a church elder.

A retired designer of high-definition TV systems, Anderson especially likes that Faith Church is providing "fresh, nutritious food" to people who may not have ready access to it.

Oscar Hernandez, administrator of My Brother's Keeper, a faith-based shelter where about 15 men live in North Camden, calls HOPE Garden "a blessing."

"We share some of the tomatoes with kids and families in the neighborhood," Hernandez says. "We feel the love of the church that brings it to Camden so that some of the folks here can enjoy it."

At Medford Memorial Middle School, which is adjacent to Faith Church, students in Patty Murphy's social-studies class raised seedlings for HOPE Garden.

"We're so grateful for the opportunity to assist . . . in such an inspiring project," Murphy says via e-mail.

The garden "allows the students to participate in a hands-on activity . . . and is a great way for them to see that they really can make a difference in the lives of others."

It's a learning experience for the gardeners, too.

"We're experimenting with what we grow," Carman says. "The heirloom varieties like these that have kind of a tiger stripe to them? The flavor is phenomenal."

(Carman persuaded me to try a few. I am pleased to report that "phenomenal" is putting it mildly.)

But tastiness is not the only satisfaction of HOPE Garden.

Says Carman: "We are literally helping other people eat."


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan.

Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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