There was a naked, homeless man in our garden. What seemed really wrong that day also somehow felt right. I definitely did not anticipate this scenario for my garden workday. When we went on mission to bring God’s love to an underserved community in notorious Compton, we had no idea it would become a safe place for so many, even those without a home. But God’s intention for us all along was that the real seeds we planted would be hope, love and peace.
This particular workday was only one snapshot of the unexpected ministry we have learned to expect since we opened the garden gates in 2013. Our vision was to create a space to grow nutritious food in a food desert, increase community in a segregated neighborhood, and develop a place of shalom, but much more has evolved as God’s Spirit daily breathes life over this holy piece of earth. When someone lays claim to one of our 55 garden beds, they have positioned themselves for a taste of heaven. In this sacred space, they are temporarily released from the chaos on the streets. The mission of bringing health, beauty, peace and most importantly Christ through the Compton Community Garden is becoming reality.
Garden as Mission
How can a garden be a mission of God, and how can it be a place where heaven meets earth? For some, a garden is literally a pain in the back. They look at the rock-hard dirt and patch of tangled weeds in their backyards and determine that one day it will be a place to pick ripe tomatoes. After some backbreaking labor, however, they lay down their shovel in defeat. For others, their vision sustains them, and their garden becomes a place to grow and gather their favorite foods.
But a garden can be so much more. A garden can reclaim that heavenly mission of bringing the reality of a loving God to a broken society. A garden can be a piece of heaven on earth.
In the beginning, in response to the needs of Adam and Eve, God planted a garden. This garden would nourish them physically, emotionally and spiritually. The Garden of Eden fed them, delighted their souls, and provided a communal space to meet with Him. It was here they conversed with their Creator. This created space of shalom was where heaven met earth. Shalom, a Hebrew word pregnant with meaning, encompasses the idea of wholeness, a fullness of peace, freedom from war and strife, a sense that all is well. Shalom is a heavenly trait brought to earth’s realities. The first garden was a manifestation of shalom.
Tragically, the shalom was shattered by the sin of disobedience when Adam and Eve ate what was forbidden. The personal consequence was a shame that caused them to hide themselves from God and one another. They were also evicted from the garden, their place of shalom.
Thankfully, a Savior was on His way to rescue all the sons and daughters of Adam. The Prince of Peace, the prophesied Messiah, became flesh in Jesus. This messenger of shalom chose to wander into the broken places of society. He declared, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor” (Matthew 9:12). Jesus was on a mission to restore peace, love and well-being to the earth. What once was broken by sin was now on track to be restored to a state of wholeness and beauty. His sacrificial death would reopen the garden gate so all who enter through Him could once again know the shalom of God.
Jesus knew His time for His mission of peace on earth would be short. Consequently, He discipled other messengers of peace. Then, when Christ commissioned His disciples to service, the command was to go and make disciples who would make disciples (Matthew 28:19). It was a command with multiplicative impact. Jesus’ last words to His disciples before His ascension were, in essence, to take the gospel seed into every corner of the earth and plant it there to create places of shalom. They were to start in their own city — just as Jeremiah told God’s people who were in exile in Babylon, “plant gardens” there (Jeremiah 29:5). Now it is our turn. As Christ’s disciples, we now take that message and create patches of heaven wherever we find ourselves.
Bringing Heaven to Compton
Bringing peace on earth means looking for those places in need of healing and going there. Compton, California, was one of those places. Compton is infamous as the home of hip-hop music and gang warfare. It desperately needs a taste of heaven, and God called us to plant a garden where His transformative healing would have great impact.
By God’s grace, our garden is providing that place of shalom in our corner of Compton. As prostitutes, gang members, the addicted and homeless people walk into the garden, they experience the light and life of the Lord. When Jamez — who lives in a motor home across the street — runs over to get a hug from me, I extend God’s love to him. When Nancy, a neighborhood prostitute, comes into the garden to work, it is because she senses the peace and wholeness there. The Holy Spirit is working moment by moment, as we have created the space for Him to be manifest.
However, due to my own fear, busyness and my tight grip on my own ideas, the Compton garden almost didn’t happen. As a middle-age white woman, I had never driven in Compton, though it was only two miles from our church. But driving to church one day as I was praying for direction on my doctoral dissertation, God spoke to me — plant a community garden. Although frightened and overwhelmed by the call, I told God I was willing.
That amazing day propelled Light and Life Christian Fellowship (our Long Beach church) and Metro Community Development (a Navigators ministry) to partner in this seemingly impossible project. Through a miracle, God provided free land on a major street. The property was abandoned, waist-high in weeds, and once housed a one-night-stand hotel. The lot is also the dividing line between the Eastside and Westside Crips, two violent gangs in the area who are constantly at war with each other. This location meant we would be faced with drug deals and prostitution daily. When we made the decision to move ahead with the land, questions immediately arose like, “Could this really become a place where heaven meets earth?”
Thankfully God was already working to bring shalom to that space. For several years prior, Pastors Mel and Ralph, who have a small storefront church, had been praying God would use this abandoned site next door to them for a garden! They and others like Dr. Sherridan Ross and Bob Combs were willing to help a suburban girl become a city gardener. I was learning that if I was teachable, God could use me far outside my comfort zone.
That day when the naked man (I learned his name was John) was in our garden shed became a defining moment for me. At first, I was angry and repulsed, and I insisted we immediately call the police. In my fear, I overreacted instead of stopping to ask God for wisdom. John had a story, and there was a backstory to this incident.
John was a homeless veteran who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. He had just finished a round of chemo and found himself fighting diarrhea at the local train station. One of our gardeners, a former gang member named Mike, jumped into action to help. Mike knew John’s story because he took the time to ask. He also knew a safe place to take this broken man to avoid further embarrassment. So Mike drove John to the garden, placed him in the shed, and gave him instructions to remove his soiled clothes and wait for Mike’s return. Mike then drove to his house to find some clean clothes for John.
During their separation, I arrived on scene with another gardener. If Mike had been there, I would have immediately understood the situation. However, being faced with a naked man in the shed, I was naturally caught off guard. Mike knew the garden as a place of shalom, a safe place to take John temporarily. Perhaps we would consider this a lapse in Mike’s judgment, but for Mike, it seemed very right. In the Compton Garden, he had experienced the love and peace of God, and a sanctuary from the stresses in his life. He wanted John to experience that too. As the garden team has worked to bring heaven to earth, now our gardeners, often in unconventional ways, are doing the same.
When a church or a believer decides to go on mission into their neighborhood, it means you carry God’s compassion to the broken. You ask to see people the way God does. It means you listen. You learn their stories as you tell them your Christ story.
I have been told by neighbors of the garden that since we have planted the garden, they sense the darkness being pushed away. When the Word moves into the neighborhood (John 1:14 MSG), change happens, light overcomes darkness, peace calms chaos, and the eternal makes its home on earth. At the Compton garden, the sense of shalom is real and present. It has become a place for people like Tonya, a local prostitute, to taste the goodness of God.
One day, Tonya was offering to “turn tricks” by the liquor store, a few steps away from the garden. She saw me, called me over and asked, “Do you remember when you served me Thanksgiving dinner in the garden a few months ago?” I replied, “Yes, I do.” Tonya then slowly declared, “That was the best day of my life!” Tonya had tasted more than turkey that day; she had tasted the Father’s love for her. Standing in front of the liquor store, I had the joy of praying for Tonya and I too tasted some of heaven.
What might happen if more of us chose to go on a peace mission to our communities? Centuries ago, John Wesley prayed this prayer, “I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creational intentions.” What would the impact of the church be if all believers began to pray “God use me”?
I made myself available, and God knew exactly what mission He would send me on as I surrendered my gifts and talents for His service. I had trained as a master gardener. I was burdened by the lack of accessible, healthy food in our local community. Children were growing up with food in boxes from the corner liquor stores. The Lord knew my training, my passion and my shovel were perfect for planting a community garden. Five years later, broken lives have tasted heaven, a neighborhood is being changed, hundreds of volunteers have joyfully worked in the garden, and my own heart has been transformed.
Kensie, who manages the small apartment next door, has painted his building and planted flowers because a garden was planted. Urcell, a retired preschool teacher, weekly strolls to the garden to sit, read and visit with others. Fabiola brings her three children to their rented garden bed to teach them how to grow organic food, sharing her harvest with co-workers at school. Noemi, who just moved from Guatemala, has found a place to belong as she adapts to a new country. Just like my life, an abandoned lot has been redeemed by the Prince of Peace, and a garden flourishes there now.
What’s in your hands? It is probably not a garden, but God has put something in your hands to use to bring His kingdom to earth. You are created in the image of God, a unique masterpiece uniquely gifted for good works (Ephesians 2:10). What issues do you see in your community? Where can you step out to make a difference? Don’t allow your fear or busyness to rob you. As God’s people collectively agree to go on a mission of shalom, the restorative, transformative power of the Spirt of God is unleashed in our part of the world. When we say yes to God, we will see lives taste the goodness of God, hearts open to the good news of Christ, and God’s kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven.
Deb Walkemeyer is co-lead pastor of Light and Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist who also has a Doctor of Ministry degree in church leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is also a recognized master gardener who pioneered the Compton Community Garden, which has received national acclaim as a model of urban transformation and ministry impact.