published Saturday, May 12th, 2012

Minister starts ministry saying: 'Lettuce Pray'

When the Rev. Cliff Hudson pulled two leafy bunches out of the raised garden bed and said, "Lettuce pray," a few low groans might have escaped from his parishioners.

But the good born of the First Cumberland Presbyterian Church's new community garden project -- dedicated last Sunday, complete with the hymn "In the Garden" -- outweighed the pastor's slight bit of corn.

"Being a downtown church," said Hudson, "we are always looking for new, right-now opportunities for outreach and, frankly, for evangelism."

The garden, three blocks from the Cleveland, Tenn., church, is one of those opportunities, he said. Since it is adjacent to a public housing unit, it offers the possibility of a partnership with residents who live there.

"We believe," said Hudson, "that family units or organizations in the church who sponsor a bed [can] recruit a partner that lives in the neighborhood.

We get to meet new people -- people we would otherwise probably not know -- and they get to know us."

Ideally, he said, the beds will be maintained by both the sponsoring unit and the public housing partner. Currently, the sponsors, together with volunteer Master Gardeners, are tending them.

The 100- by 250-foot lot at the corner of Montgomery Street and Central Avenue already has 15 beds of growing produce and room for more.

"We're helping each other," Hudson said. "What do we know about [growing produce]? We just like to eat it."

He said the garden organizers have profited not only from the Masters Gardeners but also from operations such as Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, The Greenway Table in Cleveland and ministries such as Grace Episcopal Church and St. Andrews Center in Chattanooga.

Ashlan Morelock, a First Cumberland member who has helped launch the project, said she and her husband also have one of the plots -- cabbage is growing there -- and hope to partner with someone from public housing.

"I can't plan it and not plant," she said. "I'm so happy to see it take off. We're so blessed to have all the help and all the interest."

Next up for the congregation is the vacation Bible school the church will conduct in the garden June 4-8.

The Rev. Jen Newell, associate pastor at the church, has designed, written and produced a garden-themed program -- titled "Come to the Garden" -- for the week.

She said the VBS will be paperless, use no electricity, offer activities such as planting and the creation of bird feeders, and give children something she said they don't get enough of: time outside.

"It occurred to me a lot of what Jesus did was, frankly, like vacation Bible school," she said.

Newell has written the church's VBS curriculum the last several years.

"We're really blessed," said Hudson. "[She] is the ultimate gee-whizzer when it comes to stuff like this. The whole point is to welcome families that we've never met before."

Several years ago, when the idea for the garden was first raised, it nearly died on the vine.

Hudson said he and church elders had their eye on a 100- by 100-foot plot of land within sight of the church. Attempt after attempt was made to acquire it without success.

Just a week after he gave up on the plot, believing it was not meant to be, a church elder recalled a vacant lot a First Cumberland member had.

This much larger lot, Hudson said, was "a beautiful place for a community garden" and, with two beautiful shade trees, an ideal place to gather.

"I guess the point for me, personally, and for the church is [that] when we completely gave up is when things began to happen," he said. "There's a lesson there somewhere."

Once the produce begins to produce, and the sponsors and their public housing partners get their fill, Hudson said, any excess will be donated to The Caring Place, a ecumenical Cleveland ministry that provides groceries, clothing and other items to the working poor and others, and to the New Life Soup Kitchen.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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