Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pavement, Black Plastic Bags, and an Inspirational Field of Tomatoes

I volunteer at an urban church which is committed to gardening.  We garden on a re-purposed vacant lot.  We grow trees on a group of city lots that are not suitable for construction.  We garden in aquariums in a 3rd floor classroom.  We garden in a newly constructed greenhouse.  We grow disciples, and we grow food.

One of the hats I wear is a woven straw hat that my god-daughter bought for me on a super sunny day in El Salvador.  One of the figurative hats I wear is Urban Greenhouse Project Coordinator.  I did not go to school to be a gardener or a botanist or a horticulturist.  I learned to raise a vegetable garden from my dad.  I started learning about urban gardening strategies from friends in El Salvador.

One of the challenges which El Salvador faces is high population density and lack of access to affordable, healthy foods in urban and suburban areas. People who live in the countryside with limited economic resources can manage to survive by gathering and growing fruits and vegetables. Mangoes and limes from backyard trees, leaves from a chipilĂ­n bush, and corn and beans from a small milpa (garden field) can sustain a family.  This is not so easy for a family with little or no land.  People with small spaces are pretty resourceful and grow tomatoes in old coffee cans, herbs in small plastic containers and fruit trees in any corner of dirt they can find.  Yet the yield from a few plants in containers typically cannot sustain a family.

At the Salvadoran Lutheran University, students are learning to grow high yield crops in very small spaces with and without traditional soil.  One of the most inspirational sites at the university is the tomato field. The field rests on a big slab of old concrete pavement.  "There was no way we could dig up all this old pavement," the director told us, "so we decided to garden on top of it."   The tall, tree-like plants grow in 2-gallon black plastic bags which have been filled with compost.

Students studying organic agronomy have primary responsibility for overseeing the care of the gardens, yet every student at the university, no matter what his or her field of study, has a share in caring for these plants and all of the other food and flower-producing gardens on the campus.  The plants are watered daily, fertilized with a nutrient-rich fermented compost tea, and treated for pests with a spritz of onion and garlic cocktail.  The harvest provides not only enough tomatoes for the university cafeteria, but also surplus produce to sell at the market.  This earns a profit to help support the university and its gardening programs.  The director told us that the tomato plants had been living in the bags and producing tomatoes for 2 years.  The students learn to save seeds and to sprout new crops from the existing crops, so when these plants finally die, new ones will be ready to replace them.

 The university does a lot of work with small plot gardens, in which students experiment with companion crops grown in plastic crates, plastic bags and all kinds of old containers.  The idea is to create gardens on pavement, on porches, and in small corners of space which really produce food without using chemicals or pesticides. Providing the plants with food (compost) and clean water is critical.  One next step will be to figure out how urban families can create their own compost or have access to a community-based composting project.

It is not too difficult to see that the knowledge and practice which is being developed at the Lutheran University in El Salvador is applicable in any urban setting.  Wherever we live in the world, I think we need to be more in touch with what we are eating and where it grown or produced.  Growing our own food, purchasing and sharing locally grown food within our communities, and using non-chemical means to feed and protect our plants are actions which help us to care for God's creation in a responsible way.  Sharing the knowledge of how to grow food in an urban setting is a way in which we can care for one another, to love our neighbor.  And seriously, putting a couple of seeds into a bag of compost, nurturing that plant and seeing it produce real food that you can eat -- that is awesomely fun!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Journey to Sustainability

No one goes into pastoral ministry to make their fortune.  Well, at least in Lutheran world.  In our ELCA congregational budgets personnel costs eat up the biggest slice of the offering pie, and congregations believe it is good and fair to compensate their pastors for all of the Gospel and community work they do.  Of course not every congregation is able to fully provide for a full time pastor, so congregations often find themselves working together, sharing a pastor, applying for grants or asking other churches for support.

Those of us in companion relationships with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church have been long aware of the precarious situations in which pastors of the church live.  As a poor church dedicated to serving in poor communities often where no other denominations are present, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church struggles with sustainability.  Pastors work in multi-point parishes and are extremely dedicated to the work they do.  Most of their work is done without pay.  Some survive because they do additional work for the national church.  Most pool together the wages of various family members to pay rent, buy food, and pay for the bus fare to get to their churches.

In the time of the 1980-1992 civil war, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church cared for refugees, organized agricultural communities and advocated for justice.  It was a persecuted church.  Now, a generation later, the church continues its commitment to work for justice for those who suffer due to poverty just as it begins to reach out to people of means and the emerging middle class.  This is not easy.  The church is working to rely less on international support.  This is not easy.  The church is figuring out how pastors can be "tent-makers" - that is, working second jobs while continuing to be dedicated to ministry.  This is not easy.  As all of this struggle toward sustainability is taking place, the sister churches and companions from the US and other countries accompany their brother and sister pastors in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.

We recently received word that pastors are in need of emergency food aid.  We can imagine how difficult it is for pastors to admit that they need this help and to ask for it.  How would you or your congregation feel if your pastor told you that she could not feed her family?  that he was losing weight because he had no food?  that her debt from purchasing food and shelter over the last year was overwhelming and she was about to lose her home?

25 pounds of beans.  20 pounds of rice.  20 pounds of sugar.  5 pounds of coffee.  5 bottles of oil. 5 packages of pasta. 5 tins of sardines.  5 pounds of protein supplement.  2 packages of cookies.  2 boxes of matches.  4 pounds of corn flour.  1/2 carton of eggs.

This is the request for a 2 month kit for a pastor and his or her family of 5.

The Greater Milwaukee Synod is responding to this request, and will gather funds at our synod assembly in 2 weeks.  As we walk with the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in all of its struggles and they walk with us in all of ours, we cannot refuse a humble request for food.

At the same time, we accompany the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in its journey toward sustainability through good financial practice, through sustainable agricultural, education and employment projects, and through the support of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church Pastors Endowment Fund.  This fund has been growing for about 9 years at a slow pace through congregational gifts, individual gifts and more than $4000 in dimes and quarters from Salvadoran Lutheran Church members.  The fund has about $500,000 invested.  With $2,000,000 invested, the fund would generate enough interest to pay each pastor a basic salary so that pastors would not be hungry and would not fear becoming homeless.

This is not the usual type of story I write about in my blog, but I know that those who read this blog may have the spirit of compassion which could move them to help out - either with gifts in support of the emergency food project or the endowment fund, and with powerful gifts of prayer for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church in its walk toward sustainability.  Information about the endowment fund is available on Facebook and on the Partners with El Salvador web site.