Armed with soil and seeds, Catholics in blighted cities are taking social justice into their own hands.
In Camden, New Jersey a jumble of railroad tracks, freeways, and abandoned factories lace through the Waterfront South area on the Delaware River just across from Philadelphia. During heavy rains, a nearby wastewater treatment plant frequently leaks raw sewage onto the streets.
An urban exodus from Camden has left 4,000 empty lots in a 10-square-mile area; half of the houses have been abandoned. This makes the city a prime place for people to dump stuff they don’t know what to do with. One day an old speedboat ended up on Broadway, one of the city’s main streets. Two weeks before, a huge abandoned factory caught fire and burned to the ground.
Camden, once a thriving manufacturing center, is today better known for its crime, corruption, poverty, and urban dysfunction. It also must contend with the consequences of the industrial era: high concentrations of polluting facilities, diesel emissions, and contaminated Superfund sites (highly polluted locations the E.P.A. designates for cleanup).
Parishioners at Sacred Heart Church have been trying for years to turn things around in their neighborhood, and most recently they have focused on food.
“Food is the most basic justice issue,” says Andrea Ferich, director of sustainability at the parish’s Center for Environmental Transformation. “If you don’t have it, what justice is that?”
Ferich and her neighbors are hoping that the plants sprouting in their city garden will bring new life to Camden. Before the land was turned into a vegetable garden, it was a trash heap amid boarded-up rowhouses. Now it features lush green growth on raised beds, a greenhouse, and a farmers market.
To turn the tide of urban decay in cities like Camden, residents across the country have invested in backyard, community, and school gardens in order to provide themselves with good, healthy food. Catholics are among those creating, promoting, and volunteering in this effort as they attempt to meet Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. What they are finding is that feeding people enhances dignity among the poor, promotes justice, builds community, and offers healing.
Ferich, a Mennonite who converted to Catholicism last year, grew up gardening with her mother. She also learned the value of peacemaking, especially among the “forgotten people”—the poor, minorities, prostitutes, and addicts—of which Camden has many.
One night Ferich noticed a frail woman in oversized clothes shivering in the rain. She invited her in and gave her some food. As they talked, Ferich learned the woman was a prostitute. She asked her what she wanted, and the woman said she liked the garden. So the next day, the two gardened together. The garden was later named for the woman and now is called Eve’s Garden.
“The real vision in the Book of Revelation is Jesus returning to the city where a garden lies beside a river next to trees that heal,” she says. “I hold on to this narrative as I sit in our garden and love my neighbors.”
Excerpted from U.S. Catholic