Cultivating Justice in Westfield

October 5, 2021 | | GNJ News

“The God we worship dwells among us as a gardener who holds the soil of our lives in his hands, showers it with rain and blesses it with fruit that gladdens our hearts and satisfies our stomachs…A caring, faithful, and worshipping humanity is one of the garden’s most important crops.””—Norman Wirzba, professor, author and speaker

Right down the road from the YMCA in downtown Westfield sits a beautiful landscape of about a dozen different gardens that offer sustenance, a learning opportunity and a place to gather for conversation and reflection. As you walk past each one, you are greeted by vegetables, flowers or herbs that embody a larger message of equity, justice and a reminder that we are all stewards of God’s creation.

First UMC (FUMC) Westfield cultivates these gardens where they grow healthy food for local families in need like those who are part of Family Promise, a Westfield food pantry and a Presbyterian church in town.

Called the “Justice Gardens,” each plot highlights humanitarian and environmental issues and ways that people can do good for others. Retired GNJ ordained elder in GNJ, Rev. Dr. Dan Bottorff who has been a member of the church since the early-1980s leads the effort of tending to these gardens, a role that he embraces as a labor of love as well as a new learning experience.

“There’s a community in the church who has an investment in the garden,” said Bottorff, who added that one family recently joined FUMC after noticing the rainbow pots in the gardens and the message that they shared. Bottorff, who was quick to say that tending to the garden is a team effort, provided pastoral care for GNJ for 14 years in addition to being a licensed psychotherapy & marriage counselor.

He mentioned that one of those helpers is the newly appointed Rev. Alison Vanbuskirk-Philip who he said, one afternoon potted seven plants.

“It’s a ministry of hospitality. It’s a ministry of open arms for those who come, and it’s a reaching out of our arms to those in need,” said Vanbuskirk-Philip, who added that the gardens have been a wonderful place to congregate safely during the pandemic.

“They are spaces for the community to eat, walk, reflect and pray,” she added. Although FUMC used to host families from Family Promise, the pandemic has put that on hold.

The project began in 2019 when FUMC was one of 42 garden projects in 14 municipalities awarded a $1,200 grant through the Union County Means Green Community Garden Grants program. With the grant money, a student from Drew University brought the idea to fruition, with the help of local Scouts as part of their Eagle Scout project.

Two growing seasons have passed, and the bounty of crops are still helping feed Family Promise families as well as others like the Westfield Food Pantry and the community that Westfield Presbyterian Church serves.

The gardens fall into three main categories of display, contemplation and production, and are associated with the broad themes of ecological, environmental and social justice. From the vegetable garden that speaks to food insecurity to the succulent garden that teaches visitors about clean water to the FUMC Memorial Garden with ashes buried from more than 100 people that inspires reflection and healing from loss, each garden features a purpose and an artistic element.

“They’re all different sizes and different needs,” said Bottorff. “There’s a sign at each garden that links it with social justice

“We try to thin out perennials in the beginning every spring and then put them in pots to sell. We usually made about $1,000,” he said, adding that the church receives free seeds and discounts from a local garden center and recyclable pots from the recycling center.

Each garden features a plaque with the garden description, a justice meditation, an art piece, rotating children’s artwork on the theme and suggestions for personal action. A printed guide explains each station.

Some of the other gardens are:

  • Garden by the front steps – rainbow design in flowers (symbolizing hope for the marginalized)
  • Pollinator garden – host and nectar plants for butterflies, bees and hummingbirds (combating loss of pollinators and their habitat)
  • Garden by the front masonry sign – church announcements surrounded by flowers and/or vegetables (focusing on the crisis of climate change)
  • Daylilies with volunteer tomatoes – contemplating land and ocean pollution
  • Shade garden – a cool, quiet space with bird houses and shade plants (centering on the serious effects of deforestation)
  • Tomato garden – heirloom tomatoes donated to the Westfield Food Pantry (representing the importance of pure food)
  • Basil garden – 10 varieties of basil for members and friends of the church (considering the contribution of plants to maintaining clean air)
  • Herb garden – common herbs for members and friends of the church (meditating on the importance of clean energy)
  • Rainbow garden – a universe garden with its own sun and moon where visitors can also watch the stars at night.

“The herb garden is located right by our front door, so everyone can take what they like,” said Bottorff. “The shade garden has chairs to encourage conversation.”

The gardens also serve as a wonderful opportunity for the community to participate in self-guided tours and provide educational seminars on gardening to encourage individuals and other churches and local businesses to plant their own justice gardens.

Bottorff regularly finds ways to connect to his community. He recently led a talk for the garden club in town via Zoom, and last spring a local kindergarten class planted peas. In 2020, he welcomed a church member who is a chef to plan a hot pepper garden. This was followed by a party online where members exchanged recipes and made hot pepper honey.

Visitors and bystanders often wonder how FUMC’s Justice Gardens grow so well, but its mission says it all: “seeking to love God and love everyone…to follow Jesus in word and action…to care for community and congregation by sowing seeds of grace, love, and joy.”

That mission of inclusion has seeped out into everything FUMC does. At a church, where nothing was done online before the pandemic, virtual services at the beach are now offered so people can watch anytime. They have welcomed new members and hosted baptisms online.

With Bottorff as a faithful steward and cultivator of not only plants but also community engagement, promoting justice and compassion for others, the church will be able to reinforce that mission of
inclusion every day.

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