What is your passion? Football, politics, arts? Whatever it is, to use it as a platform is the easiest way to get to know your community and to make your faith known in a non-threatening way.
Gardening is my passion – alongside a great delight in the natural world, lovingly provided by our creator God. So here in Gloucester where my husband and I find ourselves with a much smaller garden than the previous one and in a community of great social needs – I have noticed the sadly neglected bits of communal green space and got stuck in.
Whilst getting ‘down and dirty’ I have met fellow community-minded people who are also having a go at tidying the district. One is a litter picker, another wanted to create an attractive corridor from the car park to the cathedral – especially for the many visitors to the Three Choirs Festival. Another is a researcher for Defra, keenly interested in ecological improvement and willing to lend a hand with the heavier stuff. Another, like myself, is a very keen gardener and I, as Assistant Priest in the parish, also wanted a way to get to know and to help my parishioners. We are supported by a lady who works alongside the council in community building.
There are many raised beds here – built alongside the flats and houses that have very little garden space – but most had become fertile ground for weeds, bottles and cans, and sadly, even hypodermic needles. As we have begun working together we have commandeered the help of Gloucester City Homes (the current owners, or agents of most of the housing) to clear the spaces – at least to make them safe and workable. Much of the digging and removal of roots has been done by ourselves – who needs a gym!
As we have worked in the odd hours we each have available, we have got to know our neighbours and they, in turn, have asked for help, offered to water, sometimes even got involved in little patches near their homes to keep them tidy. We have grown plants from packets of free seeds attached to magazines, bought some with a variety of small grants we have procured and added our own plants, propagated in our gardens.
It is important to note that we make it known that we are simply volunteers and focus on the communal areas, we do not take on the private gardens though we are happy to advise. We want to enable and encourage residents in their own engagement.
My fellow keen gardener has a gifted husband who has graciously made wooden planters and bird boxes for us. The Pelican public house has become our base for the group meeting. We have opened a bank account and three of us are signatories, and, we have been followed keenly by many a small robin or blackbird as we turn the soil. The reach of communication is growing.
One highlight was the Gloucester City Homes open day this summer in Fountain Square. GCH brought along a barbecue, various other socially-minded agencies had stalls and brought along their wares – debt advice, volunteer gatherers and the like. Westgate Gardening Group brought a display board with before and after photos, a few plants for sale, offers of advice, and our own requests for more to get involved. It was great fun chatting to the local residents and we did a spot of weeding whilst we were there. GCH are chuffed to bits that we are helping as they are strapped for cash and professional know-how and recognise the need for this work to be done. Thankfully they have been generous and we have had funds for compost and bedding plants for example.
As a group, we are not faith-based but I am recognised, with my role as priest, and accepted. Often I wear my collar as I stop for a half-hour of weeding between visits and services. It is a helpful symbol to open conversation. Slowly there are those who are gaining confidence and asking me questions or asking for prayer, slowly they are more open with their neighbours, slowly there are those that I find I can help in other ways and endlessly these colourful people, made in the image of God are inching towards the Kingdom of God. And the place really does look much prettier!