tending space

On Saturday morning, a few dozen people converged in the drizzling rain on the Parktown Food Hub garden. Our friend Devak, a high schooler who has been volunteering in the garden for the past three years with a fantastic group of kids, had asked if he could do his Eagle Scout project with us, and Saturday was the day. There is always something happening at the Hub, but this was a particularly fun, loud, energetic, productive few hours.

Devak and his crew dug up an overgrown patio space in preparation for a permanent stone paver situation to be laid. They built new benches, turned an old shipping container into a new raised bed, and edged one of our in-ground lasagna beds (no, a lasagna bed is not where you grow tomatoes and basil; it’s a technique for amending soil with layers of cardboard, sand, compost, leaves, whatever else you can make use of to create good growing conditions.). The space was filled with Devak’s family, friends, and Scouts galore. They got SO MUCH work done.

The Food Hub is a fledgling organization, but it is incredibly well-connected. Its origins are in a church-planting effort led by Pastor Sharon, who has spent several years as what the ELCA here calls a “mission developer.” Sharon knew she was called to South Durham, and she spent the first months of her call meeting one on one with as many people in the neighborhood as she could, asking what was great about South Durham and what South Durham needed. One of those meetings was with Aja, a leader in the PTA at the local elementary school. Aja and the PTA had been running a food pantry out of the school for a long time, but there were limitations: the school wasn’t open on weekends or holidays or in the summer. Space was at a premium. Need was growing, and it was time for the pantry to expand.

Sharon was part of a Methodist congregation around the corner from the elementary school, where her wife, Lisa, was head of the Trustees. The church used to have a preschool in its building, but the preschool was long gone and those classrooms were mostly unused. Sharon brought Aja to see the space. The church agreed to share the rooms. Lisa’s employer made a sizable grant as seed funding. Community came together to clear out old toys, remove preschool shelving, paint the walls and clean the floors and transform the two rooms into something new and needed.

That was three years ago. I helped paint the walls at the Food Hub in the summer of 2019. When COVID hit in early 2020, everything changed for everyone, but people still needed to eat. The congregations that met in the building shifted their gatherings entirely online, but the Food Hub’s work required regular in-person volunteers, and folks were relieved to have somewhere to go and something to do. Lisa transformed the old preschool playground into a garden filled with donated plants and repurposed tools, and I started volunteering regularly out there, ecstatic to be able to safely leave my house and do something fun and purposeful.

Last year, when I left my denominational job, I came on board at the Hub as the Garden Minister. Most Saturdays, I show up and plant or water or weed or harvest something. In the summer, I spent sweltering evening hours keeping our precious plants hydrated. I did not know it was possible to be quite so invested in the lives of VEGETABLES, but here I am, an amateur gardener finely attuned to precipitation levels and planting calendars. I also help coordinate volunteers, do a little administrative work, and generally enjoy the opportunity to be a part of something good, generative, growing and so clearly Spirit-led.

I don’t know how to express the hope present in the Food Hub very well, in part because it is still actively unfolding and I am all up in it. Thousands of neighbors get food from the Hub each month, thanks to the Food Bank and the farmers from the local South Durham Farmer’s Market and the Holy Infant Food Justice Garden down the road and donations from so many people and organizations. Hundreds of people volunteer or give each month. The Hub has partnerships with the Islamic school across the street, a group called Mindful Families of Durham, at least a dozen congregations, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and the Neighborhood Association. A realtor friend offered her clients the choice between a Thanksgiving pie or a donation to the Hub last month, and most people chose the donation. A dance studio held a Trunk or Treat event where a local photographer offered a free photo to anyone who donated to their food drive for the Hub. Several times, large grants or donations have arrived totally out of the blue. There isn’t a hard line between people who get food and people who share food – a lot of us are both.

What’s hopeful about the Hub is not exactly that its existence helps people who need food get food, though that happens in increasing volume day in and day out – the Vision Board just voted to increase our monthly distribution capacity by almost 10% due to rising need. What I find hopeful at the Hub is the way that community begets community. Do you know what I mean? The whole operation runs on the assumption that there is enough abundance right here in our own community to make sure everyone – everyone – has what they need. Some of us need more food. Some of us need more connection. Some of us have extra resources, and some of us have extra time, and the Hub opens and tends a space where the exchange can take place.

And what I have witnessed is that this – opening and tending the space, nurturing connection and relationship – really is enough. More than enough. There is a boatload of actual labor involved, both manual labor carting boxes and sorting shelves and turning compost and administrative labor answering emails and navigating institutions and clearing calendars and buildings so that the work of connection has room to grow. But that labor is not grueling or anxious. It is not bent on institutional survival. It is not concerned with longevity or scarcity. The labor at the Hub is done in good faith and in good spirit, grounded in the assumption that it is worthwhile and meaningful and enjoyable, and that we do it together.

Opening the space makes room for people to show up with what they have to share, and BOY do people show up. Sometimes, they even bring dozens of other people with them and spend the morning digging out a patio in the pouring rain so that this work of opening and tending space for connection and community can soon be done outside in around a fire in the middle of our growing garden.

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