tomato seeds

Our plucky little garden at the Parktown Food Hub operates, for the most part, on donations. We re-use and re-purpose things you would probably never guess had a second life hidden inside them. Our raised beds are constructed out of used shipping containers. The good soil in the beds is the result of three years of amending the North Carolina clay with broken bags of soil and mulch donated to us by the friendly folks at Triangle Ace Hardware down the street and our gorgeous house-baked compost, itself made up of the cast off of the cast off of the cast off from our broken food systems, and an unimaginable tonnage of shredded cardboard packaging.

Even Fran volunteers out in the garden.

The compost at the Hub is hard-working. Prevailing wisdom is that you shouldn’t put meat or dairy in your home compost pile because it will make the whole thing smell or attract unwanted diners to the pile. But our compost? It’s so fast and full and filled with browns (all that shredded cardboard packaging and unending fallen leaves from around the property) that it can eat up almost anything we feed it, save those dad gum tools of the devil, the produce stickers.

Last fall, Honey Bee Hills, one of the farmers at the South Durham Farmer’s Market (who share their food with the Hub every week throughout the year, getting elusive fresh produce into homes that struggle to find it) donated a boatload of tiny, delicious sungold tomatoes. Things move fast at the Hub, with literal tons of food coming in and going out each week, but we weren’t quite fast enough to get the tiny sungold tomatoes out to neighbors before they started to wilt and leak. The whole lot of them went into the compost, where the fruit decomposed and joined all the other rotting waste in making us more gorgeous soil. But those sungold seeds…

This year, we we shoveled the beautiful, dark brown compost onto all our spring beds in the garden and planted new seeds in them: lettuce and herbs and peppers and squash and cucumbers. And before we knew it, those sungold seeds, hidden away in the dark, dank, fertile world of the compost all those months, started sprouting…everywhere.

Tomato sprouts came up in the pepper bed.

Tomato sprouts appeared among the squash vines. 

Tomato sprouts filled the cucumber plot. 

A raised bed full of lettuce got taken over by sungold tomatoes. We tried to weed them out and finally, after weeks and weeks of weeding, just gave up and ceded the lettuce bed over to sungolds. The herb garden which we had neatly trimmed and tended, filled to bursting with the largest tomato vines I have ever witnessed, where tiny tomato after tiny tomato budded and grew and ripened faster than we could pick them. Volunteers spent several hot, sweaty Saturdays trying to wrestle the vines into submission. We had so many tiny tomatoes that we decided to send people home with tomato sauce kits – sungolds and herbs from our garden and a little recipe for how to roast and simmer them into homemade sauce. 

I have weeded out more tomato sprouts than you can imagine over the last six months, so many that the tiny little tomato stalks have filled my dreams some nights – and they JUST KEPT COMING. I think finally, here in mid-December, after a giant construction project and a few freezing nights, we *might* have come to the end of the sungold sprouts. Maybe.

I shared this story in a sermon about the parable of the mustard seed back in October, and when I told Farmer Rich from Honey Bee Hills farm about it, he quipped: “Just goes to show, doesn’t it, that sometimes you reap what you DON’T sow!” And, well, his sermon would probably have been better than mine.

I’ve already written about how Rich and Liz sold Honey Bee Hills and are living on their sailboat, now, and the hopefulness of people upending rotten food systems to make sure everyone has enough. But I have also found hope this year in the seeds themselves. Those sungolds were done. Finished. Rotten. Kaput. Left for dead in the compost pile. We were grateful for their service, grateful for the donation, grateful to have them added to the rotting mound that would eventually become new soil, but we never expected that they would SPROUT. We did not plant those seeds – they hid out, waiting for the right moment, and when the sun finally arrived, they did what they do: found water and light and germinated, grew into giant vines and produced food that ended up feeding a dozen or more families.

And I wonder, in these days when things are dying all around us, if we might choose to believe the truth of the garden: that what we perceive as the end might actually be a beginning in disguise. That those systems and habits and familiar patterns that we sense fading or being taken, abruptly, away from us might not be lost to total oblivion. Maybe, instead, they’re just in the process of shedding their detritus and hiding the seeds away, wintering for a while until the conditions align for them to break open into the new thing, in the new place, for the new people.

I suspect that is happening all around us. I hope it is true.


Meeting newborn Violet Harris in person was the first of my pandemic losses. It was March of 2020, and Violet’s family had just joined our congregation a few months before. I had planned to head out to Winston-Salem, an hour and a half’s drive, to visit with Violet and her mom, Amber, but the headlines about COVID were getting scarier and scarier, and the last thing I wanted to do was track some horrendous novel virus across the state to the lungs of that precious newborn baby. We met over FaceTime, instead.

2020 was a big year for the Harris family. Violet arrived and joined her two big brothers, COVID changed everything, and Amber finally turned her long-time dream into a reality: SPARK, a locally-based community service connector. Although that description pales in the light of what SPARK (Spreading Peace and Rekindling Kindness) actually *does.*

I’ve known Amber a lot longer than her family has been at Peace Covenant. We met when we worked together on a District Event ten years ago, and when I moved to North Carolina, the District assigned me to be Amber’s official mentor in the ordination process. Back then, Amber was several years out of seminary and working in youth ministry at a Methodist congregation. And while you’d think that would qualify someone to be ordained – obviously trained and clearly working in ministry settings – the polity (that I wrote!) requires someone to have a call *within* a Church of the Brethren context in order to be ordained. The Methodists weren’t cutting it. But Amber’s call has always been bigger, more ecumenical, more inclusive than denominational polity can handle.

Even then, in our first official meeting, Amber knew what she was called to do: create a service organization that would connect local non-profits and faith communities in Winston-Salem, offering opportunities for individuals and groups to serve and build relationships. It was a ministry that confounded polity and practice, but it has always been a crystal clear calling on her life. Amber ministered with the Methodists for a while, then took a job as the Engagement Director at a local YMCA camp, and when she went on maternity leave, had Violet and lived through the onset of the global pandemic, she knew it was time to make a move on this dream and call that had lived with her for so long.

SPARK started in 2020, when the world got turned upside down and peoples’ hearts were softened, looking for opportunities to connect and serve in new ways. The most recent case for support shares that SPARK has engaged 1,428 volunteers from 50 groups in 63 service opportunities. There are coat drives and peace pole projects, an ongoing effort to refurbish used furniture for families moving into new homes, partnerships with local coffee shops and faith communities and universities (the Wake Forest basketball team shows up on SPARK’s social media with regularity, volunteering all over the community!). Their summer service weeks are in collaboration with a Lutheran congregation of people experiencing homelessness. Amber could tell you a dozen more collaborative projects that I’m failing to mention, here. It is a beautiful, hopeful, labor-intensive thing.

Amber and her partner Preston, who owns a busy construction company where he lives out his own clear calling in the world, are spreading peace and rekindling kindness all over the place. Preston’s co-parenting and solid support of Amber’s call alongside his own has brought the church ladies to tears more than once. Amber will be the first to tell you that even though she has been the one chosen to steward this gift and calling, to spend her days shepherding it into reality, every step of the process has been collaborative, connected, and brought into existence through relationship and partnership.

Amber is no longer my mentee – she was ordained this year in one of the most beautiful ordination services I’ve experienced. There was a Baptist preacher reading scripture, an unhoused friend leading the singing, a Methodist pastor sharing the prayer, a Lutheran church-planter doing the preaching, a Brethren executive officiating the actual ordaining, and a gifted artist turning all that wide-ranging hope into a painting in real time. I am not the best mentor. They keep assigning me people whose beautiful, creative callings don’t fit neatly into church polity, which means that all I can do is say “Yes! This is clearly from God! Keep busting your head against that brick wall of denominational policy and practice until something, somewhere, gives way!”

And in my experience, that is exactly what happens. God’s calling and presence in the world are so much bigger, so much more expansive, so much more creative and connective and inclusive than any of our attempts at policy and procedure can begin to accommodate. I am grateful for policy and procedure – at their best, they help us keep up with what God is already doing, create connections and structures of support that people striving to live out divine callings in this world desperately need. But polity and procedure are not where the Holy Spirit sets up camp. She’s far too curious for that, way too wily for that kind of containment. That is the gift of knowing Amber, and so many other people like her. They know with bone-deep certainty that this thing that doesn’t make sense to other people is actually exactly the thing they are being called to do. The prophet Jeremiah said that his calling was like a fire shut up in his bones, that he got weary of trying to hold it in. Praise God for people who finally give up on trying to hold it in and just do the dang thing, already. Y’all give me hope.

guaranteed income

One of Jesus’ parables that my congregation studied this fall was the Parable of The Laborers in the Vineyard, from Matthew 20. It’s a story Jesus told about a landowner hiring day laborers to work in his vineyard. He hires workers early in the morning, then again around 9am, again at noon and again at 3pm and even goes out one last time to hire workers at 5pm, who barely get an hour’s worth of work in before the sun sets and the day ends. At the close of business, the landowner calls up the workers who started late and gives them the full day’s wage he promised to those with an early morning start. Then he calls the rest of them up, in reverse chronological order, so that everyone watches as everybody gets the same payment, no matter how long or hard they worked in the vineyard. The early morning guys are grumbly: “didn’t we earn MORE than those lazy kids who just showed up an hour ago?!” And the landowner gives this line that will echo in your heart for all your days if you take this stuff seriously: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

In our class the day we studied this parable, my church people got to the real-life parable example I was going to introduce before I had a chance to mention it. “Hey! This is sort of like the guaranteed income pilot here in Durham!” And you know what? It really, really is.

Through a grant from Twitter (yes, before Elon brought his destructive brand of chaos and dissembling upon it) and former Mayor Steve Schewel’s partcipation in a group called “Mayors for A Guaranteed Income,” 109 formerly incarcerated neighbors in Durham are receiving $600, no-strings-attached payments each month this year. Durham is one of only two places in the country running a UBI program with formerly incarcerated people.

Folks were invited to apply for a lottery that determined who would be a participant, and the 109 people selected have been getting $600/month, with no strings attached, for 12 months, now. The data is incredibly encouraging: even though recidivism rates stubbornly hang around 40% – 4 out of 10 formerly incarcerated people will be imprisoned again within 3 years – none of the Excel program participants have been re-incarcerated. Recipients spent the money on food, hygiene products, clothes, gas, rent and medical expenses – exactly what you and I might spend an extra $600/month on.

Here’s a report from the local news about how successful the program is:

If you haven’t heard of guaranteed income, otherwise known as universal basic income, here’s a great article from this fall in the Washington Post. The idea is very simple: regular, no-strings attached payments to people regardless of “merit” or “qualification.” It is an empirically tested and proven way to lift people out of poverty, improve well-being, keep kids cared for, and help people find jobs. The data is incontrovertible – it happens every time the program or something like it is piloted. In the US, pandemic measures made incredible difference: the Child Tax Credit temporarily lifted THREE MILLION CHILDREN out of poverty, but our government refused to continue the payments.

I don’t know what it is to live in poverty, but I understand the difference that a guaranteed few hundred dollars each month can make in a household budget, and I bet you do, too. $600 a month would cover my out-of-pocket health insurance and the cost of things the pitiful policy doesn’t cover. Several of my friends are currently doing difficult math around whether or not they can continue to afford childcare if the pause on student loan payments does, in fact, end next year. And these are the financial questions of solidly middle class families – those dollars have exponential impact on smaller incomes and larger families.

Like the Washington Post reports, empirical evidence that UBI solves all kinds of problems isn’t enough to inscribe it in our policy. Our hearts here in the US are really hardened against people getting what they haven’t “earned.” Three million children fell back into poverty, y’all, because of our hardened hearts. Three million. We ARE envious whenever anyone else chooses to be generous.

But right here, in my own city, there are programs at work that fill the spreadsheets with even more incontrovertible evidence and, at the same time, act to start softening our hard hearts. I wonder how we can continue that work – both in our own hearts and in our public policies. Maybe you are a landowner, or a rich man – the people Jesus tells a bunch of his stories about, because their resources are needed and their hearts tend to be hardened – and you can practice generosity in a new way. Maybe you are a hard worker, a workaholic, even, whose splintery, grumpy heart could stand to be sanded down. Maybe you are a day laborer delighted with this recent windfall. Maybe we can all learn to celebrate generosity together. The “maybe” – that’s where the hope lives.

barn raisers

For the last few (too few) years, I’ve been learning and lamenting the white supremacy and racism that shapes everything about our world here in the U.S. White supremacy lives in policies and political structures, institutionalized assumptions and interpersonal interactions, and white supremacy lives in me, too. There is no perfect way to talk about this: I’m a white lady who arrives in every situation and to every page with my white lady formation and white lady assumptions, and those things shape my understanding and my action, all the time. The trick, for me, is balancing that self-awareness, inner work and humility with necessary boldness in joining in, showing up, and participating in collective moves toward change.

To be honest, I prefer the inner work to the showing up. In a job interview last week, the interviewers asked about my commitment to and experience in working in racially diverse contexts, and I had to answer that while I have a deep commitment to racial justice, most of my professional life has been in primarily white institutions, which have struggled (and sometimes outright refused) to incorporate racial diversity or even racial awareness into their corporate realities, and I have not been sure how to address that in good, generative ways. The action part is hard for me. And, thanks to friends and colleagues who insist on it, I am learning.

This fall, I joined a cohort with the Barnraisers Project. I first heard about founder Garrett Bucks when he was interviewed in Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter, Culture Study (the best thing in my inbox each week, go subscribe.) I was taken by Garrett’s combination of deep analysis and humor. The cohorts that he and the team at Barnraisers run are designed to move white people from that space of feeling guilty and knowing we should do SOMETHING to figuring out what that something might be and how we can go about it with integrity and care. The cohorts teach a model of organizing. Every session, Garrett told us a story about real white people in history who acted in cooperation with people of color to make real, material, visible change in the world. And every session, we entered into scenarios where we imagined ourselves into figuring out what we would or could DO in situations where it would be easy, a piece of cake, really, to avoid taking some risky action needed to connect, challenge, and love the white people who disagree with us.

I struggled with the work of this cohort. I am in a weird place, vocationally, and it was hard to imagine the specifics of scenarios, hard to grasp the particular context in which I could or would be organizing other white people. Other folks had clear and specific goals, already: one pastor was working with a community organizing group in his city, and had already been about the work of instigating and entering into pointed listening conversations with his congregants. A young woman in D.C. wanted to know be a better ally with BIPOC people in the very white reproductive justice space there. I felt adrift, not quite sure that “organizing” was an entirely ethical thing to do with the same people that I pastor, and also not really connected enough in other spaces to imagine doing the work elsewhere.

But the real struggle was Garrett’s insistence on loving other white people. Look, I’m a pastor. Loving people is literally my job. But in this organizing context, the context of hard conversations that include a lot of listening and lead to something specific and concrete, loving people means not only accepting who and where they are at any given moment (which I am practiced at doing) but ALSO being confident that they are capable of engaging, listening, and changing their mind. Loving people in this way means trusting that they are just as complicated as I am, that we are both doing serious internal work, that their commitments and concerns are valid and worth hearing, that there can be common ground for us, even if that common ground is our struggle to find common ground.

It is hard to love people like that in the contexts where I am working. Just last week, some of my colleagues were upset with me. I don’t know exactly why they were upset, because instead of respecting me enough to reach out directly, they called my District Executive to tattle and complain. I do not trust that other white people in my networks are capable of engaging, listening and changing their minds, in part because they have repeatedly proven otherwise. And that leaves me in a bind, spiritually as well as logistically.

And how, after telling you all that, am I going to land this plane on the promised runway of HOPE? The Barnraisers cohort pushed me to consider my antipathy and start moving beyond it. Our homework assignments included a worksheet called “loving yourself/loving other people,” which instructed us to list our own strengths, and those of others: “What amazing things could be true if this person were committed to anti-racism?” And later in the semester, we were assigned a “love/struggle” story, where we had to dig down to the vulnerability in our own anti-racist journey and figure out ways to share THAT, instead of just our superiority and successes. I’m slowly – very slowly – starting to understand that connection begins in shared vulnerability, that there is no traction or prize in being a “good white person” who has figured SO MUCH MORE out than these other people. I have started asking myself why these folks continue to upset me so much and if, perhaps, it has anything to do with my own tentativeness and failure in the same arena.

I’m still struggling. My pastor job is shrinking to 1/4 time in the new year and I am actively interviewing for new full-time jobs, most of them not at all related to church work. I have no idea what kind of organizing I can or should be doing. I’m still way more comfortable with the quiet inner work than the active outer work. (See: this blog post. See: my every blog post, ever.) But Garrett’s good humor and insistence that we won’t get anywhere by blaming and shaming other white people, the work of entertaining those simple questions oriented toward compassion and benefit of the doubt, paired some practical tools and skills around organizing have moved me closer to taking the leap. I still do not know what that leap is, and I mostly feel stuck in mid-air. But I am more hopeful than I’ve been in a long while that something else is possible and that I can be a part of its arrival.

inciting joy

I read a lot. 110 books so far this year, with another three weeks and a TBR (To Be Read) stack of 6 left to go. It’s not a new thing: I always won the personal pan pizza in the Pizza Hut Book-It elementary school challenge. Reading is like breathing – I cannot imagine life without it. I used to fret about what I was reading, trying to stay abreast of the trends in literary fiction and reading only the Important Books of the year. It turns out, though, that a lot of the Important Books are also Soul Killing ones. My friend Jess gave me that line years ago, when we were trying to find books that weren’t written by middle aged white men with chips on their shoulder. “These guys kill my soul,” she said. I read a lot of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, and while I don’t really ever regret reading, I do wish I’d had a broader booklist back then.

I’ve since expanded my reading wheelhouse. I read way more women and people of color, books in translation and non-fiction. But I also settled in to middle age by giving myself permission to read gobs of romance novels and mysteries. Gobs of them. They are charming, sweet, certain to be resolved, and they go down easy. They remind me why I learned to love reading in the first place: because it’s FUN. Maybe another hope post is about the joy of those books this year.

But today’s post (on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, known as “Gaudete Sunday,” the Sunday of JOY) is about the best book I read in 2022: Ross Gay’s “Inciting Joy.” It’s so good that even though I spent a good chunk of this fall culling my bookshelves and getting rid of over 100 books, I have just about convinced myself to go buy a physical copy of this one that I read as a library e-book. It’s good enough to own.

Ross Gay is a poet and a teacher, and his writing is gorgeous and precise. His earlier book of essays, called “The Book of Delights,” was also a stunner, and I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. He writes about incitements toward joy, including grief, gardening, cover songs and basketball. Like the best poetry, Gay draws deep meaning from what most of us pass by as mundane, insisting that joy is not something we have to go out and discover but something embedded within everyday human living. He writes about what joy feels like, in his body, and he writes about where he feels it, places that include the community orchard he helped plant and his father’s deathbed. He writes long, meandering explorations of the best cover songs in existence and the joy of sharing ideas. His footnotes are an entire category of joy in and of themselves, and he is very, very funny.

“My hunch,” Gay writes, “is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity…My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow…might depolarize us and de-atomize us enough that we can consider what, in common, we love.”

I am learning, through this writing, about the ways that hope and joy are not external to our lives, not something we set out searching to find and obtain, but inherent, embedded, co-existent with our lives as they are right now. In an interview with The Nation, Gay says that he is “arguing for joy as a rigorous emotion that excludes no one and the repression of which is a kind of alienation, a suggestion that we ought to be alienated from one another. I think we have a profoundly immature idea of emotional states and have developed a sensibility that suggests sorrow and delight cannot coexist.”

Sorrow and delight, joy and pain, hope and despair not only can but also do co-exist. I have had trouble living that way these last few years, watching people I love grow sick and die, global pandemics sweep across the globe, religious institutions fail spectacularly at meeting the moment, politics get all the joy leeched out of them by either overly earnest or profoundly greedy people. What Ross Gay does is what Reservation Dogs does is what Jesus does in his parables is what, I now realize, I am trying to do in these dashed-off daily reflections: to remind us that THIS, right HERE, these bodies in this place at this moment, are the real thing. That we are capable of joy and delight even alongside the grief and struggle, that in fact, that mash-up of weeping and rejoicing is the only way hope has ever been, the only way hope will ever be.

reservation dogs

If you haven’t watched Reservation Dogs yet, WHY NOT!?

Yes, sure, fine, watching television is hard these days because you have to subscribe to one zillion different services and juggle all the webs of shared subscriptions and remember to Venmo your roommate from nine years ago to cover your part of her Hulu subscription only AFTER your cousin offers to PayPal you some cash for your Netflix account their kid watches all the time, and maybe you have just thrown your hands in the air and given up on television altogether. I would not blame you.

Except if that’s what you’ve done, you are missing out on some serious beauty and some real deep hope. There is a truckload of vapid, disgusting television, to be sure, and I am not entirely opposed to it (this week, I watched reruns of “Reba,” the sitcom starring the country music singer, during my lunch break, which is pretty much as vapid as it comes.). But if you’ve got the bandwidth and the attention span, you might be surprised.

Reservation Dogs is a dramedy (drama+comedy) about four tight-knit Native teenagers who live on an Indian Reservation. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, and filmed in the Muscogee Nation (otherwise known as Oklahoma), the entire show – cast and production team – is created by Native people. It’s the best thing I’ve watched in years.

I’m not the only one who thinks so – you can read about the show in every 2022 “Best Of” list, from Rolling Stone to the New Yorker. And I’m not a film critic, so you probably should go read some of those things, along with the interviews of the creators and the cast. But really, what you should do is find a friend with a Hulu or Disney+ subscription and watch the dang show, already.

Bear, Elora, Willie Jack and Cheese (yup, Cheese) have big plans to escape life on the Reservation, but the show manages to use that plot device as a way to tell stories about life on the Reservation that are so full of grief and hope, trauma and laughter that I actually pump my fist in the air when I see a new episode show up. The show starts with the kids stealing a chip truck. That’s not some fancy tech tool, it’s a big box truck filled with spicy chips called Flamin’ Flamers. The entire series starts off as a heist movie, complete with all the attendant action scenes and plot twists, but by the end of Season 2 we’re sitting with these kids inside the Indian Health Service, prison visiting hours, uncomfortable foster homes, and sacred ceremonies. There’s a spirit guide who manages to be a snarky send-up of indigenous stereotypes while ALSO occasionally offering actual sage advice. The local native policeman winds up wandering through the woods on a bad drug trip. In the Season 2 finale, the kids run into Jesus himself in an LA homeless camp.

I do not know how the creators of this show manage to cram so much of life into a 30 minute sitcom. I love the characters, I love their relationships, I love the humor. I am struck by the way that Harjo has managed to tell stories of harrowing realities that never abandon the anchoring bass line of communal care for one another. Cheese winds up in a foster home for a while and every hair on my arms was standing straight up waiting for one of the angry kids to beat him up, but instead Cheese insists on offering and receiving kinship and care. Enemies even become friends in this plot-line, but not before Willie Jack drops her on their head during a trust circle exercise. I keep being surprised by this show, which makes me love it all the more.

The other day, I wondered why we insist on making up vapid, cheesy, made-up realities to escape into or “entertain” ourselves with when real, everyday life is filled to bursting with drama, intrigue, conflict, reunion and reparation. Incredible stories are unfolding all around us, all the time; why not just pay more attention to what’s in front of our faces? Reservation Dogs feels like that: real life, where joy and pain are all mixed in together, tears and laughter follow on the other’s footsteps. It’s helpful, to be reminded of the ways that’s true, and hopeful to see how beautiful it can be.


It has not escaped me that I’ve been writing a lot about young people in this series on hope. I don’t have kids of my own, but I do have a tender spot in my heart for young people figuring out how to navigate this weird world, for their earnest assumptions of justice and their ability to be delighted. It’s not surprising that my Hope list is filled with youth. But elders bring me hope, too!

I’ve been friends with Lauree for a decade, starting when she and Kathie invited me to be a part of their writing group. I hadn’t moved to Durham yet, but Lauree hosted one of our writing group retreats in her house here, and it became one of those places that felt like home. I’ve moved over 20 times in the last 20 years, living lightly and transiently, so my sense of stability mostly came from other people’s places, friends who settled down sooner than I did, family who’ve lived in the same house nearly as long as I’ve been alive. Lauree’s house was small, cozy, and surrounded by her gardens. When I did eventually move to Durham, we had regular Sunday dinners together, sitting at her kitchen table surrounded by the farm baskets and Native weavings she’d hung on the walls. Lauree had FIG TREES in her yard, which seemed to me a great luxury. I didn’t spend as much time in her gardens as I could have, but I helped pot her saved heirloom tomato seeds, scanned the backyard grove for ripe pawpaws, filled my autumn kitchen with her butternut squash, and, every summer, joined the wasps to savor figs fresh from the tree.

Lauree is 88, now, and a lifetime of reading and gardening is catching up to her body. After succeeding at mostly avoiding the doctor all her life, she had cataract surgery and both knees replaced over the last few years. We share an independent streak (though I have no trouble admitting that hers is fiercer than mine!), and I wondered what Lauree would choose to do when the requirements of her cozy house and booming garden outpaced her energy and desire to take care of it all. I think she wondered, too. A few years ago, she heard about a new co-housing effort gathering steam right around the corner, and she went to an information session. It was a steep buy-in: the group was buying land and building a big new structure that would house 23 apartments, and members would have to pay up front. After a few months of difficult discernment, Lauree decided to join.

Co-housing is a really interesting concept. It’s not like my experience of community living back in my Brethren Volunteer Service days. I moved into a hundred year old house whose walls were literally crumbling. Nine or ten or eleven of us – it changed depending on the season – shared one car, cooked dinner for each other, argued about cleanliness and fought for use of the washing machine. The house was old and the electric wiring was weird, so if you wanted to toast your bagel in the morning when other people were trying to make their coffee or dry their hair, you had to yell, in your froggy, barely-awake voice, “TOASTER!” It was great. And it was horrendous.

Co-housing is different. There are various models, but it is essentially a way to have a private home AND shared spaces that foster community. Bull City Commons, the group that Lauree joined, started their cohousing effort from the ground up, so they recruited people who shared similar values, were willing to participate in a (very involved and time consuming, from what I hear!) model of self-governance called Sociocracy, and had excitement about communal living (without the need to scream TOASTER! whenever you used the toaster).

All at once, Lauree had a new house, new neighbors, new community, a new leadership role, and a new schedule. The months during their building project were filled with meetings and decisions. Construction was delayed and then delayed again, but in the spring of this year, Lauree and her coho buds all got to move into their new home together. It is beautiful. I mean, the building itself is really appealing, but the lifestyle is undeniably attractive, too. Every week, there’s Taco Tuesday, when they gather in the common room to eat tacos (and, apparently, whatever else anyone wants to share). Someone leads a yoga class several mornings a week. Someone else’s hairdresser friend shows up regularly to do cheap haircuts in the common room. There are regular movie nights, pumpkin carving, wreath making, cider pressing and so many other opportunities to connect and enjoy one another’s company that they post a monthly calendar in the elevator. Everyone has chores, and everyone serves on committees, and lots of people leave their apartment doors wide open. Once, when I was visiting Lauree, the neighbor dog wandered into her living room and joined our conversation. I love it. I think Lauree does, too.

I miss Lauree’s charming old house and her gigantic gardens, but I love where she has landed. It’s such a great place for her, and it is a bright, hopeful spot for me, too. I’ve had my share of roommates over the years, all of whom I still love, but I am no longer willing to be a roommate. I’m too independent and I value my solitude too much. But living as a single person in a world that assumes otherwise, I do sometimes long for a way to share life with other people that isn’t scheduled or programmed. I miss opportunities to chat about nothing, to eat a meal together without making complicated plans, to have a go-to person who could receive a package or take the dog out or pick me up at the auto shop while my car gets repaired. I have good friends who are more than willing to do all those things if I called and asked and arranged it, but it’s not a built-in part of the way I live. Cohousing is a way to build it in, while still maintaining privacy and independence. I am a little envious of Lauree’s new home, but mostly it feels hopeful to me that people are this invested and this creative and this willing to figure out ways of creating community that honors independence while simultaneously offering companionship. Hopeful.

it doesn’t have to be this way

For a while this winter, I was Muriel Knickerbocker, a wind suit wearing, mall-walking retiree who, along with her mystery book club, solved a string of murders in their tiny bayside town. I loved being Muriel.

Muriel was part of Murder Mavens, an RPG based on the television show Murder, She Wrote. RPG = Role Playing Game. Until the last couple of years, I did not know that RPGs could be FUN. I knew the acronym, but thought that world was only for the Dungeons and Dragons people who liked to cosplay druids and monks. I think my social circles have always been gamer-adjacent: I remember friends’ early post-college apartments set up to include gaming corners, and the boys of my seminary circle would pull all-nighters playing Axis and Allies. But I never got into gaming, myself.

My friend Carynne invited me to play a game online in the early part of the pandemic, as a way to be connected and find some fun in those weird, chaotic months. Our first game was called Good Society – think Jane Austen, matchmaking, failures of manners. It was fun, and engrossing. Carynne’s husband Garrett ran the game, and the four of us players mostly tried to make each other laugh. We named our little village Endwithton (because, I think, I said that the place should probably be one of those names that ends with “ton”…). I was Beatrice Fernside, a widowed old money heiress who lives for matchmaking.

We liked Good Society, but I never learned the rules. There were too many traits and rumors and points to keep track of, and I was really in it for the story. And the jokes. But after Good Society, Garrett and Carynne suggested Murder Mavens, and I was all in. Muriel and her buds solved murder after murder, flirted with the local sheriff, ruined a televised baking competition, and made enemies of the book club across town. For two hours every other Thursday, the real world melted away and all that mattered was whether or not we solved the made-up mystery and how ridiculous we could make the story.

We played our way through Murder Mavens, and after a few months’ break for a baby to be born and his parents to catch up on their sleep, we started a brand new game that Garrett is WRITING himself. Think collaborative post-apocalyptic N.K. Jemisin. Or just imagine me as a skilled naturopathic healer in flowy clothes named Antigone. Our first mission involved convincing teenage nomadic goat herders to help us break into a decommissioned auto city. It’s fantastic.

This collaborative gaming has been so FUN, in a season when fun seems to be in short supply. Every time we play, one of us says something to the effect of “I was so tired this evening and thought about bailing, but then we got into the story and I’m so glad I came!” The world as it is feels like it is always breathing down our necks, and the world as it might be has to fight to get attention. Playing these silly games has reminded me of the power of imagination – not just its utilitarian uses that we have to rely on to keep things running the way they are, but the JOY and DELIGHT in imagining other possible worlds together.

That’s not a revelation to anyone who reads science fiction or ever played make-believe. Mr. Rogers and Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin have been telling us all along that our imaginations are the key to our survival. I guess I just…forgot. Adults don’t get to play very much, you know? The practices of make believe have been monetized and optimized and twisted into advertisements. Having dedicated time and space to play, create, roam around in another world of our own creation reminded me that there are other possibilities for how we live together. It doesn’t have to be THIS way. And that is something like the very foundation of hope.

tiny church weddings

In the summer of 2020, a pastor friend from Pennsylvania sent me a note to say that one of her congregants, a recent college graduate, was planning to move to Durham with her partner. Would I, she asked, be willing to connect with them? I said yes, of course, and when I first talked with Kiera we realized that not only were they moving to Durham, hoping to connect with Peace Covenant, but they were moving into my own apartment complex. New neighbors!

It was 2020, though, which made everything about moving and settling into a new place complicated for Kiera and Helen. They both had jobs here, but making friends after college is always hard, and doing it in the midst of a global pandemic made it even harder. Still, they arrived, and we brought them housewarming cookies. At least once a week, Franny and I would run into Kiera, Helen, and their dog Prince as we all went out for our evening walks. Kiera started attending Zoom worship regularly, injecting our weekly reflection time with energy and grace.

Those pandemic months are all sludged together in my mind. I don’t know when the church asked Kiera to serve on our leadership council, but I do know that she excitedly agreed. I’m not sure when it was that Helen and Kiera got engaged at the Renaissance Festival, but I do remember the way they buried the lede in Joys & Concerns by starting out excited about how great the festival was and oh, also, by the way, they got engaged! It wasn’t long after the lede-burying announcement that they told me they would really like to get married AT Peace Covenant and have me officiate the ceremony.

I don’t know if you know this, but Peace Covenant is Tiny Church. I mean, we are small in number but we are also small in building. When the first group of folks who planted the congregation were discerning where and how to gather, the District provided funds and suggested a large, former Orthodox Church building downtown, but the congregation chose a tiny, cinderblock structure on the south side of town, instead. I have been grateful every day for that decision 25 years ago, because it means that our tiny congregation is not saddled, like so many other smaller groups, with the albatross of building maintenance, repair and expense. The building is perfect for our needs, and houses another congregation, two AA groups, and has a ton of potential. It is humble, cozy, simple and sacred. But it is not a space designed for large events. We hosted an ordination several years ago and the ecumenical clergy who participated were flabbergasted when I directed them to the single coatrack in the main room as the place to store their vestments, instead of a specially designed sacristy. Only one thing can really happen at a time in our building. One year, I forgot about the Chinese language school that met on Sunday evenings, and so we did our Love Feast prep to a soundtrack of Mandarin grammar lessons. You will not see Peace Covenant’s sanctuary showing up on a listicle of The Best Wedding Venues any time soon.

But Helen and Kiera were clear: this was where they wanted to get married. And they wanted to host the reception here, too. I told them all these things: it’s tiny! The kitchen is very small! We don’t allow alcohol on the premises! Have you seen the water spots on the ceiling tiles? Yes, yes, they said, we know. But this is our church. This is where we want to be married.

So, we started planning. They were aiming for a ceremony this fall. And then, just before I went on sabbatical for the month of March, grad school applications came back and the couple realized that they would be moving…to Ireland…this fall. We moved the wedding to April, squeezed in the rest of the pre-marital counseling sessions, scheduled a day for the congregation to spruce up the building, and I went on sabbatical.

The wedding was beautiful. Kiera and Helen were totally besotted. The building was FULL. The caterer squeezed between counters, tables edged up against walls. I ate dinner with Apple, Kiera’s surrogate grandma, and Walter, Helen’s gallant grandparent. There were twinkly lights on the walls and s’mores over a fire pit in the parking lot. It was one of the best things I’ve been a part of all year long.

Weddings are part of a pastor’s work, and I really do like officiating them. I’ve done my fair share of weddings, for friends and family and friends’ families (I married all three Rodriguez siblings over the course of a decade!). It’s an honor, every time – that’s the only cheesy way I can describe the gift of being invited into this sacred space with two people entering into covenant with one another. But if memory serves, this is the first time I’ve officiated a wedding for people who are active participants in my own congregation. And oh, was it sweet. Helen and Kiera moved here and became part of this community. They were my neighbors! Kiera – a young adult in a new place – was a committed and consistent part of our congregation’s community. And they chose our tiny little church and our tiny little building to be the space where they began this covenanted life together.

Our tiny congregation has a fantastic group of young adults like this right now, young people who show up and contribute and infuse us with joy and delight. College kids join worship over Zoom from their dorm rooms or the student center. Recent graduates patiently and gracefully explain gender expansive terms and realities to retirees. Grad students serve on our Coordinating Council and med students invite their friends to our potlucks. During our weekly worship time of sharing joys and concerns, we hear about weekend adventures, campus grief, and engagement announcements (Helen and Kiera are not the only ones!). For a while last summer, when the pandemic had finally lifted, there was a regular Peace Covenant Young Adult Dungeons and Dragons get together.

Young adults are transient. Kiera and Helen left for Ireland in August, and we miss them! Our other students are moving through their programs, and we know that life will ferry them farther away from us. But these young people are such a gift. They bring me so much hope, both in their willingness to be a part of something as out of the mainstream as a traditional Christian congregation and in their insistence that this tradition is worth challenging, expanding, and growing.

There are a million ways to be discouraged about the state of the Church these days – both the church at large and individual congregations. Culture wars, inflation, waning religious affiliation and shrinking energy levels are all real and present challenges for us to navigate. But beneath all the hand-wringing, there persists the power of community to surround one another in times of great pain and in times of great joy. Every time I encounter the doom and despair, the anxiety over institutional collapse, I want to say “Yeah, but can’t you see all the ways we still need one another? Haven’t you noticed all the ways people are still finding refuge and belonging here with us? Didn’t you notice those fairy lights still hanging from the ceiling, the way these walls are still reverberating with wedding joy, all these months later?”

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.