NEWBURY — The bounty of the harvest has a special meaning for members of the First Parish Church’s New Eden Community Gardens.
Located behind the church at 20 High Road, what was formerly an overgrown and underutilized tract has been transformed into a haven for local gardeners in the past few years. The open concept garden, which started with 12 cultivated plots in 2010 and has grown to 41 plots, is an exemplar for how a faith community can turn its environmental values into a practical, sustainable enterprise, said the Rev. Jeffrey MacDonald, who assumed the helm of the church in September.
New Eden plots are divided into increments of either 150-square-foot or 400-square-foot sections. Gardeners who wish to rent a plot must agree to use best organic, sustainable practices that emphasize good gardening hygiene, nutrition, companion planting and the creation of habitats that are beneficial to the creatures with whom they share this little piece of vegetative paradise.
The growers not only take responsibility for the care and maintenance of their own plot, but also the common areas, in an effort to create an environment that is pleasing to everyone who visits. Gardeners pledge to commit at least six hours toward the community gardening efforts and agree to donate a portion of their harvest to local food pantries through the New Eden Collaborative Food Initiative.
Frequently these stewards of earth and spirit belong to the First Parish congregation, but church membership is not a requirement. “What is a requirement is a desire to grow our own food organically and to share that experience with others,” said Edwina Goodhue, who has served as the church’s moderator for the past year.
New Eden director Patty McDermott says the garden “fulfills many of First Parish’s objectives to nurture spiritual souls as well as the environment.” New Eden gardeners are bound by the belief that growing their own food is a priority, and that tending soil along side like-minded people is “spiritually satisfying in and of itself,” she said.
McDermott stressed that keeping the garden organic is important because “it means we are only taking out of the earth what it will naturally provide to us — and not adding any harmful chemicals or pesticides that, though they may produce ‘beautiful’ vegetables, are not good for human consumption or the long-term viability of the naturally occurring beneficial organisms in the soil.”
New Eden’s noble mission was part of what drew MacDonald to the congregation. A freelance journalist, author and ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, MacDonald describes the post he assumed in September as more of a calling than a livelihood.
“Doing ministry is a privilege,” he says. “It’s an honor to serve in a community that has as much vision and creativity as it has history.”
“The church created its environmental mission several years ago, recognizing that this is an important value that historically and intricately connects religion to some real life challenges,” said Goodhue. “Jeffrey has embraced and incorporated these values into his role as our spiritual leader.”
Bringing MacDonald to Newbury is the latest in a series of forward-looking steps for a 378-year-old congregation whose cutting-edge environmental mission has captured attention in the academic world.
Last summer Cybelle Shattuck, a doctoral student in natural resource policy and behavior at the University of Michigan, traveled to Newbury to observe the New Eden Community Gardens. She said the most successful gardens she has observed are the ones that where congregation members and people from outside the faith community work together.
“These have a dynamism that is often lacking in a garden managed solely for the church or synagogue,” she said. “In fact, the latter rarely last for more than two years because the few active gardeners in the congregation burn out.”
Shattuck sees a project like New Eden as a catalyst for transforming both the faith community and the wider social community. Working together on the garden fosters relationships and trust that ultimate strengthen the community. Successful collaborations, such as New Eden, empower people to feel they can make a difference in their community and their world.
“That sense of efficacy helps counteract the despair that so many people feel as they hear about overwhelming environmental problems and the community ties counter some of the helplessness that accompanies the social isolation that has become endemic to U.S. culture,” she said. “By taking action together, people gain confidence that they can make a difference — they find hope, which then enables them to persevere.”