Disciple: The Edible Landscape
Christ the King, Charlotte, is transforming its property to feed neighbors body and soul
If asked to identify a defining characteristic of Chapel of Christ the King, Charlotte, many would readily say “community.” Not just in the sense of the relationships between congregants but because, at its heart, Christ the King, almost since its inception 100 years ago, has always and intentionally been part of the fabric of its surrounding community.
This year, they took the next steps on a project to weave those threads even more closely. Situated in the heart of Charlotte between a long-established neighborhood of modest homes and new, higher-end development, Christ the King is turning their very property into a welcoming bridge between the two, extending an invitation of hospitality to all to come together in community.
The project is an edible landscape, which is in the process of transforming the church property into a communal gathering space that invites neighbors to take part in gardening, events and gatherings or simply to utilize the space as a place to rest, meditate or enjoy the company of others. Food-producing plants and trees will provide access to healthy foods, inviting further opportunities to serve local residents through community meals and more.
[Image: The raised beds in the edible landscape at Chapel of Christ the King, Charlotte, are lit up at night by the surrounding city. Photo courtesy of Chapel of Christ the King, Charlotte]
THE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK
The first seeds of the edible landscape were planted in 2019, when the church was doing discernment on its next steps on how to serve its surrounding neighborhood. Using the process of asset mapping, the Rev. Reggie Payne-Wiens, vicar of Christ the King, and the Rev. Rebecca Yarbrough, deacon at Christ the King, led the conversations.
“About 20-30 years ago, we had a pretty successful after-school program,” said Payne-Wiens. “The church really wanted to go back and recapture that. But the reality was the neighborhood is completely different from what it was at that time, so it didn’t really make sense. I thought asset mapping was a good way to help folks see what the church has to offer now and how God was calling us to use it.”
Though the conversations started with no preconceived notions of what the new offering might be, Payne-Wiens admits to early suspicions that “it was going to be something around food and not children.”
Then one evening, Payne-Wiens saw a story on the evening news about an organization called The Males Place, an nonprofit that mentors young men in the Charlotte area on their journey to adulthood. Serving a primarily African American community of youth, the organization “provide[s] comprehensive and prevention-based behavior health educational programming, mentoring and life skills training necessary for manhood development,” doing so through “a holistic curriculum of programs incorporating educational, spiritual, agricultural, social, civic, recreational and cultural enrichment for our youth.”
The news story told of a burglary that resulted in the Males Place losing the tools they used in their agricultural programs. Payne-Wiens immediately wondered how the church could help the organization replace the stolen tools. He reached out to Males Place founder Reggie Singleton to see how they might assist. Plans for replacing those tools were already in motion, and the conversation turned to other topics, including Christ the King. Before it was done, the two were discussing the possibility of Christ the King becoming a site for one of the Males Place’s urban farm settings.
Singleton made a visit to the church, and as he walked around the property, he proposed another idea for Payne-Wiens and the congregation to consider. He mentioned the city of Charlotte’s Placemaking Grants, “a community-building initiative that…support[s]… transformative projects throughout the city to create and enhance community vibrancy, safety and identity through activation of leftover and/or underutilized spaces; streetscape improvements; art and beautification efforts; and [the] creation of community gathering spaces.”
The Holy Spirit was at work. At the same time, Yarbrough received a call from a friend at Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte, who, over the course of their conversation, told her about the Placemaking Grant program. When Yarbrough mentioned the grant to Payne-Wiens at a staff meeting, he said, “We kind of had a moment where we knew this is what we’re supposed to do.”
As ideas developed, the main thought was to create a community garden that would offer neighbors the twin gifts of food and fellowship: a communal space to enjoy gardening as well as access to the healthy food it produced. But despite the possibilities the Placemaking Grant offered in terms of resources, Yarbrough knew the city often hesitated to grant funds to churches, concerned the projects would not be as inclusive as proposed, with church interests having priority over the community’s.
Wanting to understand those concerns better, Yarbrough learned of a series of workshops for those interested in applying for Placemaking Grants. After the program, she approached one of the facilitators to discuss the project Christ the King had in mind. She asked if a church would be eligible for a Placemaking Grant for a community garden. She explained Christ the King’s intention to create a space for the entire surrounding neighborhood and how it was an incarnation of the diocesan commitment to building beloved community, in this case using gardening as a great way for people to enter into conversation and begin to form relationships.
She did not have to explain further. The facilitator turned out to be a member of St. Peter’s, Charlotte, who was well acquainted with our diocesan journey of Becoming Beloved Community and the longstanding service of Christ the King to its neighbors. Knowing Christ the King meant what they said, the facilitator indicated the proposed project, and the church, were absolutely eligible for a Placemaking Grant.
It turned out they really were. Yarbrough wrote the grant application, and in January 2020, Christ the King was awarded a $15,072 Placemaking Grant to create a landscape to welcome and create community among its neighbors.
THE COMMUNITY CHAPEL
Nestled in the heart of Optimist Park, not far from the center of uptown Charlotte, Christ the King has been a focal part of its neighborhood community since its founding more than a century ago. Originally built as a mill church for local workers, what began as a relationship with the predominantly white neighborhood never faltered as the neighborhood changed with the decades, as Christ the King became the predominantly Black congregation it is today.
Through the years, the church’s community ministry has taken many forms, including the aforementioned former after-school program; a music ministry endeavoring to create a full-fledged choir at the church; the Last Mile ministry, a partnership with the Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte to offer rides to anyone at the center who wants to attend services at Christ the King; a community lunch program whereby once a month Christ the King opens its doors to invite members of the neighborhood to share a meal; and the coffee ministry, which sees volunteers out in the local community offering cups of coffee and hot chocolate to neighbors, residents of the local Men’s Shelter, passersby and anyone finding themselves out in the elements. Though recipients may not know it, there is joy in every cup, as funds to support the ministry come, in part, from the Good News coffee can passed during Sunday services, when those who wish to share stories and updates of good things happening in their lives do so after dropping an offering in the can before speaking. Many of these ministries have been on a COVID-related hiatus, though the community lunch adapted to a sandwich ministry where church members made sandwiches in their homes for the local homeless shelter. As we reopen, so will the ministries. Because no matter what form ministry has taken, outreach to and involvement with its community is something that has remained constant at Christ the King.
The neighborhood around it continues to change; however. What was not long ago solely a working-class neighborhood has increasingly become a socioeconomic mix. On one side of Christ the King, visitors will see modest homesteads and Habit for Humanity houses, many of which have been there for 40 or 50 years or longer. On the other side of the church, new development is under construction, with old homes leveled to make room for condominiums, townhomes and large homes selling for upward of $850,000.
“We’re right in the middle,” said Payne-Wiens. “We [are] the bridge between these two communities and we have an opportunity to become that literal bridge with this edible landscape. [Residents] of these places don’t have any place to put their hands in the ground, and we can be that place for them.”
One of the stipulations of the Placemaking Grant was the creation of a coalition of neighbors, church members and community folk to offer input and hopes for this project. Among those partners were the NC State University county extension, the City of Charlotte and Trees Charlotte; together a vision was created and reflected in a series of drawings that represented the church’s plan for fulfilling the grant objectives and goals.
“It was a big plan, and one of the best things about it was that it really got us hooked in with people, including a landscape architect who worked for the city, who was able to create for us a project plan and layout,” said Yarbrough. “And she got us hooked in with Trees Charlotte, who provided all the fruit trees—I mean all the fruit trees—for free.”
Already completed was an evaluation of the property and the identification of more than 15 dead, dying and diseased trees that would need to be removed. This was not work that would be covered under the grant, requiring those involved to re-evaluate what could be done under the grant, what could not and what would require additional funding.
“It was like any other grant,” said Yarbrough. “You set out a plan for how you hope to spend the money and then you wind up having to go back and say, ‘We’re not going to do that; we’re going to do this, instead.’”
To help with adaptations not covered under the Placemaking Grant, the team submitted an application for and was awarded a $10,892 Mission Endowment Grant from the Diocese of North Carolina to help create a stone altar for an outdoor worship space. The original idea called for the altar to stand among established trees, but some of those trees ended up among those that had to come down. In their place, fruit trees were to be planted to create an orchard, leaving team leaders rethinking the wisdom of spending precious funds on the stone creation.
As conversation continued, the original idea evolved to reflect better the spirit of the project itself. It was soon decided that rather than building a single altar, a request would be submitted to the Mission Endowment Board to instead use funds to create a 10-foot wide deck to run from the sidewalk, along the length of the church’s outer wall, to the back of the parish hall. With its slight elevation, the space could be wired for electricity and an improved access ramp built for those who find stairs a challenge. The deck would still serve as a worship space when desired, but it also opened the possibility of local concerts, readings and other events.
“We could just picture people throwing down blankets and bringing picnics to listen to a steel drum band on the deck,” said Yarbrough. “It’s going to be much more inclusive, which is what we want it to be.”
PLANTING THE LANDSCAPE
With plans in place, work was originally scheduled to begin in March 2020, when the pandemic interrupted those plans, just as it did all others.
“We were supposed to start around March 24,” said Payne-Wiens. “I just remember that day. We were ready to go, we had college students ready to volunteer along with other volunteers from Holy Comforter [Charlotte] and a whole lot of other people. And we had to shut it down.”
By September, safety protocols allowed for work to begin again. Timing played a part as well, as planting can be done only in the spring or fall if the plants are to thrive. Over the course of multiple work days, the land was cleared and planting began, with volunteers from UNC-Charlotte, Holy Comforter and Trees Charlotte all returning to take part in what they had tried to start in March. And, of course, there were the congregants from Christ the King.
“Many of our parishioners are over 55,” said Payne-Wiens, “and a few deal with real health issues. Not only that, most of them work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days Monday through Friday, and yet, here they were on Saturday, putting in eight hours of digging and moving stuff around. It’s just humbling to watch how deeply this group of people love this place and want this project to succeed. It’s very humbling.”
More and more came out to help on subsequent work days. Every partner in the coalition was represented with volunteers who gave their time to assist. Students and parishioners continued to participate. Most importantly, the bridge the edible landscape was intended to build was already taking shape, as members of both the old and new neighborhoods came to lend a hand.
“One of the neighbors from the new part of the community came over to see the blueberry bushes,” said Yarbrough. “We got to talking and that Saturday, she and her husband came and worked as a team to go all the way around and clean out all the flower beds.”
By the time the last work day of the year was done, the orchard was planted with plum, peach and fig trees. Blueberry bushes line the perimeter of the property, and throughout the property are raised vegetable beds, ensuring access to anyone who wishes to enjoy the feel of their hands in the soil. Still to come is the completion of the deck, the creation of a memorial garden and the installation of a fountain.
THE FIRST BLOOMS
Work will continue throughout 2021, as the Placemaking Grant requires the majority of the work to be done by December. An official grand opening is in the planning for the early weeks of Advent, but the unofficial opening is already happening.
Schedules are in place for people to water and weed, and the vegetable garden is open and active with volunteer gardeners. Cooking classes are being planned for the summer. They are intended not only to teach those who attend how to cook healthy foods, but how to utilize the offerings of the garden.
“I took a cooking class that taught people how to manage their blood pressure through what they ate,” said Payne-Wiens. “Something like that can make a difference to someone who struggles to afford medication, so what other alternatives are there? We hope to introduce people to new things.”
Though it will be a while yet and dependent on how much harvest is produced, the hope is to open a neighborhood farmer’s market. As the city reopens, the community lunch will be reinstated, though its frequency will likely increase from once per month to once per week. There are talks to develop and offer a community dinner as well.
“The lunch and dinner would welcome two completely different crowds,” said Payne-Wiens. “The lunch crowd is typically all adults, whereas we think the dinner would invite families to come after school and work is done. The produce from our gardens will be part of what we serve at both.”
Also in development are gardening classes, with a hope that as those classes finish, participants will work with local residents to build raised beds and share gardening knowledge with them or simply provide volunteer assistance with individual landscaping needs. Cookouts and concerts are also in the edible garden’s future. And, of course, worship services.
“I certainly see the edible gardens as our invitation to the community,” said Payne-Wiens. “It is our job to welcome those who come to the space no matter what, but for those who see the deeper invitation to worship, it will also be our job to figure out how to welcome them into the church right there and then.”
It is already happening. “We had a person recently join the congregation simply because she heard about the ideas around the edible landscape and wanted to be a part of it,” said Payne-Wiens. “It feels good and scary and exciting all at the same time, and it’s going to be just great. It’s going to be awesome.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Ironically, with all the involvement of the local community, neighbors already making it part of their lives, and it quickly developing into a focal point of the Optimist Park community, the edible landscape does not yet have a name.
These involved trust the Holy Spirit will guide them in that decision just as the Spirit has been a guiding presence throughout the process.
“We asked God to show us what to do, and he did,” said Payne-Wiens. “There have been almost no pitfalls so far. Our biggest challenge was the project just kept getting bigger. But I was never surprised by that, because when I dream about something, God always surprises me with something even better.”
Every element of Christ the King’s edible landscape is designed to give to the community. But giving to the community is at the core of Christ the King.
“It’s just what they do,” said Payne-Wiens. “And our hope is this space will be for everyone a safe and sacred ground for people to become part of beloved community.”
PLANT YOUR OWN GARDEN
There are two key seeds of Christ the King’s edible landscape that can be applied to any “garden” you want to develop: asset mapping and grants. No matter what form your own ideas take, these are two helpful tools.
Asset mapping is the process by which strengths and resources are identified. There are many resources to help explain and get you started with asset mapping, including Called to Transformation, a partnership between The Episcopal Church, Episcopal Relief & Development and Learning, Faith & Media. Learn more at calledtotransformation.org.
Grants can be found in more places than we can name here. However, two things to keep in mind as you get started in your search for available grants: the Diocese of North Carolina has eleven grants and scholarships, including the Mission Endowment Grant, that may help you with resources. Learn more.
Sometimes looking for multiple smaller grants may be more manageable than the larger, more well-known grants, both in terms of the application process and the fulfillment and reporting requirements on the other end. Also, utilize relationships. Talk to other Episcopal churches in your area and get to know community leaders. You never know who will know the folks on grant boards who make funding decisions.
Look for the grant-writing guide by the Rev. Rebecca Yarbrough on the diocesan website.
Christine McTaggart is the communications director of the Diocese of North Carolina.
Images, from top: Volunteers build raised beds. Loring peach trees are just one of the many food-producing plants in the edible landscape. An architect’s rendering of the entire edible landscape at Chapel of Christ the King, Charlotte. Volunteers water seedlings, organize plants, and raise the sides of plant beds. Photos by the Rev. Kathy Walker and courtesy of Chapel of Christ the King; rendering by Lorna Allen, RLA, principal planner and urban designer