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Sherri Richards, Published May 31 2009

Garden takes root: Church members, refugees plant community plot

They dug in the dirt side by side. Different faiths, different cultures, but the same mission: to grow a garden and friendships.

Olivet Lutheran Church and First United Methodist Church began planting their refugee community garden Saturday near The Gathering, a Methodist church building in south Fargo.

Church members and refugee families dug holes and watered newly planted tomatoes. Children hauled buckets of compost into the freshly tilled 100-by-100-foot garden.

Olivet Lutheran, 1330 S. University Drive, Fargo, has been doing a community garden at The Crossroads, at 25th Street and 17th Avenue South, since 2006. Each year, church members and 12 refugee families planted a shared garden and plots for the families.

Vegetables abounded, as did relationships, said Nola Storm, one of the organizers. But this year, they worried a building project would displace the garden.

“We were really wondering where we would be planted, so to speak,” Storm said.

They found a partner in First United Methodist.

The downtown Fargo church merged with south Fargo’s Friendship United Methodist Church in 2006. Members wondered how they could use the land surrounding the building at 3910 25th St. S., now called The Gathering.

“Olivet was looking for a new place, and we were looking to do something,” member Janet Drechsel said. “It blossomed.”

The project helps members be good stewards of the land, exercise and reach out to the community, Drechsel says.

The 12 refugee families who take part in the garden project are mainly from Africa. Mahawa Jusu of Fargo is originally from Liberia.

“This was how we lived before,” Jusu said. “It makes me feel back home doing the garden. It makes our stress go down a little bit. … It keeps us busy. We meet friends.”

Drechsel said the focus on overseas missions can overshadow missions at home. “Sometimes we can do things in our own backyard, literally the backyard of our church,” she said.

Every Thursday evening, volunteers will meet at The Gathering garden. Olivet also was able to continue the 13,000-square-foot garden at The Crossroads. Volunteers are welcome at noon Wednesdays. Extra crops will be donated to local food pantries.

Other new community gardens are sprouting, said Rory Beil, director of Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative. The YMCA will add a 1,300-square-foot garden at its Schlossman location. TNT Kid’s Fitness is starting a garden as part of a youth fitness program. Catalyst Medical Center, 1800 21st Ave. S., Fargo, will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday for anyone interested in planting at its half-acre plot.

Beil says the economy has made gardening more attractive, and that it’s a natural extension for faith and refugee communities.

“Many refugee families have agricultural backgrounds, so a community garden is a natural way to help them eat well but also use skills they have and feel like part of the community,” Beil says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556