Every time I take people on a Rainbow church tour, I make sure to take a loop around the outside of the building in order to point out Whitmore Park, the Mennonite Voluntary Service house up the street from the church, the bus stop/pocket park, the Rainbow Community Garden, the Rainbow Remembrance Garden, and the empty lots owned by the church.
Recently during one of these tours someone asked if all of this land and property felt more like a blessing or a curse. “With property comes great opportunity….and added responsibility and risk,” he said. Yes, indeed.
Rainbow congregant Aaron Barnhart asked a similar question years ago during a congregational meeting. Do we, he wondered, see our outdoor spaces as primarily maintenance or ministry, or both? Aaron is someone who spends just as much (or more) time walking and tilling the Rainbow garden as he does inside the building. He knows our church neighbors to the west of the church better than anyone, except maybe our regular Whitmore Park stewards.
To quote Aaron: “Rainbow’s green spaces (Park, Gardens, empty lots, etc.) are physical extensions into our community that we serve, many of whose members will never permeate the walls and hear our beautiful organ and see our lovely stained glass from the inside. This is our outreach to our community. And up until this point we have thought about it as a maintenance issue, done by committees. Maintenance is an important aspect, but it seems to me that there is an opportunity to think about green spaces not as singular units, but as a unitary whole.” Our outdoor spaces, Aaron reminded us, “are where we reach out and present our values to our neighbors.” These values, again according to Aaron, include providing a safe place for people to play, emphasizing nutrition and making sure people have access to healthy options, and telling our neighbors we love them by giving them a chance to rest their feet while waiting for a bus we advocated for.
This coming weekend during our Rainbow church retreat, attendees will reflect on the ministry and maintenance needs, risks, and opportunities related to these outdoor spaces surrounding the church building. We will consider the question: What values are we currently imparting to our neighbors via these green spaces? And are there new things we could try that would impart new or different meaning to these outdoor spaces? This is not a decision-making meeting, but rather a chance to reflect on the gifts and challenges that come with stewarding green spaces as a faith community.
Whether or not you can make it to the retreat, I hope we will all give these questions some thought in the weeks and months ahead.