Friday, September 4, 2009

Missio Dei: A Gardening Story

Erin Dunigan wanted to know more about the Irvine Pres Garden club idea that is now percolating in our midst. Here's the story.

Missio Dei, as you know, is the "sending of God." My story begins with a question, God, where do you want to send me, where should I go? As I asked this question, I also felt led to pray for a specific grace: for God to increase the desires in my heart for the things He wants me to do. Grow those desires that are in keeping with His original purpose for me, and decrease those that draw me away from Him. I'd already identified gardening as a life-giving activity for which I should make time. After all, it was in the Garden of Grace, as I call my garden, that God, day after day, restored me to wholeness and still continues to do so.  It's in the garden I learn. To find nourishment in His word and meditation. It is here, as I water, plant little seeds, watch the seedlings emerge that I see my Creator more and more clearly. He's bound me across time, miles of ocean and a couple of continents in deep bonds that nourish my soul. Very much like the clinging Trumpet vine that grows into the tallest trees in my garden. Specifically, he brought my sister Arlene and Lucy back into my life in very meaningful ways. Lucy was like my older sister a long time ago but that's another story. Now, Lucy, having responded to God's call a few years ago, in yet another dramatic story, manages Pravaham: A Community for Peace and Justice, a non-profit Christian education center in South India. Arlene volunteers as the Alpha Basic teacher and was instrumental in getting me involved with Pravaham. Now, supporting Lucy's work there, through chores done here -  fundraising, creating and maintaining their website, editing quarterly newsletters, etc. - is a joyous privilege that draws me ever closer to God and the global family of Christ. It also eases a deep hurt inside my heart about poverty in India.

God was also busy preparing people around and in my church. He brought me new friends, Nancy, Cindy, and Suzanne among many others. A couple of years ago Nancy traveled to India and met my sister. Nancy even attended worship service at my sister's church. Thus, Nancy's heart was prepared for Pravaham: how Lucy takes in 30 girls each year and provides them with a vocational education program as Nursing Aides, and places them in jobs as Home Nurses. The girls are from the poorest of rural families that live in the villages surrounding Pravaham. They are often 'dalits' who according to India's caste system are 'untouchables' and live segregated from mainstream village life. Captured by Lucy's unique work, Nancy got our church's missions committee involved too. Soon, Pravaham became a prayer partner. Thanks to Cindy, Suzanne, and Wendell (Nancy's husband) we even organized a gala Friends of Pravaham meeting last year for Lucy's brother, Paul, and his wife, Annie.  Paul and Annie are internationally known Dalit human rights activists and scholars. Thanks also to Cindy and others' student sponsorships, late last year, Pravaham became a mission partner of Irvine Pres.

Meanwhile I had began serving on the church's Missions Committee. Pravaham isn't the only project I champion at my church and Missions isn't the only committee I attend. I taught women's Bible studies last year and will be introducing the Ignatius Spiritual Exercises this fall. I also help out with various ministries: VBS this summer, Alternative Christmas Bazaar last December, and starting soon as a Deacon. Spiritual discernment, deciding which of the good things God is calling me to do, is very much in keeping with the Ignatius Spiritual Exercises I did last year. The idea for a garden club emerged from such discerning prayer. Very simply, I needed to combine my activities: I could volunteer full time in my church and still do more, and I also have a family. Christian self-care, though, means that I must not add to the burden & busyness of my life or those in my faith community. What do I mean by burden & busyness? Busyness is easy. Simply that people, including me, are very busy, always on the go, always engaged, somehow over-committed [note this is an observation not a judgment]. Burden is less easier to explain but here's what I mean. Worship and church work/events, I noticed, tended to have a predominance of women. Husbands and kids are not always there, and many spouses and children don't attend regularly or sporadically. This is a burden the woman carries. She has to make time for worshiping God as part of her faith community; she also has to ensure time with her family. We end up feeling conflicted and stressed. I also had a friend who'd moved 25 miles away and was having a  challenging time trying to stay connected with church. How could I help her? It didn't seem fair to always have her drive out to church events. Nor is she an isolated case. How could I bring kingdom people into the lives of our families? In other words, was there a way my friends and I could gently take church into our homes while also doing the 'mission' service we felt called and longed to do? God, in his marvelous way, had already set a plan in motion.

You see, my friends loved the gardening gifts I'd been giving them in recent years. We'd often talk about these gifts when we met. Spring bulbs last spring, heirloom tomato seedlings and other veggies this spring. They reciprocated with flowers from their gardens, plant cuttings, lemons, etc. Getting together and nurturing our love for 'growing gifts' as we'd laughingly call them, while doing work that might raise funds for Pravaham, began to appeal more and more to me. I first pitched the idea of a garden-cum-missions club to Jon, since he's one of the Elders who co-chairs our Missions committee. Jon had been asking me to invite new people to serve on an Asia missions subcommittee; we'd been trying, and nobody wanted to join us. Jon loved the garden club idea. My friends Andy and Suzanne offered their home for our first meeting. 5 of us met yesterday: Nancy, Wendell, Cindy, Suzanne, and I. We discussed the club's name, mission, and logistics. I also shared a report on IPC support of Pravaham. Our discussion was lively since we were well-fortified and energized by delicious treats Suzanne had made for us - eatable, wearable and ever so enjoyable :). Susanne's hospitality, another spiritual discipline like family life, is deserving of a complete separate post. I'll try and do that soon.

We're going to be a garden club which will do service projects. We're inspired, to have this model, by the current Third Saturday Service Project at Irvine Presbyterian Church.  We'll have a similar, informal structure. A different hostess/host will take charge of each month's meeting & activities besides of course, opening their home. What exactly will we do? Our meetings will vary between garden tours (e.g. members homes and gardens, Fullerton Arboretum, Sherman Gardens, etc.) , invited speakers (e.g. Dave Siaki on square foot gardening) and service projects (e.g. growing gifts fundraisers). Cindy offered to host the next meeting. This is going to be an experiment; we will plant seeds of herbs. Plans are to sell the seedlings at Alt. Christmas Bazaar later this year with the proceeds going to Pravaham. Nancy, who is a marketing expert, is going to come up with a name for our club and also send out the emails.  I will follow up with Pastor Tim and Jenny Hart Early Education Center about Tim's idea, which we loved, of a children's garden.

The simple truth is this:  I feel called to serve Pravaham, in India. I also feel called to serve my local and faith communities, here, where I live. God is teaching me how to do both, not necessarily by traveling to India right now or by leading a mission team from here to there. Rather, He's leading me to connect more meaningfully in Christ, here, by doing something we love, together. Gardening weaves us together more authentically within our families and everyday life. Through such connections, we live out God's mission and Christlikeness in the concrete, everyday reality of our lives: busyness & burden; we're kingdom people who don't forget the materially poor far away and graciously bear the spiritually poor among us.

Nancy just called me; she's come up with a name for our garden club: Seeds of Change. I am excited. It reminds me of a saying by Gandhi, the spiritual father of India: You must be the change you want to see in the world. Even more importantly, it reminds me of Jesus' Parable of the Seed Sower. May the seeds we plant and the seeds we sow be like the good seed that fell on the good ground and bore abundant fruit. May we always turn to Jesus, hear his word, and be the change he wants us to be, exactly where he sends us.  Thanks for the encouragement to share the story, Erin. Thanks, everybody, for your prayers.

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