This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program.  Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.

A couple of weeks ago we pulled out all our summer squash plants because they were slowly being killed by vine borers. Our tomatoes are looking diseased. The purple beans are growing well, but they’ve had a few unfortunate encounters with little feet trampling over them. The sweet corn looks promising, and the eggplant and basil are doing great, but there’s only so much you can do with eggplant and basil…

Let’s just say that some of my hopes for an abundant garden at New Life Covenant Church this summer, from which I’d deliver overflowing baskets of produce to local neighbors, aren’t quite being fulfilled. But that’s just fine. Because other hopes which I hadn’t even imagined or articulated are being fulfilled in much more meaningful ways.

My Candler Advantage summer internship is based at New Life Covenant Church, a small, multi-racial church in the English Avenue neighborhood of West Atlanta. The church started close to 20 years ago in a converted crack house. Though their worship space has since changed, they’ve been consistently committed to the well-being of the neighborhood and community around them. In a neighborhood that’s seen the sobering effects of drug dealing, crime, and urban poverty, New Life’s desire to “see God’s shalom experienced in people’s lives and lived out on the streets and in the homes of English Avenue” is an invaluable one.

One way New Life has worked to reveal God’s beauty and shalom has been through the community garden they installed a few years ago. Much of my work this summer has revolved around the garden, taking leadership of its basic maintenance and using it as an educational site for the church’s summer youth program. As I’ve already mentioned, I haven’t managed to coax enough produce out of this garden for all the community meals and vegetable deliveries I had hoped for. But I think it’s for the better. My experience of ministry at New Life, both within and beyond the garden, has pushed me to expand my notions of what “growth” and “success” are.

As a congregation, New Life is definitely on the small end of the spectrum, with about 40-50 members and probably a few less than that attending on any given Sunday. You can imagine that with its size, the church doesn’t necessarily have endless financial resources. Yet although New Life’s membership or checking account may not be growing exponentially, they are a congregation that experiences and facilitates impressive growth. They provide a consistent place of structure, support, and care for neighborhood kids through their after-school and summer youth programs; they strive to bring beauty through regular garden work days and neighborhood clean up efforts; they work to build relationships with their neighbors, and offer what help they can when folks lose their jobs, have a family member put in jail, or are evicted from their apartment. Most of all, they are present and they pray. Many of the members live in the immediate neighborhood and as a result are very aware of different goings on. Concerns are constantly being brought to the larger body, uplifted during bible studies, prayer walks around the neighborhood, and times of prayer before and during Sunday worship.

This steady, locally grounded, committed form of ministry is one I’ve been privileged to participate in this summer. And as I’ve witnessed some of the challenges and blessings of this ministry, some of my own expectations have been re-shaped. It’s really not so much about results as it is about the day-to-day realities of being in relationship. Who cares if our summer squash plants died? The kids had a blast pulling out the plants and squashing the vine borers, and they learned a bit about plant cycles and pests in the meantime. Who cares if basil is one of the only things producing in any abundance? We made pesto grilled cheese sandwiches, the kids learned a little about harvesting and cooking, and one of them even begged to take home the leftover pesto with him. Only one cucumber on the vine? It’s totally worth it when a young boy—living in a tiny boarding house with relatives while his mom is in jail—is incredibly excited to take it home.

It may not be easy to quantify. But we’re spending time with one another, getting our hands dirty and experiencing the joys and challenges of gardening together. It’s ministry. It’s most definitely growth. And it will be an experience that continues to inform and shape whatever ministry I find myself in next.