By Abigail Woolley Cutter
I have moved to Kansas three times, and this summer, I expect to move away from it for the third time. All this coming and going — from a place that is the nearest thing I have to home — has been called into question by my reading of agrarians like Wendell Berry, as well as by friendships with people who have actually committed to blooming (and planting) where they’ve been planted.
I’m convinced by now that people can only be whole when we belong to healthy communities, and our communities can only be healthy if we are committed to the land that sustains us. So far, though, I’ve never managed to stay in one place long enough to bring my attempted gardens to a decent harvest. Furthermore, I’ve begun to wonder whether the newfound agrarian interests of mobile, professional-class folks like me could serve as a form of escapism, a way to put off facing the problems stemming from racism and refugee crises that we often associate with cities. If committing to the land is supposed to help put us back together — as communities, economies, ecosystems, and persons — I have wondered: can it also point toward healing global and racial inequities?
A distinguishing feature of this sojourn in Kansas is that I am now an Episcopalian. As I’ve begun to be acquainted with the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, I have been delighted to find the diocese actively integrating these questions in one large project: Bethany House and Gardens.
When Bishop Cathleen Bascom visited our small Winfield parish early last year, she spoke compellingly about the diocese’s work of caring for the prairie ecosystems that are our charge in Kansas. Along with a growing network of “creation care sites” around the diocese, the new Bethany Gardens at the diocesan center is a project in caring thoughtfully for the place we have been given. Located at the heart of the small capital city, Topeka, on land that has belonged to the diocese since its inception, Bethany Gardens would include not only work in prairie conservation but also efforts toward racial and economic justice and the thriving of the community in the heart of the city.
I wanted to know how all these things would come together. How was the Episcopal Church, the ecclesial home of my adulthood, caring for the land and people of Kansas, the home of my youth? When Bishop Bascom invited everyone to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in October, I knew I had to make the trip to find out.
When I arrived at the open space next to the cathedral, I mingled with delegates to the diocesan convention, emerging from their meetings just in time for the scheduled garden tours. We were met by ShaMecha King Simms, who introduced herself as the St. Simon’s justice and advocacy community coordinator and began the tour. The Rev. Jenn Allen, the diocese’s missioner for creation care who has spearheaded execution of the garden projects, led another tour.
The first space we toured was the prairie and pollinator garden. Also an outdoor classroom, this space features two concentric rings of limestone slabs — the outer ring, which provides seating for a full class of students, and the inner “council ring,” which will be used for restorative justice work of the neighboring Topeka High School. There are also two artfully designed wooden benches meant for meditation and writing, which were built by high school students in the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers (TCALC).
The outer limestone slabs are surrounded by native prairie grasses: some tall grasses that will send roots deep into the earth, sequester carbon, and work against soil erosion, along with some diminishing plant species that are vital for the life cycle of monarch butterflies. With grants from the United Thank Offering and Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas, the diocese has worked with nearby Meadows Elementary School to involve all of its 18 classrooms in fostering and releasing monarch butterflies in this space. For a modest space — about 30 feet in diameter — a remarkable amount of restorative work is happening in this one part of the garden.
We then followed a short footpath to the culinary garden, which — with a pergola as the backdrop to 15 raised beds and ample room for a crowd to gather among them — is the focal point of the open space. Circular concrete columns, ranging from two to three feet tall, hold vegetables and herbs in a demonstration garden, showing visitors what they can grow in small spaces, and allowing volunteers with limited mobility to tend the garden. Here too, we see evidence of long-term collaborations with area students, as several of the columns feature youthful murals, and others await them. A large in-grade garden will be planted behind the pergola this spring, allowing the culinary garden to produce enough vegetables to serve three groups: TCALC’s culinary program, whose students will learn to garden as well as cook; the food pantry of nearby Westside Baptist Church; and neighbors who use the cathedral’s sandwich ministry.
Not only is the diocese growing the vegetables, but it is also working to make sure its neighbors can use them. People in inner-city “food deserts” often lack access to fresh vegetables and the know-how to include them in their diets; further, as Allen explained, many neighbors lack kitchen utensils. Taking all these obstacles into account, the diocese is developing classes in food preparation that will help community members include vegetables in meals. Even the selections of vegetables for planting have been made based on research about which produce inner-city residents will be best able to use.
We then followed Simms under a wooden archway into St. Simon’s Chapel, an outdoor worship space with solid wood and stone pews and a large stone altar. Behind the altar stands an 8-by-15-foot perforated metal photograph showing about 30 people, who were the members of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church a few decades before it was closed in 1964. The diocese at that time intended to integrate the Black congregation with white congregations in the area, but the attempt led only to the disintegration of its community. Today, only a few descendants of St. Simon’s members can be located. For the diocese, however, the memorial chapel symbolizes an effort to tell its story, face its past mistakes, and do right by the whole community today.
One way to do that, it seems, is simply to provide a green space for gathering. Karen Hiller, City Councilwoman, and Michael Spadafore, President of the Historic Old Town Neighborhood Improvement Association, both present for the event, spoke of how important it is for urban neighborhoods to have green spaces. This area has been sorely in need of such a space.
Already, Allen told me later, students from Topeka High School make their way to the gardens for lunch, and other neighbors spend time there as well. A few neighborhood movie nights have been hosted there, and others are planned. Visions for produce and craft fairs are in development. And when a beloved young high school teacher suddenly died last year, it was the garden that the school turned to as a space for a memorial service.
For some kinds of healing, though, fertile ground is not enough; we need help to talk about issues that divide us. In addition to the needs for healthy food, beauty, and spiritual wholeness in the neighborhood, Bishop Bascom and the diocesan staff are attentive to the harms caused by political polarization, which affect the nation, diocese, and neighborhood. Bethany House, the 1875 building on the property that previously served as the bishop’s home and a conference center, has been remodeled as a retreat center. As a beginning, it now hosts a project called Cultivating Beloved Community — a series of conversations around the dinner table, open to the public, focused on “what we love, what we’ve lost, what angers us, and where we find hope.” These conversations draw on resources for civil discourse such as those that the garden’s website (bethanyhouseandgarden.com) makes available.
Altogether, Bethany House and Gardens represents a long-term project in community development that brings together the prairie and the city, and cares for the people and the land together. It includes children, youth, the elderly, people with disabilities, people in poverty, people from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, ecumenical partners, soil, plants, and animals — to say nothing of the many donors and grants have made it possible, and the learning partnership the diocese has with Agatha Amani House in Kenya. These groups can — indeed, must — all be considered together, because the whole earth is God’s.
Bishop Bascom intends for the project to involve the whole diocese — not only in the form of donors and volunteers, which it has attracted, but also by inspiring other projects in creation care and community development. I hope it sparks a movement. As a resident, for the moment, of a small town — I often mourn the string of empty storefronts along Winfield’s Main Street — I wonder what would need to be adapted to address the different blights of rural communities. I hope the conversations that begin at Bethany Place expand to make it clearer how this work matters to smaller parishes. I hope it energizes Episcopalians, clarifies our mission, and convinces us that the work of restoration can be done.