Tag Archives: LSSA

The church gardening year is over with some astounding results

It’s been a great gardening season for local gardeners, if not without some challenges. A very late fall has stretched out the growing season almost a month longer than normal. Leaves have now fallen and the soil is quickly freezing, but not before some local church gardens managed to reap marvelous harvests benefiting those who depend on food pantries. My April 30 columnbriefly mentioned the new garden of Lutheran Church of Hope, constructed on church woodland and under the tutelage of member and master gardener Don Bladow.

Bladow, with the help of his wife, an ELCA hunger initiative grant and the support of a dedicated team of volunteers, has turned that land into a highly productive garden. All of the produce grown on it was transported directly to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska three times weekly, for distribution to scores of their clients. Approximately 20,000 square feet of land was cleared and rotivated, and about 8,400 square feet was planted with a wide variety of vegetables. Surprisingly, the site is very sandy, giving the soil good drainage and root penetration ability.

Don Bladow at the Lutheran Church of Hope’s garden (Courtesy Don Bladow)
Don Bladow at the Lutheran Church of Hope’s garden (Courtesy Don Bladow)

An avid woodworker, especially with regard to wood turning, Bladow converted as many of the birch trees as possible to bowls. Two hundred were sold at the church, raising funds to supplement the initial grant the church received for the project. He plans to make more bowls over the winter for sale in the spring at the church. Of various sizes, they’re light, both in color and weight, and a beauty to behold. It’s satisfying to hold one and realize you’ve become part of the project by your purchase. Bladow also made and donated 100 bowls to Bean’s Cafe’s annual Empty Bowl event. I consider his effort on the bowls alone as a concerted demonstration of putting one’s faith to work.

A lifelong Lutheran, Bladow says he got the idea for the garden project from the 2015 Alaska Lutheran Synod Assembly, which featured a hunger theme. He began thinking about ways to use the space behind the church. That year, he constructed and planted five elevated garden boxes but found they were not successful. After that, he immediately began clearing the lot.

Taking the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ online master gardener class, he also approached Julie Riley of the local Cooperative Extension Service for help. She offered him assistance with regard to clearing the land, testing the soil and amending the soil for best fertility.

With the help of  20 to 25 individuals — including church members, local master gardeners, the Turnagain Elementary PTO and friends of the church — he installed fencing, constructed a garden shed for equipment storage and planted the garden. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, parsnips, kale, chard and three types of zucchini were planted in 2016.

“There is no way I could have done all that needed to be done without help from the congregation,” Bladow said. He gives much credit, especially for tending the garden, to his wife, Bonnie, who is also an active volunteer at the “Listening Post” program.

The results were astounding: 2,350 pounds of produce went to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and this was only their first year.

Bladow attributes Jesus’ words as the driving force behind his efforts: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

He added, “If I can feed people the results of this garden, my life has been a success.”

“Don’s work, along with other volunteers’, was amazingly dedicated and faithful,” remarked Lutheran Church of Hope pastor Julia Seymour. “Each harvest brought a joyous ‘Glory to God’ response. The garden and those who committed to it are a true revelation of how prayer goes beyond words into the actions of our hands and feet. The garden helps LCOH love our neighbors in word and in deed.”

Unfortunately, many local church gardens start small and stay small, producing a small amount of food for pantries. Such smallness might indicate a lack of faith, of vision or of a spark plug like Don Bladow to get it done. What if more churches got very serious about planting the abundant unused acreage around their facilities, turning it into productive use for others?

“We’re so blessed to be able to provide fresh, locally grown produce to our clients who use our food pantry,” said Alan Budahl, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska’s executive director. “This produce helps us to supplement the produce we buy each week, in order to give our clients a better choice. We’re very excited about the growth in gardening in our faith-based community in Alaska.”

“Many people love rhubarb, so don’t throw it away but bring it in to us, leafy tops removed,” Budahl added “Our clients love it. Consider finding the video ‘Just Eat It,’ which is excellent in showing how much food is tossed away in America.”

Budahl said that LSSA is investigating putting a garden onsite at the pantry, and have a social work practicum student help them work through the various methods of growing in Alaska. (Budahl said he’s willing to help any faith-based organization get started, and mentioned that startup grants are also available to help. He can be reached at 272-0643.)

Another successful large first-year garden can be found at Christ Church Episcopal on O’Malley Road just east of the zoo. They actively planted more than 1,000 square feet on the rear half of their property this year, sending the produce weekly to St. Christopher’s Food Pantry in Muldoon. Christ Church’s Rev. Katherine Hunt indicated many parishioners also brought their excess produce such as rhubarb, crabapples, lettuce and squash to go to the pantry. They’re planning on doubling their planting area next spring. (Contact them at christchurchak@gmail.com.)

Don Bladow has also offered his help to other churches in getting started with their gardens. He may be contacted at dfbladow@gmail.com. He also maintains a useful blog of information and pictures. (Pictures of Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden” shared by Bladow may also be viewed on my website churchvisits.com.)

To the many other churches in the area that offer plots for community gardens, I offer hope and encouragement to continue. I strongly believe they help build community.

Now is the time for faith-based organizations to plan for their 2017 gardens.

Pictures of Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden”

This week’s column features Lutheran Church of Hope’s “Harvest of Hope Memorial Garden.” The following pictures graphically demonstrate the power of putting church land to use in just one year. My Alaska Dispatch News column can be viewed at adn.com/churchvisits, usually Friday evening. These pictures were submitted to churchvisits.com by the featured gardener/member, Don Bladow.

Front View of Garden

Front View of Garden Looking North

Backview of Garden Looking South w/Madow

Backview of Garden Looking South w/Madow

Friday Harvest in August

Friday Harvest in August

Peppers

Peppers

Harvested Peppers

Harvested Peppers

Potato's from one plant

Potato’s from one plant

Harvested cauliflower

Harvested cauliflower

Harvested broccoli

Harvested broccoli

Bowls Madow turned to support project

Bowls Madow turned to support project

 

For nearly 40 years, an Anchorage artist — with the help of her church — has used her work to fight world hunger

Marianne Wieland, a well-known Anchorage artist, has been quietly using her art to produce unique, limited-edition prints each year for the past 38 years. The prints are sold through her church, Gloria Dei Lutheran, and 100 percent of the sale price is donated to addressing world hunger.

So far, not including this year’s new print, more than $275,000 has been raised for this project. Proceeds go locally to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Cafe and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America world hunger initiatives.

A Gloria Dei member since 1976, Wieland got the idea during an adult Bible class led by the former Rev. Rick Halvorson. In 1979, Halvorson posed a question to the class about which subject to tackle next; a nurse suggested world hunger. Halvorson noted it would be a tough one to tackle due to difficulty of one person making a difference with such a huge and worldwide issue. But Marianne had an idea.

Volunteers are crucial for the success of this project. “When I started this project, I used volunteers to help me produce the prints to keep the production costs down,” Wieland explained. “The volunteers all came from Lutheran Churches and we have become a family of friends. Jo Ann Mueller, from Zion Lutheran, has helped me produce prints since 1982. When a volunteer first comes, they start by soaking and blotting the papers and cranking the plate through the printing press. As they get familiar with the process, they work up into more difficult tasks, the most difficult being the rolling of ink onto the printing plate. The production of the prints is a time consuming process as each print is inked individually and run through the etching press.”

Each print is related to a biblical theme.

“The images and wording usually don’t come together,” Wieland said. “For example, next year’s print image will be the result of an inspiration I received from a small soapstone figurine that Bishop Shelley Wickstrom presented to me last year at the Synod Assembly in Wasilla.

“The theme to go with it came from an inspiration from our pastor Mark Orf, when he shared that, during his Shishmaref village time, the congregation loved the song and dance as part of their religious experience. The print will expand the soapstone figure into three singer/dancers with the addition of much color. The wording was inspired by a song that Jan Whitefield (Gloria Dei member) sang one service: ‘I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.’ So this print will come from a combination of three sources.”

Each year Marianne Wieland creates a print to fight world hunger. This year’s is titled “Mother and Child.”
Each year Marianne Wieland creates a print to fight world hunger. This year’s is titled “Mother and Child.”

Each year’s print has varied in size. The initial 1979 print, titled “The Christmas Story,” measured 15 by 22 inches, while this year’s print, “Mother and Child,” measures 7.5 by 7.5 inches. Colors are blended to create a harmonious effect in a process that combines relief printing, embossing and intaglio.

This year’s edition is limited to 300 signed and numbered prints. Prints may be purchased after 9:30 a.m. service on Nov. 20 at Gloria Dei at 8427 Jewel Lake Road. The service concludes at about 10:30 a.m. A full-color book displaying all the prints by year was also created this year. The prints and books are $30 each while available.

I purchased a print and companion book of this year’s print last Sunday at Gloria Dei’s 50th anniversary celebration, Wieland will be available after services to personally autograph books. (An order form is available here.)

Gloria Dei celebrates 50th anniversary

Last Sunday I was warmly greeted at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church as I arrived to join with the congregation in celebrating their 50th anniversary. During my past visits I’ve found that ELCA Lutheran churches are friendly and do a much better job of welcoming visitors than most other churches. Their members are never shy and will introduce themselves to newcomers as they would with their regular church friends. The church was packed with many former pastors and friends joining them to celebrate this important anniversary, and to rededicate themselves and their church to the years that lie ahead.

The platform participants included Bishop Shelley Wickstrom of the ELCA Alaska Synod, current pastor Mark Orf and Gloria Dei’s first pastor, Rod Kastelle. A special liturgy had been created for this auspicious day. As the service progressed, I noticed a mix of all ages in the sanctuary. Entire families were present and were quiet and respectful.

Lutheran liturgies, essentially an order of worship, usually incorporate the elements of confession, sharing of the peace, prayers, hymns, choral presentations, a first reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a second reading from the New Testament, a Gospel reading, Communion, blessing, Benediction and a sending hymn.

Beginning his sermon by rereading the second reading, the Rev. Kastelle had much emotion in his voice as the words flowed. The reading, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, has Paul briefly recounting his life before Christ, and afterward when God’s grace was poured out on him abundantly. Kastelle’s remarks were basically confined to the events leading to the placement of Gloria Dei at this site, and its subsequent growth. He also recognized a number of individuals who were instrumental in this process.

A number of former Gloria Dei clergy were recognized by the Rev. Mark Orf, including his immediate predecessor, the Rev. Scott Fuller, interim pastor Al Solmonson and intern Jeff Wile. Kastelle was Gloria Dei’s first pastor and presided from 1965 to 1979. Before Communion, Orf and Wickstrom led the congregation through a rededication liturgy.

Gloria Dei provides a sanctuary designed to enhance worship. From the 1889 stained-glass window in the front of the church featuring Jesus, the good shepherd, to the contemporary wood beams and wooden pews, this church implies reverence.

The music, the warmth and the spirit of Christian hospitality permeated Gloria Dei’s sanctuary this day. I’m glad I was able to be a part of their celebration. I congratulate them on their Christian charity, especially their art project addressing world hunger. Each week approximately 50 churches close across the U.S. This church will certainly not be one of them.

Church gardens grow community: It’s time to start planting more assertively.

Last year, I wrote about local initiatives some churches have taken by planting church gardens or allowing church property to be used for community gardens. When I started writing that column, I pre-supposed those gardens would be used primarily for producing fresh food for Bean’s Café, Downtown Soup Kitchen and other community organizations that feed the hungry. And many church organizations do use them for that purpose.  What I didn’t realize was that a growing number of churches allow anyone to use a garden plot on their grounds regardless of where the food goes.

As I wrote that column, I was unaware of the garden at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Northeast Anchorage. It was created through parishioners’ conversations with neighbors. The neighborhoods around the church are heavily populated with immigrants, and many have garden plots at the church. These gardeners are allowed to use their assigned plots for growing produce to feed their families. Many of them also sell produce at various times throughout the season. What a wonderful use of church property. I visited the garden last fall during the AFACT celebration of Medicaid expansion. It’s beautifully tended, containing many vegetables not native to this area; often the gardeners are immigrants from Southeast Asia or the South Pacific.

Many churches have beautiful grounds, often park-like, even without many trees having access to sunlight for growing. This land might be utilized to grow food for food banks, church pantries, feeding programs and church suppers. Entire outreach programs could be constructed around such programs, even to the point of their being utilized year-round. There is much wisdom in Jewish medieval philosopher Maimonides’ saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Many recipients of community feeding services might have a greater appreciation of the gift of food if they understood, through participation, the work that goes into producing food.

In other areas around the Lower 48, churches are seeing the value of community gardens and implementing them. For a church community the size of Anchorage with over 375 houses of worship, there are few churches using their land as God’s gift. Conversely, clergy here frequently dwell on stewardship as a church member responsibility. Why don’t they apply the same stewardship rules and principles to church property?  I realize some church properties are too small, bounded by parking lots, contain too many trees, and meet in schools or mini-malls. But what about the rest? I know of churches adjacent to vacant lots that could be used to promote community gardening.

Practical Christianity is harder to do than theoretical Christianity. We attend church, listen to sermons, study the Bible and intellectualize what Christianity is all about. Matthew 25 shares Jesus’ words about practicing practical Christianity. “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” The chapter continues to detail the unfortunate fate of those who did not practice these virtues.

It’s been my observation that many Christians find it easier to contribute money to churches or go on short-term mission trips than to roll up their sleeves and create meaningful change in the community. Some churches do it better than most, but there is much room for improvement. Millions have been spent in Anchorage to invest in foreign missions in countries where Christianity is predominant, when Alaska is one of least Christian states in the U.S. The mission field is here!

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is an example of what churches can do quickly. Starting last year, they planted seven gardens, with additional potato beds planted for F.I.S.H. They’re planning eight more big raised beds for their new Thomas Center for Senior Leadership later this year. Rector Michael Burke reports they have “lots of gardeners and visitors to the gardens and labyrinth.” Currently all produce grown is donated to organizations that feed the hungry.

Lutheran Church of Hope started small and late last year with five elevated boxes behind the church. Congregation member Don Bladow “has been the primary blood, sweat, tears, and prayer behind the garden,” says Pastor Julia Seymour. Don completed the University of Alaska Extension Program’s Master Gardener class in anticipation of a busy planting season. He plans to have 20,000 square feet under cultivation. Bladow says they’ll plant about one-third of that this year. He’s been raising money for the garden by turning wood bowls from trees that were on the property. All of the proceeds go into the project. Money is still being raised for specific gardening needs. This summer they’ll plant broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, parsnips, radishes and zucchini. All produce will be given to Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA). Any of our food pantries will say how welcome fresh grown food is to recipients. Don maintains a blog on this project at harvestofhopememorialgarden.blogspot.com. Our community needs many more like Don.

Local churches currently having or developing community food gardens include Lutheran Church of Hope, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, Joy Lutheran Church – Eagle River, St. John United Methodist Church, Turnagain United Methodist Church, Chugiak United Methodist Church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, Trinity Lutheran Church – Palmer, River of Life – Chugiak, and Central Lutheran Church.

Something our local church community might consider is what Methodists in Kalamazoo, Michigan are doing. They’ve created a “Summer Christian Camp” for a distressed neighborhood there. They focus on young adults 16-28. This 10-day ministry focuses on food and hunger and includes community gardening, 4-H community projects, ‘Free Store’ ministry, and Loves and Fishes food pantry. They train youth leaders, educators, pastors, and other passionate Christian adults.

Jesus often referred to food, hunger, feeding, planting, sowing and harvest themes in His ministry. I challenge other local ministries to emulate those lessons.

Six inspiring things from Anchorage faith organizations in 2015

During my forays into the local faith community in 2015 I experienced an intriguing mix of sights, sounds, venues and celebrations. This week I’ll briefly describe some that made lasting impressions. Next week I focus on my perennial quest regarding what I’d like to see churches tackle in 2016.

These impressions are mine alone, and omission isn’t intended as a slight to any faith-based organization in Anchorage.

Faith community support of social causes

As the years go by, I’m increasingly enthusiastic when local faith organizations and their members go out of their way supporting charitable causes such as Thanksgiving Blessing, Crop Hunger Walk, food banks and food distribution programs, kids programs, etc. There is sufficient need in our community, and these efforts show that, for the most part, Christian organizations walk the talk. When Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church periodically holds two-hour Beer and Hymns events, more than $5,000 is raised for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska. Church food drives are incredibly successful too, such as when St. Mary’s Episcopal Church collects donations of more than 4,000 jars of peanut butter plus other food items during the year.

Catholic celebrations mark years of progress

The Archdiocese of Anchorage held several important celebrations this year. One marked the 100th anniversary of Holy Family Cathedral, and the 50th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Many artifacts of local church history were on display, accompanied by colorful presentations by many local Catholic leaders. The ceremonial Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe marking Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz’s 75th birthday (and 25th anniversary of his ordination as bishop) was full of music, co-celebrating archbishops and bishops, and many priests. The investiture ceremony of the Royal Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, presided over by a cardinal, was a spectacular peek into church history.

Orthodox visits impressed me deeply

The Eagle River Institute at St. John Orthodox Cathedral during August afforded opportunities to learn about orthodoxy, and its history, especially Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub’s lectures on Middle Eastern Christianity. With the Syrian refugee crisis in the headlines at the moment, it’s too bad more local Christians did not hear his messages. Vespers, held after supper each day, provided music and liturgy harking back to apostolic times. A recent visit to St. Tikhon Orthodox Church delighted me. The hour and a half liturgy was supported by an all-male choir singing in four-part harmony. The Russian Christmas celebration at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral was filled with music and liturgy, my first experience with starring, a beautiful Orthodox tradition brought from Ukraine.

Church worship experiences in middle schools

New churches (church plants) meeting in middle schools were a pleasant visit focus. Clark, Begich, Wendler, and Hanshew middle schools were the focus of those visits. They pay a standard Anchorage School District rental rate for use of the multi-purpose room for adult meetings and classrooms for the younger kids. Churches must bring everything needed and set up every Sunday, taking it all down after, but it works beautifully. Many of these locations provide better settings than some of our local churches. In each of these services, the proportion of millennials was greater than in an average church. I’ve been personally blessed by the number of these services I’ve attended, never feeling the absence of a dedicated brick-and-mortar church as a disadvantage.

AFACT support of Medicaid expansion

Earlier this year, Anchorage Faith and Action Congregations Together challenged the state Legislature with words and prayer at the Legislative Information Office to expand the Medicaid system on behalf of the working poor who slip through the cracks. AFACT, a local coalition of 14 local congregations, worked tirelessly on behalf of expansion. In the end, expansion of the health-care program did happen. When I attended the AFACT celebration at St. Anthony Catholic church in early fall, I was impressed with the passion this dedicated group expressed. I was especially taken with Pastor Julia Seymour’s remarks referring to “social junk.” She’s right. It’s so easy to criticize and ignore those among us we regard as not worthy of our consideration. However, everyone counts in our society, or it begins to rot from the center.

Longevity of senior pastors in our community

My interview with All Saints Episcopal’s Rev. Norman Elliott as he reached his 96th birthday was a true delight. His tireless devotion to his church, and the spiritual lives of those in our hospitals, should be an inspiration to us all. It’s not often we get to know a living church legend; Elliott certainly fits the bill. His stories of pastoring and teaching in the villages, coupled with flights of daring in the parish airplane, are fascinating. Whenever he digresses into the poetry of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy, which he manages to slip into most sermons, he becomes a different man. Elliott is devoted to God and to his church. Retired Archbishop Francis T. Hurley celebrated his 45th year as bishop this year. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing him several times, and like Elliott, he was a flying priest who ministered to a far-flung area. Both have interesting tales of serving God by airplane. The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church celebration of Pastor Alonzo Patterson’s 45th anniversary as their pastor and 66th anniversary of being a pastor was a warm and effusive display of love for their pastor. Many guest pastors were on hand to add their congratulations and thanks to God for Patterson’s many years of service. The musical tributes were warm and from the heart. It was an exceptional event to have experienced.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Beer and Hymns – November 22, 2015

Beer and Hymns, that fun fundraiser sponsored by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, will be held again Sunday, November , 2015.  Mo’s O’Brady’s restaurant in the Huffman Business Park adjacent to Carrs Huffman store will see the music starting at 6 p.m., lasting until 8 p.m. The format is that you come with family and friends, order a meal and beverage of your choice, and sing hymns led by Pastor Dan Bollerud.  I guarantee you will find new friends at this fundraiser for Lutheran Social Services of Alaska (LSSA).  Credit cards are accepted and you will have not be sorry you came.

LSSA uses donations to fund food for those in need with weekly distributions in town.  I’m proud of what LSSA does in our community.  Find out more about their mission and objectives on their website http://www.lssalaska.org/.

See you there!

Local church veggie gardens are an extension of compassion

What would this community be like if some churches were not growing vegetable gardens to benefit those less fortunate? It’s worth pondering. If you’re unaware of this growing movement in the faith community, please give it your consideration. Last year during one of my church visits, a man approached me to suggest I focus a column on this topic, and encourage the entire church community to participate. After digging into it, I’m convinced there are significant benefits for everyone doing so from the churches, gardeners, local charities and other recipients of fresh locally-grown produce.

The first garden I noticed was at Turnagain United Methodist Church. Planted on the west side of the church and nicely tended, it produces a relatively bountiful harvest of produce for its size. Pastor Bob Smith shared some details about their garden. Managed by a gardens committee, with congregational help, it produced 300 pounds of produce last year for Bean’s Café and the Downtown Soup Kitchen. They call it the “Jesus Food” garden and are exploring expanding it onto more church property. Smith recognizes the generosity of the participants, tying it directly “to the ministry and mission of the congregation. I’ve never heard anyone complain about the time it takes because they are always focused on the goal of helping feed others, including meals for Clare House, or food for FISH. The garden is just another extension of their compassion and drive to feed the hungry.”

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Café says, “We are so appreciative of the support of our local faith community. They help in so many ways but one significant way is through the donation of locally raised produce. Fresh, local grown foods are such a treat for our clients and provide a meaningful connection to our community.” Other local charity directors echo Lisa’s observations. Both Alan Budahl, executive director of Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, and Mike Miller, executive director of the Alaska Food Bank note the value of locally grown fresh produce to recipients of food items their organizations deliver. Alan and Mike are currently helping churches obtain grants to facilitate food growing by churches. It takes money to get started.

Churches involved with or evolving veggie growing

East Anchorage United Methodist Church

According to Pastor Karen Dammann, EAUMC makes gardening plots available to residents in the neighborhood who want to garden. Now in their third planting year, they have space for 124 4-by-8-foot plots but currently use just a fraction. They may have up to 50 in use this summer. No food goes to the local food banks yet, but they’re considering using some open plots to do so. They’re applying for a grant for moose fencing. Neighborhood children are encouraged to eat produce, such as green peas, grown for them. Julie Riley of the Cooperative Extension Service of UAF has provided guidance, staff training and resources for EAUMC.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

This prominent lower Hillside school has an annual “faith in action” project where outgoing fifth graders who will be incoming sixth graders in the fall, grow potatoes in plots at the school. They are tended during the summer and harvested at its end. Last year they delivered 90 pounds to Bean’s Cafe. The growing area was created by a scout who made it his Eagle Scout project. Before the potatoes are delivered, the students pray over them, take them to Bean’s and are given a tour.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Anchorage’s largest Episcopal church has just completed its first growing area for vegetables. According to Rector Michael Burke, they intend to donate the results to local food banks. St. Mary’s children were heavily involved in their creation.

Joy Lutheran Church

This Eagle River Church has just started their church garden. Pastor Martin Eldred says they intend to give their fresh produce to the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry where it is a highly requested item. The church received a small grant from their synod to start the garden.

St. John United Methodist Church

Growing their produce for the Downtown Soup Kitchen, this lower Hillside church will host Downtown Soup Kitchen board members on June 6 for a blessing of their garden.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America — Alaska Synod

This group recently had their annual synod meeting where the theme was “HUNGER, The Fast I Chose” which focused on world hunger with an emphasis on solving hunger issues through the sharing of individual church involvement. According to local Synod Bishop Shelley Wickstrom, many of their churches are involved in gardening programs. Dr. Stephen Brown of UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service spoke with the group and addressed considerations in starting church gardens

Many local churches growing food for charity are not represented on this list, but their contributions are essential to their faith commitments to their neighbors in need.

Useful resources for church gardens

Some helpful resources to utilize in starting church gardens are listed below:

Dr. Stephen Brown, with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service in Palmer is an excellent resource and offers an excellent guide called the Community Garden Toolkit. His email is scbrown4@alaska.edu.

The Episcopal Church has an excellent webpage full of information about nine churches that started food-growing programs in their churches (see http://tinyurl.com/ofjvuwn).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America offers ELCA churches grants to develop food growing programs. For information contact Alan Budahl, Executive Director, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, 272-0643 lssa@gci.net.

“Why Every Church Should Plant a Garden…and How” is the title of a free pdf guide (tinyurl.com/mqnwg5w) made available by A Rocha USA

A local group called Yarducopia matches up yard owners with people who need space to garden to learn how to garden, build gardens, and co-garden — sow a community garden in patches across Anchorage! More information is available at yarducopia.org. They are eager to help faith-based groups too.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Faith community giving offers local helping opportunities during the holidays – 12/6/14

It’s an amazing time of year, one in which various members of the faith community collect money to support various local charitable causes. These actions form the basis of what I term “living faith” or faith that “practices what it preaches.” Yet not all faith communities support local needs during this time of year. Some are preoccupied with staging elaborate productions of pageants created to support perceptions of what people need to see during this season. Others are collecting money for causes in other areas of the world, while Alaska itself remains one of the greatest mission field opportunities in the world. I’m puzzled that Alaska faith communities often show more concern with far-flung world areas than the neighbor in need in their own backyard.

Additionally, I’m absolutely amazed with parents who go in debt up to their eyeballs to show their children they love them and want to give them their heart’s desire for Christmas. The Gallup spending forecast estimates that the average Christmas spending this year in the U.S. will be $781, up from $704 last year. Overall, the National Retail Federation projects this spending will top $600 billion this year.

Christmas has become a worldwide phenomenon. Even though its roots are Christian, it’s become largely secular, altering a wonderful religious tradition. And our children, what are they to think? Who hasn’t seen a child opening a vast array of presents, only to see them sad and dejected minutes later because they didn’t bring the happiness they hoped and wished for?

I believe faith communities can foster false expectations by vast toy drives for children going into the holidays. What many of these families need is food and shelter security. Children can’t eat toys. It’s ludicrous that this is not better understood from the get-go. Faith communities could do more to help people during this season by providing basic foodstuffs and de-emphasizing toy giving programs. Food and shelter are critical to families in need. A sleeping bag might be a much higher priority than a toy. Toy giving indicates, for the most part, that Christmas is identified with consumerism and things we like, as opposed to things that are basic to life. It’s the wrong lesson to teach.

Jewish Community Initiative

I’m impressed with several local faith-based organizations that are bending over backwards to help at this time of year. One that caught my eye recently is the Mitzvah Mall, a project of the local Jewish community at Congregation Beth Sholom. Mitzvah means a command to do good deeds and is very ancient in practice. Mitzvah is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah, the five books of Moses. When at the Simchat Torah dinner and ceremony at Congregation Beth Sholom recently, I learned about this unique fundraiser, but Congregation Beth Sholom’s website says it best. “Think about a bizarre bazaar: an alternative gift fair. There are rooms filled with booths, but the ‘vendors’ are nonprofit organizations and charities. Instead of buying more material gifts and stuff, shoppers can donate to local nonprofits on behalf of friends, family or others on their holiday gift list. Give a gift that keeps on giving. The ‘gifts’ are in various price ranges beginning at $5. Shoppers receive decorative gift cards to present to the person in whose honor the gift was purchased. What a mitzvah: resisting holiday consumerism, doing good deeds, bestowing a wonderful gift and having fun doing it.”

Mitzvah Mall is happening Sunday, Dec. 7, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Congregation Beth Sholom, 7525 E. Northern Lights Blvd. Come prepared to donate to one or more of the 25 nonprofits that will be present. Congregation Beth Sholom has had fantastic success with this brief event, raising over $14,000 in three hours last year. I’ll be there to observe this event in person.

ChangePoint Giving Programs

ChangePoint, Alaska largest church, has a number of life-giving programs it supports with holiday giving by its members. The congregation uses three avenues of giving during the holiday season.

1. Participation in partnership with Cornerstone Church to provide hundreds of Christmas shoe boxes to Samaritan’s Purse and its effort to bless children, particularly in the villages of Alaska.

2. Participation in two “Angel Tree” projects to benefit both the students of Alaska Christian College and the residents of the McKinnell House here in Anchorage.

3. The primary fundraiser is what they call the uncommon gift offering. This is collected the last Sunday before Christmas and always goes to support or advance a local charity. Over the years, they have done many things with it. Examples include raising around $120,000 for Alaska Christian College to graduate all its seniors without debt and giving over $130,000 one year as the launching gift for the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s new facility.

Lutheran Giving Initiatives

Lutheran Social Services of Alaska provides food and shelter for thousands of recipients in our local community. Last Sunday’s Beer and Hymns fundraiser by Christ Our Savior Lutheran raised close to $5,000 for LSSA. Other Lutheran congregations are involved with a series of local giving initiatives touching local lives.

The holiday season is a wonderful time to plant the right seed about the proper use of money. Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. Churches can effectively use the holidays as ways to draw attention away from the individual and place the emphasis where it belongs.

I’d love to hear your stories about your church’s holiday giving efforts. Please send them to churchvisits@gmail.com so they can be shared with other readers of this column.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Thoughts on Black Friday creep, Thanksgiving and a Christian ethic – 11/23/14

This year will see a growing rush by retailers to advance the sales and eventual profits of Black Friday by what is termed “Black Friday creep,” opening stores on Thanksgiving Day itself. A list of retailers opening on Thanksgiving was published this week by Huffington Post(tinyurl.com/mwpkk7s). It included Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, Target, Staples, Best Buy, Sports Authority, Toys R Us, Office Max/Office Depot and Radio Shack. This comes on top of retailers featuring online and in-store pre-Black Friday sales in order to get consumers to buy yet earlier this year.

The Huffington Post article also listed retailers that will honor family and Thanksgiving by not opening on Thanksgiving, headed up by Costco and Sam’s.

Why is this information in a religion column? Thanksgiving has been under attack by retailers for years and remains a significant issue. Not long ago, almost every store, gas station and restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving. But the retail sector has taken aim at Thanksgiving with a vengeance.

Thanksgiving started as a harvest celebration among the Pilgrims and the local Native Americans in the Plymouth Colony. Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the History Department at Wheaton College and author of  the wonderful book “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History,” notes the key reasons pushing the Pilgrims to our shores:

“In contrast, the Pilgrims’ struggle … speaks to us where we live. Their hardships in Holland were so … ordinary. They worried about their children’s future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. (Can you relate to any of their worries?) And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade.”

Their initial escape from England didn’t solve their needs, so they migrated to the New World. Life in the New World was hard but they found time to celebrate a successful year and give thanks to God. A coming battle for them would be with wealth and abundance.

One key factor weighing against people of faith is consumerism. Consumerism appears to be destroying our national holiday celebration of Thanksgiving and has successfully destroyed the true spirit of Christmas. Advent season 2014 begins Sunday, Nov. 30. A period of religious observance by many faiths, Advent is a period of reflection and realization of the events leading up to the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately for many, the focus of the holiday season is on “us,” rather than the true object of our affection, Jesus. As Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reflects, “It’s not your birthday; it’s Jesus’.” The church devotes 100 percent of its income during December toward local nonprofits that help the homeless, the destitute, the hungry and the afflicted. Mather says the church is helped, not hurt, by this yearly initiative.

Local nonprofit organizations such as Bean’s Café, the Brother Francis Shelter, the Downtown Soup Kitchen, the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska and the Food Bank of Alaska are examples of great local organizations that depend on your support now when their need is greatest. Too many resources are unfortunately diverted to personal consumerism.

The Thanksgiving Blessing project has been ongoing for some years. Last year, this wonderful community project provided groceries to more than 10,000 people. The Food Bank of Alaska coordinates this project through six sites. They need your help. Call them directly or get detailed information online at tinyurl.com/mqt4bvv.

Another “Beer and Hymns”’ fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 30, 6 p.m. at O’Brady’s. Contrary to a recent blast from a local Pentecostal pulpit calling this a “beer bash,” this is a genuine celebration of community building and a locking of arms to address community needs, a true religious experience. Generally, more than $5,000 is contributed in two hours each time this wonderful celebration of hymnody, good food and great conversation is held. Local Lutherans, spearheaded by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, make this a beautiful and worthwhile event.

Many local churches will have Thanksgiving-focused services tomorrow, Sunday. A number of them will also offer Thanksgiving dinners after the service, the afternoon or the evening. This is a wonderful way to reflect on the joys of Thanksgiving. I’ve been invited to one such church dinner. Often these same churches collect funds to help the local food distribution agencies with procuring adequate supplies to make it through the holiday season.

I recall trying to make a Thanksgiving restaurant reservation years ago. One well-known local restaurant told me this was a time for their workers to enjoy the company of family and friends. I got it with that phone discussion as I’d not previously focused on the issue. The retailers of America are focused on competition and profits at the expense of their employees who must work Thanksgiving to support the advertising-whipped fervor for Black Friday creep and Black Friday sales. American families are imperiled. These types of events tear at the fragile fabric of family instead of strengthening it. I believe if enough consumers refused to give in to the lure of the retailers’ siren calls, they would get the message.

In closing, it’s not often I hear pastors addressing this issue from the pulpit. Part of it is because many of their members own, manage, work in or direct the activities of these retailers. In essence, the pastors should be educating their members to the dangers of consumerism. 1 John 2:15 says: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Scripture is replete with such warnings. The Pilgrims believed strongly in scripture, and let it be their guide. Let’s rediscover the joy of family, friends, food, celebrating our abundance, and stopping to give thanks for what we have, and enjoy Thanksgiving to the fullest. Happy Thanksgiving!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.