A Garden Grows at St. James, Lincoln

A Garden Grows at St. James, Lincoln

by Paula Schaap

If you drive north to Lincoln on State Route 99 from Sacramento, you quickly pass from housing developments and shopping malls to fields and irrigation canals. Especially if you come up on a quiet Sunday late-summer morning, snowy egrets fly over your car, their necks crooked as they seek out more of the tender rice paddies for feeding, and great blue herons stand as sentinels to welcome the dawn.

It fits that parishioners at St. James, Lincoln, when the church was able to buy a derelict house on an adjacent plot of land, with the encouragement of the Bishop’s Office, took note of the church’s surrounding agricultural area and its neighbors’ needs, and constructed a community garden.

As they often do, new ideas come from unexpected quarters. Bob Russi, a St. James parishioner and a retired construction project manager, attended a seminar sponsored by the diocese in 2010, where he heard how St. James of Jerusalem, Yuba City, had turned its vacant land into a community garden. Inspired, Russi drew up plans for the next-door property, which the church had bought at auction. The first garden had 12 plots – “36 cubic yards,” Russi, always precise when it comes to construction, said recently.

A photograph taken of Russi at the end of the first growing season shows him with arms outstretched and corn tassels waving over his head.

Bishop Barry Beisner was visiting the church after it moved from mission to parish status in 2014, when senior warden Jeptha Rogers showed him another tumble-down house sitting beside the garden. When Rogers said he wanted the church to buy it someday, he recalled Bishop Beisner telling him to look into it.

When the church inquired in March of that year, it turned out that the owner had just sold the property. But shortly afterward, Rogers saw people at the second property site with plans, who offered to resell the property to the church. Realizing they needed to move fast, the church turned to donors to come up with a down-payment – the diocese came in with a loan that will eventually be refinanced. Russi and other parishioners tore down a dilapidated fence themselves.

Now the garden space was going to be twice as big and the need for someone to manage the larger space more critical. That’s when gardener Mona Bass, who was already involved with the Placer County Food Bank, stopped in to ask if the church needed help in the summer of 2015. She brought along Clyde Martin, a contractor who had a passion for building gardens. With the support of St. James’ vestry and parishioners, Bass and Martin got donations for the additional boxes and the irrigation system. Volunteers from the local Teen Challenge and Lincoln Hills Community Church pitched in. Bass obtained a small grant from the Health Education Council in West Sacramento.

“We got the grant because the area the church is located in is considered a food desert, meaning it has limited access to fresh food,” she said.

Help turned up in unusual ways. One day, when parishioners and volunteers needed the property graded, a work crew from PG&E that happened to be in the area with a backhoe gave them a hand, turning what could have been an all-day job into a matter of minutes.

“St. James had always been very committed to outreach and that commitment to outreach went to support the community garden,” said the Rev. William Rontani. Father Rontani, who is now retired, supported the community garden effort as St. James’ priest at the time.

The expanded garden is nearing the end of its first summer growing season. Thirty local families and parishioners grow food and the overabundance is donated to food banks and St. James’ food pantry – close to 1,000 pounds this year, Bass estimated.

There’s a gate in front of the garden, but there’s no fence around it. That’s in keeping with the St. James’ community garden’s philosophy that anyone can enter and pick produce for themselves and their families. Nutrition and cooking classes were taught in the spring and a gardening class is planned for October. There’s an area with raised boxes to give access to those who can’t bend over to garden. A meditation gazebo that Martin designed and built is in the middle of the garden framing a simple cross – it’s a welcome respite from the sun. St. James’ parishioners remain very involved either helping with the gardening or with their support.

“Who would think to turn two dilapidated lots into gardens,” said Bass of the St. James congregation. “I’m just blessed to have them.”

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