I recently had the good fortune to visit an ELCA World Hunger-supported project in the villages of El Jardin and San Julian, Costa Rica. There we met Nehemias Rivera Medina, an unassuming and inspiring man who is teaching the residents of these communities about organic gardening. On it’s surface it sounds pretty straight-forward, but it didn’t take long to see the impressive depth, and to find a lesson.
El Jardin and San Julian are small, rural villages surrounded by banana and pineapple plantations. For a couple of generations now, the plantations have been, by far, the primary source of employment. In that time, community members have lost their knowledge of how to grow their own food. So Nehemias is showing them how to grow vegetables and fruit as well as plants that can be made into useful things, like shampoo, insect repellent, and arthritis cream. The economic situation in these villages is difficult, so having a source of supplemental, nutritious food and household products is helpful. They also hope to one day sell some of their products for extra income. Nehemias is teaching them about raised planting beds (so everything doesn’t wash away in the rainy season), soil fertility, crop rotation, insect control through polyculture, and complimentary crops.
One of the places Nehemias is teaching is in the secondary school in San Julian. We met a student who told us that before taking Nehemias’ class, she didn’t know anything about growing plants. But they’ve learned a lot. They’re growing cucumbers, radishes, celery, yucca, and rose hips at school, and what they grow is being used in the school lunch program. They’ve learned to compost the leftovers. As she spoke, it struck me what a small world it is. It sounded so familiar! These are the same types of things that are being done in American schools, in Chicago’s schools, close to where I live. We, also, have lost the knowledge about growing things. We, also, are trying to teach our children about better nutrition, especially in locations of low income that lack easy access to supermarkets and produce. We, also, are working in schools and through lunch programs.
But Nehemias’ aims don’t stop with what’s strictly practical. Beyond the techniques of growing plants, he’s teaching that eco-agriculture provides artistic, aesthetic, and therapuetic benefits, allowing people to use their gifts in the care of God’s creation – care that includes the plants and creatures around them as well as themselves. So much more than gardening, Nehemias teachs that the ecological sanctuary they are building is an alter constructed to life. The garden beds in El Jardin are not just rectangles. Some are shaped like hearts, or stars, or follow the contours of walking paths. They are shapes chosen by the children. Garden beds include flowers with the vegetables to attract bees and birds, but also because flowers are beautiful. They are constructed on church property, where anyone who wants to is welcome to participate. In addition to feeding the villagers’ bodies and providing income, Nehemias is showing them how gardens feed their communities, their souls, and all of God’s creation. What a lesson for us all.