On a Mississippi River bluff adjacent to Davenport’s historic LeClaire House, members of a Quad-City church grow vegetables to help fight world hunger.
They also are helping to grow a neighborhood.
The gardeners attend Grace Lutheran Church, 1140 E. High St., Davenport. They rent plots at an urban site managed by the Garden Growers, a nonprofit program of the Iowa State University Extension Service. It was established in 1997 to promote education, social interaction, vegetable gardening and beautification in neighborhoods.
Grace is in its fifth year of maintaining what its members call Graceful Garden, which has expanded to three 10-by-40 foot beds at the LeClaire Heights Community Garden, 7th and Farnam streets.
The beds are cleared for winter now, save for a few rows of lettuce, beets and Swiss chard that await harvesting after a late planting.
The church is the only house of worship participating in the Garden Growers program. Not only has it raised more than $4,000 in support of hunger relief, but its members also mingle with nearby residents, share gardening tips and learn to appreciate the neighborhood, its history and its breathtaking views of the Mississippi River.
There is much to see. On a rise just to the east of the garden stands the city-owned mansion built in 1855 by Antoine LeClaire, a founder of the city of Davenport. To the west on Farnam, a historical marker identifies a Second Empire-style mansion as the home where Fred B. Sharon, a civic leader and publisher of the Catholic Messenger, once lived.
“Being in the neighborhood is very important,” said Dr. Rebecca Wiese. Along with her husband, Michael, they have been key players in the project.
She notes that the garden is only two blocks from their congregation’s original church building at 637 E. 6th St. The structure, now a residence, is where a group of Swedish immigrants first worshiped in 1883 after organizing what was then the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Russ Finkler, another active volunteer, enjoys the camaraderie the garden affords.
“It’s fun being out in the community and talking to neighbors,” he said. Perhaps his biggest reward, he said, “is the knowledge that we are doing something in the neighborhood that is going to help feed people of the world.”
The idea for Graceful Garden germinated with the Wieses. Mindful that his own yard lacked the space for a vegetable garden, Michael suggested to his wife that they find a plot in a community garden.
Rebecca proposed something on a larger scale, one involving fellow church members. Such a garden, she reasoned, would not only satisfy her husband’s wish for a garden, but it also would help in the fight against hunger.
“I just wanted to grow things. Becky thinks globally and humanistically. The entire plan evolved from her idea,” he said.
Michael knew a Garden Growers staffer and made arrangements to rent two plots at the LeClaire Heights Community Garden. Soon, a cadre of volunteers was gathering at the garden on Saturday mornings to till, plant, weed, water and share their gardening knowledge. Some financial support was received from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans,
Every weekend, produce from the garden is offered to anyone attending Grace’s church services in exchange for a free-will offering. The proceeds from the offering are then given to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America World Hunger program. In addition, some Grace members with home gardens bring in produce to supplement what is grown at Graceful Garden.
Besides the cash going to the world hunger program, Grace helps locally by delivering produce to Café on Vine, a meal site operated by the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, and the Churches United Food Pantry at the Center, both in Davenport.
While Graceful Garden has become a focal point for congregation members to share their gardening experience, it has attracted other visitors. Pastor Nestor Eduardo Alvarez Cabrera from Grace’s partner church in Guatemala, Iglesia Luterana Guatemaltecca, spent time tending the garden with Grace members during a visit to Davenport last year. Grace also has shared the garden with international clergy students at Wartburg Seminary and members of congregations from Tanzania and China.
Julia Blazevic, the director of Garden Growers, said she is encouraged by Grace’s participation in the community program and hopes to see other churches get involved. By venturing into an urban garden site, she said, “Grace is coming into the community instead of having the community come to them.”