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Church’s community garden brings big yield in second year

Pastor Andrew Bailey of Cross Church, Phoenix and Karishma Pursel, a member of the church, look over produce options as others clear lots. Photo courtesy of Cross Church

PHOENIX (BP) – Growing connections in their transitional north Phoenix neighborhood proved a challenge. To fix it, Andrew Bailey and Cross Church decided to put down some roots.

It started with their “front door,” in this case the eyesore of an acre on the front edge of the property adjacent to heavily-trafficked 19th Avenue. Thirty years ago it was field. In late 2020 it was mostly dirt and a collection bin for weeds, trash and drug paraphernalia.

Members of Cross Church painted “We Care” across a wall as a beautification project to go with the garden beds measuring approximately 15′ by 5′. More information can be found at crosschurchcares.com/garden.

“We had the vision of building a community garden as a different ‘front door,’” said Bailey, 30. “We wanted it there to engage people as an entry point.”

Cross Church Phoenix started six years ago and is one of the campuses based out of Cross Church, located in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise and which also has locations in Cornville, about 100 miles north of Phoenix, and an international campus in Myanmar.

Bailey’s church was the first extension campus, but the sixth congregation in five years to occupy the building on the corner of 19th and Grovers Avenue when it started. Surrounded by apartments and modest, single-level homes, it wasn’t an area known for longevity.

“People stay here around three to six months, on average,” Bailey said. “It’s the nature of the corridor we’re in. There are lots of homeless and drug use around.”

The pastor sticks out in a place where people come and go. He’s lived in the Phoenix area his entire life. Bailey experienced a call to vocational ministry at 15 while attending a youth camp with his home church, Mountain Ridge Baptist in Glendale. He would go on to earn a business degree from Arizona State and work in the corporate world for five years before attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary online.

A little girl helps in the planting.

That step toward full-time ministry turned into leading Cross Church Phoenix.

Early on, the environment reflected Matthew 13’s hard and rocky soil. Cross Church’s congregation turned over four times with new faces in its first two years.

The Gospel seed began to germinate, though, and right now the church is averaging 100 on Sundays. Last Easter brought a high attendance of 140. Primarily funded by its sending church, additional funding from the North American Mission Board ended recently as the campus became financially self-sufficient.

Planting has started for this season’s community garden, where local residents have a plot to grow vegetables to keep and contribute to the church’s food pantry. For a fee, residents can keep all the produce for themselves.

It consists mostly of typical garden fare such as carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, zucchini, corn and tomatoes. But one will also see oranges, pomegranates, watermelons, honeydews, jalapeños and lime trees. An irrigation system helps the garden continue producing in the harsh summer months.

Various vegetables, fruit and citrus are grown in the garden.

“Going into this, there were three categories we wanted to achieve,” said Bailey, who consulted ahead of time with a local group that established community gardens. “First was campus elegance, to bring beauty to something that had been, frankly, disgusting. The second was community engagement. We wanted to bring people together with community workdays once or twice a month.”

Those built to the third point.

“This is also tied to corporate evangelism. It’s another way for us to share Jesus with people,” Bailey said.

One day, for example, a car pulled up and a woman leaned out. Her name was Gina and she was curious about what was happening. She began attending the church alongside her daughter and, a month later, both were baptized.

Even with the tips Bailey received from the group he consulted, last year had its share of mishaps. “We had no expertise in starting out and made early mistakes,” he said.

Then people who did have expertise began showing up. Those accustomed to the pace and rhythm of gardening lent their knowledge. Some grew into leaders.

“The cool thing is our church has a presence and ownership with this,” Bailey said. “It’s fun to get outdoors and learn a different skill set alongside others. Many of the people live in the apartments and don’t have space for a garden. It gets a lot of positive comments and is something different for the community.”

And yes, Bailey gets plenty of sermon illustrations alongside the obvious benefits. “Last fall we had a ton of tomatoes and peppers, which made some of the best soups and chilis I’ve ever had,” he said.

Those attending Celebrate Recovery at Cross Church are encouraged to become involved in the garden. Lessons abound on struggles with addiction and the image of something as small as a seed becoming greater.

“It feeds into what our church preaches about restoration, growing something new and seeing something beautiful in our lives,” he said. “It’s been good watching our people and others grow into it.”