"I had the opportunity to visit four lovely gardens in some of the most drug and violence-infected neighborhoods in Baltimore city and I never expected to find so much beauty and hope for humanity amidst such ugliness," said Heather Wandell, conference participant. "I met a woman who has struggled for years with drug addiction. She starts every day in the sacred garden outside of the house where she is in recovery. She prays and lets nature wrap its arms around her."
The Rev. Martha MacGill, conference chaplain and the rector of Memorial Episcopal Church, Baltimore, noted "I was struck by the fact that small groups of folks are making a real difference in the lives of urban communities by planting a community garden or providing a green space of sanctuary in a drug-plagued neighborhood." She reflected that hope was a word that echoed through the conference.
Gardens and Grace moved to an urban venue this year, from Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of western North Carolina to the cathedral in Baltimore, "specifically to reach out to a more diverse audience and to highlight the particular challenges of spirituality, open spaces and sacred places in urban areas" according to conference organizer Paul Beares. He noted that they achieved far more diversity than at previous conferences, furthered by a grant making scholarships for the conference possible.
More than a hundred speakers, organizers and participants gathered from across the country. Mostly Episcopalians, their number also included Anglicans from Canada and members of other communions and faiths as well as some with no faith affiliation.
The Baltimore area provided many expert presenters including Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. She underscored the importance of people of faith in environmental stewardship, reminding participants that they can lead by focusing on the values and vision of their traditions, and letting them guide concrete actions to address challenges.
Gardens and Grace co-founders Philip Roderick and Terry Hershey framed a spiritual and joyful atmosphere for the conference. "Philip's chanting, body prayer, and deep and creative spirituality inspire and challenge participants to stretch their comfort zones," said Beares, while Hershey's emphasis is on story telling and humor. His emphasis on the "sacrament of the present" helped participants to slow down and enjoy.
In the final sessions of Gardens and Grace, conferees talked about specific steps they could take to create a garden or green space which invites people to pause from their overactive lives and listen to God and the creation and then energizes them to go forth in service to those less fortunate.
Paul F. Izat, Jr., a member of the Diocese of Maryland's Committee on the Environment, was inspired by a presentation to propose new ways to use the labyrinth at his parish, St. Alban's in Glen Burnie, Maryland, both as a spiritual journey for youth and as a tool for food drives. He explained that one of the speakers showed a picture of a labyrinth in Baltimore where people used the cans and jars of donated food to outline the walking path.
Wandell, a trainer in healing laughter, was inspired by the overall green nature of the conference to recommit to eating and buying local foods and supporting local farms as well as reducing her energy usage.
"I know that Memorial Church can be a place that tells the story of the blessing of God's creation. In our role as faithful Christians in this corner of Baltimore city, we can model how to care for and heal the earth," said MacGill, "and in the process, heal our communities and ourselves."
She came away from the garden-focused event "believing that action as Episcopalians in the care and stewardship of God's creation will be a movement from the ground up."
In concluding his address on October 1, Bishop Eugene Sutton of Maryland reiterated his goal to be known as the 'first green bishop' rather than the first black bishop of Maryland. He added, "steering an institutional church is difficult. I can set a course, but things grow and change slowly." He then proposed a three-fold strategy for facing environmental challenges: gather the passionate and curious to share resources and information, decide on a "small thing" (a modest change that can be effected in a short time) and discern the "big thing" and do it to make a difference in the world.