By Shawnthea Monroe
My friend Andres Gonzalez is the chief of police for the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, a position that puts him into daily contact with some of the poorest and most desperate people living in Cleveland. When we get together for lunch, I tell him about my latest stewardship frustrations; he tells me how many homicides he’s investigated. Plus, he’s Pentecostal and I’m UCC, so the conversation is always lively.
Recently, after hearing yet another story of violence and despair, I asked Chief Gonzalez where he finds the strength to keep going, “What in your job gives you a sense of satisfaction?”
“It would be easier for me to show you than to try and explain it,” he replied. So off we went in his unmarked car. We drove into what is commonly referred to as “the projects,” although the chief prefers to call them housing complexes. This was a particularly bleak set of low-slung brick buildings, bearing the hallmarks of the economic downturn: boarded up windows and abandoned cars.
Chief Andy drove toward the Lonnie Burten Recreational Center, right in the middle of the … housing complex. The rec center looked more like a prison than a place for children to congregate, but across the street, I was surprised to see a park. The chief pulled up to the main gate, and we got out of the car.
The park is on an acre of land, with a brick path that curves gracefully from the northwest to the southeast, passing by a picnic gazebo, a fenced-in vegetable garden, and a “sprinkle park,” where young children can splash around in the heat of summer. The lawn was manicured and green, and there were freshly planted flowers along the path. Standing in the middle of this lush space, I could almost imagine that I was far away from the poverty and decay of the inner city. It seemed like a miracle.
Then Andy told me the story of the park. “Ten years ago, when I was the captain of this precinct, this was an abandoned lot full of garbage, broken glass, and drug paraphernalia. In the spring of 2005, a 12-year-old boy named Brandon Davis was going to the rec center when he spotted a gang of young men hanging around the front door who looked like trouble. He turned and started running toward home, but one of the boys pulled a gun and shot him twice in the back. Brandon died right there,” said the chief, pointing to where the gazebo stood.
“That September, Leonard Pinson, who had just turned 15, was cutting across the field when a fight broke out in front of the rec center. There was gun fire, everyone ran for cover, but Leonard was hit by a stray bullet. He died there, where the sprinkle park is. That was when I knew something had to change.”
Andy contacted the city and gained control of the property. Working with people he knew in government as well as in the private sector, he was able to raise enough funds to transform the empty lot into a beautiful park. The project took years to complete because, as Andy put it, “There was a lot of red tape, and a whole bunch of people had to get on board to make it happen.”
As we stood there enjoying the view, a young woman in a Green Corps t-shirt came up to us and said, “I’m Laura, the site coordinator for the Green Corps. Would you like to see our garden?” Andy and I followed Laura into the garden where there were raised beds full of peas, tomatoes, and radishes. The purpose of the Green Corps garden was to give inner-city youth a chance to learn about urban farming—everything from planting and harvesting to marketing and sales. As Laura described the transformation of her students, she glanced down and exclaimed, “Look! Some of the strawberries are ripe!” Reaching into the patch, she pulled out a big, ripe strawberry and offered it to me. It was sweet and fragrant and delicious—perhaps the best strawberry I’ve ever eaten.
Walking back to the car, the chief was quiet. He stopped at the gate and, turning to me with tears in his eyes, he said, “You want to know what keeps me going? It is this moment—watching you eat strawberries grown in field where I have seen children die. It’s unbelievable.”
“No, Andy.” I replied, “It’s not unbelievable; it’s the gospel. You and I believe in a God who brings life out of death and can turn graveyards into gardens.”
He laughed. “I guess we just keep planting gardens, huh?”
“Just keep planting, Andy, just keep planting.”
The image displayed in this post is "Urban gardening strawberries by ~dgies, on Flickr" and is used in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.
The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shawnthea is the co-author of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress 2009), and when she’s not preaching or teaching, she is in the garden.
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