One man's vision takes root

Gardens: A clergyman sees solutions to urban alienation in the soil. He hopes his idea will grow.

July 19, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by the children of the St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church day camp, Ed Miller looks like a gnomish cross between Johnny Appleseed and the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

He's recruited the kids to help seed his "sanctuary" garden at this church at Pimlico Road and West Cold Spring Lane. The younger kids plant Kentucky Wonder pole beans and Russian Mammoth sunflowers in plots by the church wall. Fifth- and sixth-graders put in zinnias, vinca and marigolds by the signs out front.

Katelyn Palmer, 6, Sumaina Parihar, 5, and Marlow Johnson, 6, plant their seeds as daintily as a trio of dowagers slipping sugar cubes into their tea.

"I think it's great," says Marion Dezurn, supervisor of the five-week day camp and of the Sunday school at St. John's. She's been a member 27 years. "It gives our children a chance to work in the soil."

That is a rare opportunity in this gritty urban neighborhood. The closest a lot of them get to anything like soil is in a flower pot or when the city demolishes another block of vacant buildings, which it plans to do across from the church on Pimlico Road.

"One of the things we want to try to teach the youth is not only respect for themselves and others but respect for the earth," says the Rev. Greg Knepp, the young pastor at St. John's who's out digging, too.

"He [Miller] can provide the spiritual component that is often missing today and also get the kids interested in something that's positive: seeing growth instead of decay.

"And there are also many interested adults in the area," Knepp says. "I've had more people just stop and start up a conversation these last couple of weeks, as I've been out here working on the garden. People are interested to see anything that's showing growth and beautification in the community."

The St. John's sanctuary garden is the furthest along of three Miller has launched around the city. He's turned the soil for a Mayan-inspired garden at La Iglesia de los Tres Santos Reyes, a small Hispanic Episcopal/Lutheran congregation in Canton.

"We'll have chilies by the middle of October," Miller says. "Some of the basic ones, some of the different Thai varieties, habaneros. If we don't, it'll be a good exercise for next year."

He's planned a Buddhist-style garden next to the American Friends Service Committee office in Govans.

He expects each garden to be used in a different way. St. John's is community oriented. At Tres Santos Reyes, the garden will have an ethnic and cultural emphasis. And at the Quaker center, the focus will be peace.

A place for meditation

Miller envisions each as a refuge of calm, quiet and meditation in an often troubling and threatening city.

"Where they're really needed," he says, "not in places where there are already a hundred gardens -- oases in the midst of chaos."

A Philadelphia-born Lutheran clergyman, the Rev. Edward J. Miller, 51, had been pastor of New Horizons Lutheran Church (earlier Augustana Lutheran) in Belair-Edison since 1983. He gave up his pastorate early this year. He was burned out, he says.

"After 25 years as a pastor here and in Philadelphia," he says, "I knew I wanted to do something else."

But the kids still call him Pastor Miller. He often turns up as a guest preacher at churches around the city, although these days he's more often in shorts, T-shirt and Italian hiking boots than clerical garb. His face is ruddy, and he wears a Vandyke-style beard. His white hair is pulled back in a ponytail. He finds his ministry now in his sanctuary gardens.

Connecting with the soil

"I think one of the aspects of the project is connecting people with the soil," he says. "One of the issues that we're dealing with is that of alienation.

"It sounds trite to say that, but you know people [are] being alienated from themselves and from their communities, and from the soil itself, from any sense of the sacred in their midst.

"I think if people can connect, they're not going to be junkies. They're at least going to be somewhat happy, pleased with their existence. Many of these kinds of projects take place in direct opposition to what's happening around them."

Along with his project, he helps "with physical labor" at a garden being cultivated at McElderry and Port streets by Church of the Amazing Grace.

"I think," he says, "if I don't do a thousand hours of labor in the next two months myself, why should it make sense for anybody else to?"

Most of Port Street has been torn down, including a house that crumbled into the fence near where Amazing Grace kids are tending their garden.

They plan to have a farmers' market after they harvest their crops, Miller says. "And that area is just teeming with drugs. The whole neighborhood is just swirling."

Pilot projects

He sees his gardens as pilot projects for a program he hopes to spread throughout the city. He's spending his money now, but he's searching for grants to help fund the project. In any event, he plans to plant his seeds for at least two years.

"Part of this approach is to help people touch the earth," he says. "Literally touch it. Put their hands in it. Put their faces in the dirt. And recognize that that is a sacred act."

He is hopeful people will use the sanctuary gardens.

"I think the practicality of the garden is that it's in the midst of the people, and they can use it or not use it," Miller says. "I'm not so idealistic and blind and naive to think every good intent is going to be utilized. I hope so."

Pub Date: 7/19/99

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