“I want to be a grandpa.”
It is such a strange thing for a 5-year-old to say. Nevertheless, that’s me, sitting next to my mom at the dining room table with my two older sisters and a guest. My family is hosting a visiting preacher for dinner. My father steps out of the room for a moment and the preacher decides to make conversation with us kids. “What do you want to be?” he asks, with a curious smile. With our dinner plates now empty, our minds become full of pictures.
In my mind, I see an older man with leathered-brown skin and a tight gray beard, giving children hugs, telling them stories, and helping them grow. While I don’t have a grandfather of my own, my imagination is unlimited. And so, I make my announcement. “I want to be a grandpa!” My sisters get a chewy fit of giggles. My mom joins in the laughter before whispering in my ear that my answer should be a “job.” I guess grandpas don’t get paid to be grandpas. Still, I like the idea of an enduring connection and helping someone or something grow.
“Okay.” I change my disposition after some thought. “I want to be a farmer.” Again, everybody laughs.
Only a couple of years later, I’m starting my own vegetable garden in our backyard on Griggs St. in our Grand Rapids home. As it turns out, I have a green thumb. I’m told that I inherited my gift from my Puerto Rican grandmother. My hands in the earth begin to feel like I’m holding potential. There is kinetic energy that is released as I plunge my hands in the warm soil, and release a seed. There is a symbiotic joy as I pull weeds, as flowers bloom, and bees nestle in the fertile pollen. The earth, the buds, the surrounding atmosphere. We’re all transformed. I share my homegrown tomatoes with my family and my neighbors. Through these acts, an inkling stirs within me about relationships, connection, and growth.
My early life on Griggs St. was a much simpler time. We are all longing for simpler days. Most of us were not anticipating the layered complexity of the pandemic that is COVID-19. Now, some of us have loved ones or dear friends fighting for their lives against the virus. Others may know someone who has lost the battle. Some of us are forced to classify the work of our hands as essential or non-essential. We’re learning to value what we each contribute to our society, while supporting those who have to stand on the frontlines at the grocery store checkouts, teller lines at the banking centers, and certainly all the workers in our hospital rooms. Some report to the frontlines every day. The rest of us are waiting at home on a diet of Netflix and prayer. And all of us have come to the conclusion that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Perhaps, it hasn’t been for a while, and we’ve just come to realize it. What’s missing?
Relationships. Connection. Growth. These words cradle more significance today. We understand them to be… essential to a healthy human experience, even as today they are, for the sake of humankind's survival, to be partially denied.
For the moment, we shelter in place; some in care facilities, others with their immediate families or roommates, and many in isolation. It seems odd, does it not? Our individual world comes to a standstill and yet, the earth continues to move. Tulips are blooming. Trees are regaining their leaves. Warblers wake us in the morning. Young fawns roam through Burton Heights in our absence. Maybe the earth even takes back some of what we’ve pretended was ours.
To me, these words from the book of Genesis ring true: “As long as the earth endures seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” Spring is stirring. We look from behind our veiled windows and are reminded that none of us is the center of the universe. Yet, it invites us to reconsider and participate in its rhythmic beauty.
I am on the phone with a dear friend one morning before starting our workdays. As we talk, she is in the process of getting her “Zoom-face” ready, as she called it. It’s the new art of looking camera-ready for video meetings. We are both in this odd rhythm of video calls throughout the day to keep our respective organizations running during quarantine. I confess that even with other people on the screen, the video calls feel vacant at times, like I’m speaking exuberantly to an empty room.
Before we hang up, we go through a list of things we’re doing to occupy our minds while we wait for the world to change. “We started a vegetable garden in the back,” she says with a pip of joy in her voice. “We’ve been talking about it for so long. It’s time,” she says. “We’re going to see how it goes!” She’s not alone. In a world of disconnection, passing the peace with our neighbors through a renewed flower bed or a vegetable garden in the “back” seems to be a natural response.
I agree. We’ve been talking about it too long. It’s time. It’s time to renew our connection to the earth and each other. It’s time to share in a rhythm that might not be our normal, but is the natural experience that we’ve all been craving. It’s time for us to grow again.
And why not through a garden? There is a reason for the renewed interest in community gardens and urban farms in the last few years. There is something about the proper stewardship of the earth that helps to kindle community. We bring beauty to vacant spaces. We reclaim shalom with the planting of seeds. And when these sprouts begin to flower, we become neighbors as we stop to look and appreciate the presence of glory in a patch of earth. We ask questions. We hold conversations. Together we are filled with wonder.
As it turns out, I did not become a farmer. Not exactly. Today I am a pastor, wearing two hats. I lead a humble start-up ministry called En Vivo Church. I am also the Executive Director of New City Neighbors, a non-profit that runs an urban farm in the Creston neighborhood. The farm is a social enterprise, employing neighborhood youth, teaching them life-skills, while supplying neighbors, businesses, and local food pantries with healthy produce. It is amazing what happens when you harvest vegetables that you have grown and serve them for the sake of all who are sitting at the table. We nurture relationships, while growing food.
So, how does your garden grow? How is your world supposed to be? What is missing? Don’t laugh. I’m not suggesting that planting tomato seeds in your backyard is going to solve the world’s problems. Yet, rekindling our connection to the earth and thus to each other may be a start in the right direction. The way I see it, gardening reminds us that the earth is not ours to control, but ours to steward, and how we treat it affects us and our neighbors.
When we reclaim abandoned places with seeds, we start revolutions. We sow in faith that something beautiful can grow and take root if we do it with intention. And everyone who stops by this garden can reap its benefit. When we share what we’ve been able to harvest, we can transform our society by the knowledge that the earth is something we all share.
Rev. Ricardo Tavárez is a leader passionate about serving the urban core by developing cross-cultural leaders, forming Christian disciples, and advocating for those pushed to the margins of society. He earned a dual undergraduate degree at Kuyper College in Bible and International Business & Marketing. He later graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary with a Master’s Degree in Divinity, with a concentration in Missions. In 2016, Rev. Tavárez began the ministry that is En Vivo Church. He also leads the non-profit work of New City Neighbors, empowering youth to reach their full potential, as the org's executive director. He has served as a preacher, leadership trainer, youth ministry leader, non-profit leader, and mentor. In his spare time he enjoys writing and drawing.