In March 2020, when businesses were shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamie Richards went into his greenhouse to pray.
Mr. Richards, who runs a market garden near Orangeville, didn’t know whether to close his farm or stay open. There was a lot of uncertainty at the time and he didn’t want to risk any of his employees becoming infected with the virus.
“I went out to pray in my greenhouse, which seems like an odd spot to go but that’s what farmers do,” he recalls. “I asked God, what should I do? And the message came through: your job is to grow food.”
He kept his farm open, not only selling food to drive-by customers and local restaurants but giving away tons to a local foodbank and a school breakfast program.
This past spring and summer, Mr. Richards, a member of St. John, East Orangeville and a retired high school teacher, took God’s call to grow food one step further. He and a group of volunteers helped newly arrived refugees to Orangeville grow their own food on his property.
The innovative program, called Trust Yourself to Garden, was held on Mr. Richards’ Am Braigh Farm from late May to the middle of August. Over seven evenings, the refugees planted, weeded, harvested and learned how to pickle and preserve their food. The program finished with a celebratory meal at the farm.
Mr. Richards says the experience affirmed God’s call to him. “Every morning when I wake up and watch the sun come up, it is like watching a re-creation, so I’ve always felt that’s where my ministry would be,” he says. “If I’m going to help people, that’s where it is. And it feels like this is where God is calling me to be. To grow food.”
Trust Yourself to Garden grew out of a conversation that Mr. Richards had with two parishioners during St. John’s Christmas food drive last December. They mentioned how wonderful it would be if the parish could provide food to one family that used the foodbank, similar to programs that exist to provide food to children. “I thought this idea would work really well, bringing people together to mutually address food issues with our garden classes,” he says. “It would be a way to balance the relationship between those who are helped with those who are helping.”
With the support of St. John’s priest-in-charge, Archdeacon Elizabeth Hardy, he and two other church members formed a small committee to move the project forward. They contacted other churches and agencies in the community that worked with refugees, to see if they would be interested in participating.
The response was encouraging. Several groups, including St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Westminster United Church and Compass Community Church, all in Orangeville, said they would like to help. “We found that there are tons of organizations, particularly churches, who are bringing in refugees,” says Mr. Richards. Since the Syrian civil war in 2015, about 50 new refugee families have arrived in Orangeville.
With the help of volunteers from the various organizations, six refugee families took part in the program – three from Eritrea, two from Afghanistan and one from Syria. They were given small allotments of land and communal plots in which to grow vegetables, including eggplant, onions, tomatoes and kale. Mr. Richards provided instruction when necessary, but the emphasis was on learning through doing.
“The obstacles they face here in Canada are unbelievable, but they were so enthusiastic about it,” he says.
The volunteers served as coaches to the refugee families, driving them to the farm, providing tools and helping with other tasks. Audi Geadah-Ogley, a parishioner of St. John’s who speaks Arabic and French, provided translation. She came to Canada in the 1980s to escape the civil war in Lebanon. Her dedication to the program was one of the keys to its success, says Archdeacon Hardy. “She is a selfless and tireless worker in every aspect of the church’s ministry.”
Although the goal of the program was to grow food, it had a spiritual dimension as well, says Mr. Richards. “It taught us about the bounty of creation. We also got to experience community – people from very diverse backgrounds coming together. And there was personal transformation as well. When you learn a new skill, you feel a bit better about yourself.”
Archdeacon Hardy, who retired at the end of July, says Trust Yourself to Garden was the best initiative she had been part of in 36 years of ordained ministry. “We truly welcomed people,” she recalls. “The refugees, the volunteers, the different churches and organizations – it didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, you were invited to take part. It was an amazing experience. We truly lived out Jesus commandment, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.’”