Interfaith garden caters to refugees
San Antonio Express-News
March 23, 2012
In a meadow next to House of Prayer Lutheran Church, a series of box-shaped, wooden frames hold rich soil and the emerging signs of tomato plants, cucumber vines and peppers.
They are tended by several dozen refugees who hail from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
For many, the garden reminds them of home, and it gives them a familiar, creative outlet besides the practical benefit of fresh produce.
But it also is a tool for teaching them to speak English in an environment that embraces their cultural and religious diversity as students in an English-acquisition program.
“The garden means to us to have one family and to be together, because when we dig and plant together, we help each other together,” said Shukuru Saidi, 38, an immigrant from Congo. He converted from Islam to Pentecostalism and then joined a Presbyterian church in San Antonio.
This morning, clergy from the Hindu, Catholic and Lutheran communities will preside over a dedication of the garden at Ironside Drive and Wurzbach Road.
The Lutheran church is the site where Catholic Charities of San Antonio and Northside Independent School District provide the English-language program, which teaches up to 100 students drawn from an estimated 7,000 refugees in San Antonio.
The garden is the second on the North Side to attract a refugee community.
A year ago, St. Francis Episcopal Church began its international community garden. For $25 a plot, the church and other sponsors provide instruction and a place to grow vegetables and fruit for more than 50 families.
The families also teach the church members about what they grow, said parish administrator Michelle Autry.
“That is how we can live out our mission statement of celebrating God’s love,” she said, adding that the congregation partnered with Oak Hills Church recently to put in a soccer field for the refugee community near the garden.
The House of Prayer garden is called CIELO Gardens, which stands for “community, interfaith interaction, education, literacy and opportunity.” Sponsors include the University of the Incarnate Word‘s Interfaith Council and City Year San Antonio.
On a recent morning, refugees checked the progress of new plantings and spoke of the large fields that sustained their communities back home.
The refugees are grouped into English-skill levels and receive instruction at the Lutheran church’s fellowship hall during the week. In the light of stained glass and next to a wall quilt of an angel, they break down words and their meanings.
They often share insights from their own faiths, which range from Islam and Hinduism to Buddhism, Animism and various branches of Christianity.
Now, some of their language instruction will take place in the garden.
“All of those different religious groups come in and understand that they all come from different religious backgrounds,” said Jennifer Yanez-Alaniz, education coordinator for Catholic Charities’ resettlement program. “Nobody is going to judge. They are just working collaboratively in a community.”