Southern Hills Mennonite Church, Topeka, Kansas, has been a promoter of community gardening for well over sixty years. We have always maintained a congregation garden. Many of the church founders in the early 60’s came from agricultural backgrounds and understood the importance of good stewardship and care for natural environment. Community gardening has always been a critical enterprise for congregation and local community well-being.
About 30 years ago our church created an outreach initiative known as Common Ground. Its goal was to use gardening as a way to build a healthy urban community in Topeka. Common Ground made a presence in local schools and community centers for demonstrating and encouraging gardening and teaching healthy family nutrition practices.
Common Ground established the HiCrest community garden, conveniently located on a formerly unused parcel of ground next to our church. Southern Hills church has provided oversight, maintenance and water resources for the garden. It is located in one of the neediest socio-economic communities in Topeka serving as an important community building resource. Neighbors in the area can grow food to support their families. Others use this space to produce food for donating to a local food pantry. This garden provides an opportunity to beautify the local surroundings and gives people a chance for outside physical activity as they care for the environment, and may develop an individual sense of self-worth, pride and accomplishment.
Recently, the church’s Common Ground sprouted into a broader city-wide organization, known as Topeka Common Ground, Inc. The primary goal of Topeka Common Ground is to help people return to their roots and learn ways of self-sustainable living. To re-learn how to grow our own food and then use these skills to help others around us in need. Currently, Topeka Common Ground facilitates at least fourteen gardens throughout the city. Southern Hills continues to give significant leadership support to the organization’s program. The organization’s program includes a “seed and starts” give-away to all gardens each year, consulting services on starting and operating a garden, collaborating with local and state horticulture organizations to expand gardening opportunities, and teaching youth about gardening and good nutrition.