- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Billings Vineyard Church hopes to grow more than produce at the community garden it has created.

The Heights congregation wants to cultivate community at the 1.1-acre plot of land it bought to develop and open to the public.

“It’s something the Lord put on our hearts, about how you create community, how you serve community, how you make space for community,” said the Rev. Allen Hodges. “And food is a big part of that.”

The garden, called The Garden, is located across the street from Independent Elementary School. It’s less than a mile from where the congregation meets.

Church members have worked on the site for the past three years. This is the first time Billings Vineyard has made a push to recruit gardeners from the community to work on the 255 8-by-14-foot plots.

“We’ve had six brand new gardeners in the last two weeks, and there are 14 altogether,” Hodges said, sitting inside the cafe at the church he and his family founded in 2005.

Last summer, the focus at The Garden was on completing several major construction projects. That included building a pavilion, planting a vineyard, constructing an irrigation system and completing a barn with a walk-in freezer.

A concrete table in the pavilion, which is situated at the center of The Garden, seats 20 people, with a large grill nearby. The idea is to provide a gathering space.

“We encourage people, if you’re out there gardening, bring something to grill for dinner,” Hodges said. “Pull something out of your garden plot and maybe others will join you.”

The Garden is surrounded by a deer fence to protect the plants. And a couple in the church built decorative “sunrise” and “sunset” gates that add an artistic touch.

The Garden also has an almost half-mile walking path, for people to enjoy a little time outside in nature, and to pray if they’re so moved.

“I’m mindful that Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden in the cool of the evening,” he said. “It’s a way to connect with God, so we encourage people to get out there.”

In addition to the garden plots, the church has planted 66 trees in a fruit orchard, including cherry, peach, apricot, plum and apple. It has a beehive, and hopes eventually to expand to three or four hives, “but one thing at a time,” Hodges said.

It also has planted the vines with an eventual goal of producing 300 bottles of wine a year. Some wild hops also have been discovered on the acreage and used by members of the congregation who brew beer.

“One of our neighbors said a relative of his planted hops when he homesteaded over 80 years ago,” Hodges said.

The church will waive the annual $15 fee for first-time gardeners. They are asked to donate a portion of their produce to a nonprofit or someone in need.

Hodges thinks it’s important for believers to be stewards, instead of usurpers, of the land. That’s why The Garden is organic.

That’s also the reason the congregation hopes to eventually construct an environmentally friendly LEED Platinum-rated church building at the site.

“We want to be as sustainable and ethically responsible as we can,” he said.

Billings Vineyard has a multigenerational membership of about 130 people, with about one-third children. Hodges thinks of a church as much a living entity as a garden, an organism rather than an organization.

“I look at my job as pastor to help people do what God’s called them to do, rather than ‘here’s what I want done’ and recruit and train them,” Hodges said. “I want people to know what God’s made them for, called them to do and how can I resource them to do that.”

He also wants Billings Vineyard to bloom where it’s planted, to be a blessing to the community.

“The question that haunts me is if we closed our doors today, would anybody notice?” he said.

To minister to its neighbors, every Thursday Hodges makes coffee drinks in the cafe, and associate pastor Adam Greenwell takes them to workers at businesses in the area. The church also hopes to eventually open up the cafe, which runs now on Sunday mornings, on Friday nights for coffee and life music.

Hodges also thinks opening a garden is a way to be community friendly. He hopes it will bless people and grow good will over time.


Information from: The Billings Gazette, https://www.billingsgazette.com

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