New community establishes roots with refugee-run farm

Date Posted: 10/13/2022


Photo Credit Kelsey Johnson

By Lindsay Peyton
 
On a recent Saturday, Rev. Colin Bagby stood in the middle of a large garden. He was joined by about a dozen members of branches, the new worship community of St. Luke’s UMC in Houston, which he serves. Participants were divided into different tasks, planting grapevines and blackberry bushes, digging holes and spreading mulch. Their welcome was spoken in Swahili at the community farm, called Shamba Ya Amani. The agricultural green space, a project of the nonprofit FAM’s Women’s Empowerment Group, is run by resettled refugees and immigrants. And it was exactly the right place, the pastor explained, for branches to start establishing roots and building community.
 
“It’s just a different pace,” Bagby said. “You drive by these convenience stores and strip centers in Alief, and then there’s this tall grass that’s all dewy.”
 
In the field, the women of Shamba Ya Amani tend the soil, pull weeds and sow seeds on raised beds. Tall sunflowers arch their necks, and giant okra warm in the sun.
 
FAM’s Kelsey Johnson showed branches members around the grounds, pointing to familiar plants and translating their names into Swahili. After a morning of work, the volunteers sat down under an awning and had lunch with the women from FAM. Not everyone spoke the same language, but there was a sense of togetherness, Bagby explained. “It was the small things, like noticing and helping one another,” he said.
 
branches launched on Sept. 18 at St. Luke’s UMC campus. The name was inspired by John 15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful . . . No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
 

Photo Credit Kelsey Johnson

Bagby was reflecting on Jesus’s agricultural parables, as well as His call to simply be in His presence. In the busy, hustling concrete city of Houston, he wondered, “What would it be like to be a witness for a slower way of life?”
 
“Abiding” became a central concept of branches’ identity. Bagby explained that “abiding” is what Jesus called a deep spiritual life, to be in communion with Him. “We connect our lives with one another in community and to God in prayer and spiritual practice,” he explained.
 
Literally planting and tending to the soil seemed like a natural next step, almost an experiential learning of the parables themselves. “Maybe you have this frenetic, fast pace of life,” he said. “But then you spray some water, scatter some seeds, tow the ground.”
 
When thinking of mission partners for branches, Bagby immediately called Rev. Ginny Griggs, FAM’s Director of Congregational Partnerships and Epworth League and pastor at St. Mark’s UMC Pecore.

Photo Credit Kelsey Johnson

FAM Houston is a nonprofit established to build justice by empowering refugee and immigrant communities in Houston. The organization broke ground on its farm in Alief in 2020.
 
Griggs began working on a pilot program, the Pamoja Project in 2021, while she was serving at Memorial Drive UMC, in partnership with FAM employee Ndjabuka Francine Murhebwa. She explained that “Pamoja,” which means “together” in Swahili, pairs church members with refugee families.
 
After a successful pilot, Westbury UMC also joined the Pamoja Project. Griggs said the goal is to build empowered communities, where participants learn from each other and provide mutual support.
 
Now branches is finding a way to also be involved with FAM. “It seems so organic,” Griggs said. “It’s natural, and it makes sense. We’re excited to have a partnership that branches could use in a process of establishing its own identity.”
 
Coming to the farm, she added, is often an ideal first step for churches wanting to get involved with FAM’s ministry. There are a number of other ways to connect, as well. For instance, FAM works with St. Mark’s UMC in a partnership with a school library.


Photo Credit Kelsey Johnson

“One of the greatest things about FAM is that every church partnership looks different,” Griggs said. “In your neighborhoods, we want to walk alongside you and see how you can use help.”
 
Each congregation has its own calling and its own resources and strengths, she added. “We just want to honor those unique gifts of the community,” she said. “And as branches continues to grow and think about their unique call, we can find ways to support them in that work.”
 
The key question is how churches and FAM can work together to respond to where God is at work, Griggs explained. “Because we are stronger together,” she said.
 
Mutuality – a commitment to creating relationships that go both ways – is a core value of FAM.
And that appealed to Bagby.
 
“Usually, when you do mission work, there’s this expectation that you’re doing something for someone else,” he explained.
 
FAM helps change that equation.


Photo Credit Kelsey Johnson

“It feels like we are learning from one another, like everyone is a student,” Bagby said.
 
At the farm, branches members learned how to cultivate the land and new words. They walked away with new friends, listening to the stories of the women in the garden. And they learned what it meant to be together, from all different backgrounds, working hand-in-hand to create something beautiful. Bagby likened it to a glimpse at God’s Kingdom.
 
“This is what abiding is,” he said. “It’s just one of the small steps we can take to see that come to life.”