Manchaca UMC (pronounced MAN-shek) is a large, active congregation of about 800 people located in a semi-rural area of South Austin in Texas. Although the church is only eleven miles from the downtown core, its surrounding landscape is pastoral, surrounded by farmland and trees. In this serene setting, the congregation runs a diverse body of ministries and caters to a wide range of community members. One of their largest and most storied ministries is the Eco-Faith Initiative, a unique community agricultural ministry which began in 2009.

The Eco-Faith Initiative began with a “well attended brainstorming session” that arose after a presentation on Environmental Stewardship when the Church Trustees came together to consider the church’s energy costs. As Garden Manager and former Trustee Bill Palacek put it, “We left the conversation shocked about how much energy we were using, and then had an idea session. In it, we considered reducing our [ecological] footprint and contributing to the planet by way of everything from acquiring goats to getting rid of Styrofoam.” Ultimately, the Eco-Faith Initiative prioritized its mission into three goals: the congregation abolished the use of Styrofoam; under Palacek’s guidance, it decided to create an Outdoor Education Center and Community Garden; and, to fund this Center, it began to undertake an aluminum-recycling program. Furthermore, the congregation is now part of the Austin Interfaith Environmental Network and has acquired a 2500-gallon tank for rainwater harvesting. Yet today, the most immediate and compelling aspect of the Eco-Faith Initiative is the Manchaca Community Garden and Outdoor Education Center.

Located on the wide, grassy fields behind the church, the Manchaca Community Garden and Outdoor Education Center is a large, lush, one-half-acre space, where picnic tables rest between neatly planted rows of lettuce, broccoli, beans, cauliflower, and a medley of other vegetables. Run by Palacek, the garden consists of about twenty-seven plots. Between six and eight are maintained by the congregation, and the harvest is donated to the church food pantry or used for cooking demonstrations. All remaining space is leased by Austin community members. As Palacek points out, “It can be anybody. It doesn’t have to be a church member renting space. We supply the water and the dirt — it’s twenty dollars per growing season.” Today, the Community Garden is flourishing. There are plans to add two more rows of plots in the next few months and to plant an orchard where church members will cultivate persimmons, peaches, and pecans.

Many community members have seized on this opportunity to grow food in a safe, tranquil, and welcoming atmosphere. Today, 90% of the gardeners cultivating produce at Manchaca UMC are not from the church. Palacek continues, “one person is Hindu and another couple comes from twelve miles away. But they like that country feel.”

The value of the garden, especially for Palacek as the manager, has been as a teaching and learning space. He muses that, because of his own personal interest in gardening, he “wanted to teach other people how to do this stuff. Our church had a significant amount of land that no one was using. We used that land to reach out to the community and kids and teach them how to connect to their land, their faith, and each other. For many people, growing organic is new — they don’t know much about organic gardening and they don’t know how to dig dirt.” Now, Manchaca UMC sees the community garden as an experimental laboratory. They lead seminars and recycling presentations throughout the year and “test a lot of theories.”

One such example is how the congregation dealt with the large amount of water necessary for large-scale gardens. Many congregations making initial forays into gardening projects confront large water bills and feel hamstrung about how to pay them. Manchaca UMC Community Garden looked to their faith as a source of support and guidance, noting “early communities from the Bible lived in arid climates and grew food. How can we creatively emulate that model?”

In an ingenious measure inspired by early desert communities, Manchaca UMC Community garden members began to use the ‘olla’ irrigation system in which a gardener sinks water-filled clay pots into the soil, which then release the moisture gradually over a period of two weeks. Today, the Manchaca Community Garden leads seminars on water conservation with ollas, pointing out that they are 80% more effective than drip irrigation. Other experiments at the Manchaca Community Garden involve using coffee grounds as fertilizer, repurposing leftover carpet to place on pathways to reduce weed growth, and implementing a composting method called keyhole gardening. The Garden also partners with numerous outside organizations including the Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, Little Helping Hands Children’s Service Club, and the University of Texas’ Master Gardener programs.

One of the obstacles in creating the community garden was anxiety over the logistics of inviting strangers onto the property. Trustees and members raised concerns about security, access, and clean-up policies. Since the church operates a daycare with a playground located near the garden site, congregants were also worried about the safety of the children. Ultimately, this issue was resolved by conducting thorough interviews with any potential gardeners and allowing them to garden only during hours when children are supervised.

In the early days of the Manchaca Community Garden, water usage was a serious issue, before being mitigated by the introduction of the ollas. However, Palacek admits that there are still times when someone leaves a spigot on unnecessarily or other carelessness causes water loss. Another challenge the Garden has faced is the relative difficulty of getting a large number of members from the congregation directly involved. Although a core group of gardeners exists, many congregation members are involved in other ministries and do not tend a plot.

Yet the congregation does show indirect support by subsidizing the Eco-Faith Initiative. In a local sense, it sees the project as a key part of the larger Manchaca UMC goal of maintaining “outwardly focused ministries that address unmet needs in the community.” In a broader sense, the Eco-Faith Initiative ties directly to the goals set out by the United Methodist Conference of promoting sustainability and environmentalism. Each year, the garden receives a small budget from the church, which is then used for marketing, like at school fairs and farmer’s markets. The remaining funds are used for equipment expenses associated with growing food.

Austin is a rapidly expanding community, drawing in over one hundred new residents each day. Amidst this transition and growth, the presence of safe and accessible faith-based green spaces is all the more important. The presence and energizing activity of the Manchaca UMC Community Garden is an exemplar for other congregations looking to activate unused land and spiritually connect to the soil. As Palacek reflected, community gardens “are not only places to grow food,” but also learning centers, meeting places, experimental laboratories, and centers of holistic healing. The Eco-Faith Initiative distinguishes itself not only through its wide swath of land and inclusive, expansive attitude, but also because it extends the reach of the Community Garden beyond its immediate borders through an active web presence and knowledge-sharing initiative. As Palacek points out, merging food and faith is a key way to bring the congregation and the community together, and when gardeners leave each day, “they go home smiling.”