I think we can all agree that the past month of news has been overwhelming and heartbreaking. The death of Philando Castile has hit particularly close to home for me. The shooting occurred less than two miles from where I live, and the protests that shut down Interstate 94 happened less than half a mile from my house. That night I sat under the whir of circling helicopters, feeling trapped and useless to do much of anything about the angst, hurt, and anger being expressed just outside my door. A few days later from my back door I watched Philando’s casket on a horse-drawn carriage lead the funeral procession down my street.

That same week I attended two community meetings — one about a parking study being conducted for my neighborhood, the other about a test zoning ordinance that would allow accessory dwelling units to be built. Going to these meetings felt like a strange and superfluous privilege given the circumstances of my neighborhood. In all honesty, I have not been sure how to resolve the tension of living in such close proximity to this pain and yet feeling removed from it. Likewise, talking about parking in the midst of these circumstances seems so trivial, and yet, I care about parking and its implications for my neighborhood.

I have found myself asking, How do I carry both of these realities within myself because the truth is I am one person and can only live one reality? The answer begs for imagination and here my thoughts consistently return to my community garden.

My garden is literally across the street from the funeral home where Philando’s body was last viewed by loved ones. Both the garden and the funeral home also front Interstate 94, which in the 1960s tragically tore through the heart of the Rondo neighborhood, a thriving community. For me, this is not insignificant. Adjacent to one of the most historically divisive physical structures in the City of Saint Paul is a place where family and friends together confront the reality of death alongside a place where neighbors together plant new life every spring. Holding these realities together requires imagination.

I have come to see that, in a small way, my community garden is fertile ground for imagination and hope. Wendell Berry in his work of fiction, Hannah Coulter, writes of such imagination, “[It is] hard to live in one place and imagine another. It is hard to live one life and imagine another. But imagination is what is needed. Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

My community garden cultivates this imagination because it serves as a space for knowing my neighbors, and even more, does so in a context in which we are all equally dependent. The earth itself does not give privilege to one type of person over another. Every single person is at the mercy of the soil and the weather, which follow their own natural rhythms. As fellow gardeners, we are in this endeavor together. Perhaps this is why the Bible implores that in seeking the welfare of the city we are to build houses and plant gardens.

Through my community garden, I have met people from all walks of life. Together, we have gained a better understanding of and appreciation for those who live in our community. We are better able to imagine the lives of one another. And, lately, I have begun to consider that my participation in the community garden is a step of reconciliation for myself and with others. 

Systems and structures need to be changed. Yes. But, as Gregory Wolfe points out, “…when words like ‘life,’ ‘choice,’ ‘rights,’ and so on are cut off from their concrete sources in human experience they become abstract and oppressive.” Thus, at a time when it is easy to feel powerless to affect change on macro levels, shaping strong neighborhood imaginations is a cogent place to start.

We must build places that enable us to see the lives of others with knowledge, love, and compassion. This means getting our hands dirty in the soil of our community. This means participating in both community gardens and contentious parking meetings, and rightly recognizing that even these matters have the power to value or devalue, to legitimize or delegitimize particular people.

I’ll end with a quote from C.S. Lewis that I often keep in mind while navigating my own spheres of influence. He writes, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” 

(All photos by Sara Joy)

Read more from Sara Joy