Post by: Gretchen Legler, current MDiv student
Editor’s Note: I encourage all prospective students, whether MTS or MDiv, to explore the Field Education Program at HDS. Some MTS students write off field education entirely because it is not a requirement for their program, but it truly is a fantastic opportunity to design an internship of your own during your time here. Gretchen’s field education placement is only one of many creative examples possible here at HDS. If you are interested in learning more about field education, the Field Education Handbook provides a comprehensive overview.
My field education job title for the summer of 2019 is Garden Goddess! My joyous duties include coordinating a team of students, faculty and staff to plant, tend and harvest produce from the Harvard Divinity School’s organic vegetable garden. Our twelve raised beds behind the Dean’s house on Francis Street were inaugurated in 2009 by staff and students passionate about ministering to the earth and to their fellow humans. We grow everything–peas, lettuce, chard, tomatoes, basil, beans, eggplant, broccoli, potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, herbs, nasturtiums, marigolds, petunias, and even sometimes okra! We harvest and deliver twice a month to Faith Kitchen in Cambridge for their community meal. The HDS garden isn’t big enough to ever provide all of the veggies needed for these meals, but every little bit of what we grow helps that ministry flourish.
The Divinity School Garden, being like all gardens so deeply evocative for the human imagination, provides rich metaphors for the spiritual and intellectual journey I’m undertaking at HDS. I came to Harvard as a writer, a scholar of environmental writing, and as a college English and creative writing professor of 30 years. To fund this time of exploration and transition, my partner and I sold our small farm in Maine, where she and I raised goats and chickens and grew most of our own food. Near the end of my first city winter, longing to get my fingers in the dirt, I joined Leslie Artinian MacPherson, an HDS staff member who is the heart and soul behind the HDS garden, in the first step of the garden cycle—starting seeds. She and I and a handful of other students and staff gathered around a seminar table covered in a white cloth, filling small black pots with moist rich soil, nestling tiny pepper and tomato and eggplant seeds into the dirt, then setting the trays of would-be vegetables, flowers, and herbs in the sunny deep windowsills of Rockefeller Hall. Helping to start the seedlings was a nourishing and hopeful act. There is nothing like the smell of dirt and the promise of a seed in the palm of your hand!
My time in the garden is teaching me many things. We all have gifts and expertise. It’s vital that we each recognize how we can contribute to the common good. I have three decades of organic gardening and farming under my belt, which is valuable and worth sharing. The garden also allows me to practice skills I’ve developed over many years as a teacher facilitating discovery and empowering people in their creativity and learning. One of my greatest joys in the garden has been to see the ecstatic expression on the face of someone who has never gardened before as they gently pat the soil around a freshly planted cucumber seedling. In the garden I get to practice pastoral care skills I gained as a chaplain intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital: patience, listening, compassion, generosity, creating space for people to simply be. I also have the chance to work with people who are passionate about the most basic act of human generosity: feeding others. Breaking bread and sharing it in community has always been the most powerful part of any religious service for me. Come to the table. All are welcome. Eat.
Much of my spiritual education at HDS has had to do with coming to understand limits, and the garden also is a teacher in this respect. In a world that sometimes seems so broken, where nearly everywhere we look we see suffering, how can we facilitate meaningful change? I often feel hopeless and overwhelmed, yet what other course is there but to live in line with one’s values and use one’s gifts to help make the world a better place? Right livelihood. Right action.
Environmental writer David Orr reminds us of the importance of individual action in the face of the vastness of suffering. He writes, “The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.” I would add to his list that the world also desperately needs more gardeners. Providing organically-raised eggplants and tomatoes for Faith Kitchen meals will not fill every empty belly in the world. It will not end food insecurity in Boston. But, it does move us all in a more humane direction. The truth is, the HDS garden is part of meaningful change, one tiny seed at a time.