photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

A Mustard Seed Grows in Detroit

A few weeks ago, as we entered the season of Lent, I wrote a blog post about the Poverty Top 40, citing a list of the 40 U.S. cities with the highest poverty rates.

At the top of that list was Detroit.

In the 1950s, Detroit was the 4th largest city in the United States, the capital of America’s automotive industry and birthplace of soul music. Over the years it was nicknamed Motor City and Motown.  For various reasons, the city declined, and today it is the nation’s poverty leader.

Behind the scenes of that headline, though, the once great city is undergoing a sort of renaissance. And it started with a simple seed. From a barren landscape of abandoned buildings and empty lots, residents began to plant community gardens to address the “food desert” issue, but also to build community as the gardening tasks are shared by neighbors.  The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit organization, estimates that today there may be upwards of 1,300 community gardens in the city, tended by 15,000 gardeners, and supported by more than a dozen nonprofits. The group’s Garden Resource Program reports an astounding level of community participation:

In 2011, residents were responsible for creating and maintaining 1,351 vegetable gardens in the city. As participants in the Garden Resource Program, these gardeners picked up 49,858 seed packs and 230,296 transplants and grew over 73 varieties of fruits and vegetables in their 382 community, 48 market, 64 school and 857 family gardens.

Artists and young people from around the country are migrating to Detroit, creating a vast laboratory for innovative thinking about how the city could be rebuilt, not as its old self but as a new model that embraces the future.  One documentary, “The Farmer and the Philosopher,”  looks at Detroit through the eyes of two very different people who are helping change the city for the better in different ways: Toby Barlow, a writer who lives in downtown Detroit, and Mark Covington, founder of Georgia Street Community Garden.  I encourage you to watch it.

During his ministry, our Lord often spoke to his followers in parables. When I think of what is happening in Detroit, I think of the parable of the mustard seed.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

We are reminded that whether we are sowing seeds to grow plants or seeds for ideas, both are powerful and can bring about great change. Each of us has the power to initiate change, as the citizens of Detroit are doing.  It’s something to think about as we near the end of our Lenten journey in that most powerful of all gardens, the Garden of Gethsemane.  What seed are you planting?