Restoring paradise: The Garden of Bethlehem

Remember Joni Mitchell’s famous Big Yellow Taxi song, which we discussed here a few weeks ago, especially its haunting lament

Jul 13, 2018

By Anil Netto
Remember Joni Mitchell’s famous Big Yellow Taxi song, which we discussed here a few weeks ago, especially its haunting lament: “They paved paradise … and put up a parking lot.” Now, what if we turned that verse on its head and reversed the process. That is exactly what happened at the famous St Anne’s Church in Bukit Mertajam. Parishioners and volunteers have dug up a car park and turned it into an ecological community farm, in a small bid to restore paradise and counter a looming ecological crisis.

The half-acre farm, christened the Garden of Bethlehem, is a pilot demonstration project to promote ecological farming and focal points of hope and resilience. St Anne’s was chosen as the first model ecological parish in the diocese. The Episcopal Commission for Creation Justice of the Penang Diocese hopes the garden will be a model for other parishes.

The garden will serve as a demonstration and education site to showcase agro-ecological principles, especially those of permaculture. Permaculture is a system of agricultural and design principles that uses patterns and features noticed in Nature. The word itself comes from ‘permanent agriculture’ — later also ‘permanent culture’, as social aspects are part of genuinely sustainable natural farming. The garden features some typical permaculture designs: herb spiral, banana circle, mandala and keyhole.

It required lots of planning and hard work. First, the top soil was dug up and heavily tilled. Lorries then dumped loads of soil onto the site, which was mainly used as a car park during the annual St Anne's feastday when thousands of pilgrims converge on the parish.

The design of the site layout was completed in January 2018, and the first first compost-making session was carried out the following month. Planting began in March. Preference was given to local fruits like banana, papaya, longan, ciku and guava; produce used in kitchens such as lime, turmeric, lemongrass, ginger, curry leaves, pandan, moringa, and flowering plants like hibiscus and Japanese rose plants. No thorns, no poisonous plants, the priority being food.

Clare Westwood, a bubbly activist who is enthusiastic about the farm, is the head of the Creation Justice Commission in the Penang Diocese. “The Garden of Bethlehem is not a gardening or hobby project. It is the local church heeding the calls of Laudato Si’,” she says. And how timely is that as the Bishop of Rome’s encyclical on “Care for our Common Home” observed its third anniversary recently.

Why the name Bethlehem though? “Hope was born in the person of Jesus in Bethlehem and so Garden of Bethlehem is a symbol of hope and faith — ‘ecological spirituality’ in action,” explains Clare. The garden is part of a mission to save people and the planet. With the worsening climate crisis, food insecurity will be one of the biggest challenges for current and future generations, she explains. In addition, toxic pesticides and harmful substances in our food are killing us. On the other hand, healthy soil with high organic matter is one of the best carbon sinks.

Clare thanked Bishop Sebastian Francis and Msgr Henry Rajoo for their support in getting the project off the ground – or rather into the ground. Msgr Henry recently blessed the garden.

For the project to succeed, Clare says the local community, namely the parishioners and friends of St Anne’s, has to take ownership of it. The current team of gardeners comprises about 15 parishioners and friends (including non-Catholics) of St Anne’s Church and the neighbouring Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Kulim. Everyone is welcome, even those who cannot do gardening can help in other ways in the garden and other activities of the Creation Justice Commission.

Newcomers are given an orientation on the basic mission and principles of the Garden.

BECs and small eco-circles (groups) have been urged to ‘adopt a plot’ in the garden. In particular, Clare hopes catechism children and youth will come regularly to work on the farm. “We need people, especially the young, to learn how to grow their own food ecologically, eat safe food and, at the same time, capture excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

The volunteers usually meet on Saturday mornings to work on the farm. Sometimes training sessions by the Consumers’ Association of Penang are held. The group also visits other ecological farms to learn and pick up a few tips.

We are living in critical times, and more people need to get involved. “What the Church leadership here is doing is creating a life-giving platform for people to take up the call to be leaders in this urgent mission to ‘save humankind from self-destruction’ (Laudato Si’, para 79), and build Earth and community resilience in a climate-challenged world,” says Clare. There is not a moment to lose.

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