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Transformed corner a sermon in mulch, compost, broccoli


Kathy Marchant is a dreamer. Her inner-city neighborhood had seen better days.

She lives on the West Side, a mostly Hispanic area in Kansas City, Mo. Kathy’s day job was home restoration in the gentrified areas of the city. About 10 years ago, she found herself obsessed with a nearby hilltop intersection where the broken windows of neglected, dilapidated storefronts gazed out on a vacant lot littered with weeds and trash. Kathy’s dream featured a store and a cafe on that corner, and the eventual renaissance of a neighborhood that had once been vital, splashed with color, fun and verve.

So she took her savings and, with her partner, bought and began to restore two of the spacious corner buildings, repointing the brick, replastering the interior, installing new window glass. The corner of 17th and Summit came to life again.

She opened one building as a grocery store, naming it City Garden. Carrying the usual line of grocery items, City Garden also features organic beans, rice and grains bought in bulk and packaged with the store’s labels. Antique wooden shelves groan under display cases filled with coffees, herbs and teas. A bulletin board is up to date with flyers for neighborhood events; local craftspeople advertise their skills and wares on 3-by-5 inch cards. Alternative and Spanish-language newspapers fill the racks below. Wonderful aromas waft up from the bulk spice bins. A small deli offers delectable salads made from fresh ingredients and cookies and sopapillas freshly baked. It’s a place where you want to spend time, even if you don’t need the groceries.

In the other room Kathy installed skylights, refinished the oak floors and sandblasted the brick interior walls. This area became the Bluebird Cafe. Small tile-top tables with tiny pots of dry flowers fill the attractive space. In the restaurant, chef Zoe LaGrece uses local produce to concoct delicious and nourishing vegetarian entrees for the customers who come for lunch from nearby downtown office buildings.

Soon after the store opened its doors, Kathy and staff transformed the vacant lot across the street into a garden. A picket fence, draped with ivy, encloses it. In the summer, raised beds sprout kale, eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, okra, carrots, turnips and beets. Smaller beds harbor spicy arugula, parsley and cilantro. Green beans and snow peas hang from trellises. Grapevines climb the walls of a small gazebo. Kathy hires homeless people to tend the garden and harvest the vegetables throughout the summer. You cannot get a fresher, tastier salad than the ones served in the Bluebird. What’s more, the waste and trimmings from Zoe’s kitchen go right back into the garden as compost, nourishment for next summer’s crops.

Kathy told me once that all of the store and restaurant staff live within eight blocks. The commute to work is done mostly on foot or by bicycle. The counter staff people call the local neighborhood kids by name when they come in after school for healthy and tasty treats.

The store and restaurant are a marketplace for nearby local farmers and growers. Such markets are necessary in the Midwest where a farm crisis deepens daily. Eighty percent of the farmers in Missouri are unable to sustain themselves by farming alone. Nearby Kansas came in last place in water quality for the past three years because of pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff from farm fields. Rural families and communities continue to be devastated by current agribusiness practices and low prices paid to the producers. On the other end of the farm crisis, urban dwellers have to eat food laden with pesticide residue, tasteless and lacking in nutrition.

An Episcopal priest called not long ago, asking me to recommend a book for his newly formed spirituality group to read and study. Should he offer them Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or perhaps something by John of the Cross? I had just come from lunch with a friend at the Bluebird Cafe. Instead of these tried and true classics from the past, on impulse I recommended a just-released book titled Shelter for the Spirit, by a local author, Victoria Moran.

Several chapters in her book describe City Garden and the Bluebird Cafe. I told the priest that I was convinced deep down that the activities and disciplines that enabled these small businesses to sprout and flourish constitute a true spirituality for our times. Knee-deep in the world’s current dilemmas, Kathy’s way is as valid, graced and useful as any doings in a monastic enclosure, any devotion or retreat practice. Just as monasteries were a creative solution to problems in the early Christian centuries, so perhaps Kathy’s efforts represent a new kind of creativity and spirituality, tailored to our times.

Vern Barnett, a Unitarian minister and expert on interfaith dialogue, has said: “There are three great crises in our time: To preserve the environment, to heal the person and to redeem the community.” A spirituality that is not in some way involved in dealing with these three crises, healing these great wounds, is nothing more than a parlor game.

Kathy’s transformed corner, for me, is a parable in brick and glass, a sermon in mulch, compost and sprouting broccoli. As theologian Monika Hellwig rightly claims, the primary issue in spirituality is not the redemption of the individual soul but the redemption of the whole world. Perhaps each of us is given a little speck of the world to redeem. It is not ours to finish the great task, but neither are we free not to participate.

Kathy’s efforts bring jobs to the homeless, vitality to a neglected city neighborhood, nutritious, tasty food to city dwellers and badly needed income to nearby farm families. The corner of 17th and Summit is a shelter for the spirit, a grace, a blessing, a way to move forward into the next century.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Forest of Peace Publishing).

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999