This community garden in Southeast Washington grows far more than food

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Kwesi Billups (right) and volunteers at Project Eden hold homegrown Swiss chard at the greenhouse in Southeast Washington, April 17, 2021. Project Eden distributes its produce, along with donations from the Capital Area Food Bank, at a nearby church.

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Almost 10 years ago, Cheryl Gaines, a pastor, started the Project Eden community garden as a response to the South Capitol Street massacre, one of Washington’s worst mass shootings in decades. Her idea then, as now, was that no community chooses violence when it has another option. Since then Ms. Gaines, her son, and hundreds of local employees and volunteers have offered such an option.

Project Eden sources its produce in the form of seeds through donations, grants, and community partnerships. While the selection depends on what’s available, volunteers follow a loose crop rotation of roots, legumes, fruits, and greens – like the lush Swiss chard growing tall this season. They also distribute the food, along with donations from a food bank, to the community. 

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes a seed’s most important crop won’t fit on a dinner plate. That’s true of the opportunities and sense of community that Project Eden has been growing for almost a decade.

On a mid-April Saturday, the day of weeding, watering, and other scattered work began with an a cappella rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. Volunteers, who regularly call each other “brother” and “sister,” stood in a circle and sang together.

Project Eden isn’t just resisting material challenges of nutrition and income, says Caroline Brewer of the Audubon Naturalist Society. It’s helping the community resist despair. 

“It’s a constant battle,” she says, “and they’re winning that battle.”

Three years ago, when Jevael German received his assignment through Washington’s Summer Youth Employment Program, he wanted nothing to do with it. He would be working with Project Eden, a community garden in the city’s troubled Southeast – known for police sirens much more than produce.

A Washington native himself, Mr. German dreaded the months of labor in the district’s humidity. He didn’t even like vegetables. While meeting his supervisors on his first day, Mr. German laid his head facedown on the desk. 

“Sir, if you don’t want to be here, you’re welcome to leave,” he heard back. “But you can’t put your head on the desk.”

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes a seed’s most important crop won’t fit on a dinner plate. That’s true of the opportunities and sense of community that Project Eden has been growing for almost a decade.

Mr. German stayed, and the summer surprised him. He enjoyed the outdoor work, which reminded him of childhood gardening with his grandmother. As an older member of the summer group, he began mentoring some of his younger co-workers. He even started eating greens. 

At the program’s end, Mr. German asked to continue with Project Eden for another summer. After returning, he learned that a former summer employee at the garden had died in a shooting. Mr. German, who was still living with one foot in the streets at that time, saw in that tragic death a version of himself if he didn’t change. 

“Right then and there, I was like, I’ve got to leave the streets alone,” he says. 

Mr. German is one of hundreds of young people who have worked with Project Eden, and been an embodiment of its mission: to be a source of opportunity and healing in a community so often defined by limits and loss. 

Almost 10 years ago, Cheryl Gaines, a local pastor, started the garden as a response to the South Capitol Street massacre, one of Washington’s worst mass shootings in decades. Her idea then, as now, was that no community chooses violence when it has another option. Since then Ms. Gaines, her son Kwesi Billups, and hundreds of local employees and volunteers have sought to offer such an option.

While simultaneously addressing challenges of health, food insecurity, and unemployment, Project Eden is at its roots an alternative. The work is rarely convenient, and resources are often low. But the garden’s legacy is that seeds can grow on what may seem like rocky soil – if only there’s a sower.

“This garden gives back to you what you give to it,” says Mr. Billups. 

Helping a community resist despair

In 2012, Ms. Gaines was Project Eden’s sower, though an unlikely one at that. 

She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father in public housing outside New Orleans, only to trade that past for a career in law, and later the ministry. While at seminary in Rochester, New York, she had a persistent vision that God was calling her to live in Southeast Washington, begin a church, and plant a community garden. 

In 2010, after having lived in the Washington area for years, she felt the time had come.

Leaving four dead and six more injured, the South Capitol Street massacre rattled Southeast, and brought the community together to mourn. At a vigil, Ms. Gaines met the owner of an apartment building just blocks away from the the shooting. In that conversation, she eventually shared her vision. Before long, the owner told her she could use her building’s backyard.

On that land two years later, Project Eden (“Eden” stands for Everyone Deserves to Eat Naturally) began as a 10-by-20-foot patch of dirt, with only rows of tilled soil. The next year Ms. Gaines and her team turned that plot into a 28-by-48-foot greenhouse, complete with aquaponics, and have since expanded to another location at nearby Faith Presbyterian Church. 

Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor
Ervin Bias, standing in Project Eden's greenhouse in Southeast Washington on April 17, 2021, holds his specially grown mint. Mr. Bias uses the mint in a secret recipe to brew tea.

A community garden may seem like a boutique project in some areas, but not in Southeast, says Caroline Brewer, director of marketing and communications at the Audubon Naturalist Society, which recently named Mr. Billups its yearly Taking Nature Black youth environmental champion.

The area is a food desert, she says, with only one major grocery store for just over 80,000 residents. Many of those living in Southeast Washington have some of the lowest per capita incomes in the country, and the unemployment rate is 18%. The holes left by limited opportunity and education are often filled by crime and violence.

“When people have opportunities to give back ... that allows them to grow and develop and mature and make [an] even greater contribution to their families and their communities,” says Ms. Brewer.

Project Eden isn’t just resisting material challenges of nutrition and income, says Ms. Brewer. It’s helping the community resist despair. 

 “It’s a constant battle,” she says, “and they’re winning that battle.”

Seeds that keep growing

Winning involves sweat-stained shirts and dirty hands in the growing season from early spring to late autumn. To Mr. Billups, who has spent almost half his life working in the garden, those hours are part of his identity.

Project Eden sources its produce in the form of seeds through donations, grants, and community partnerships, including one with the Capital Area Food Bank. While the selection depends on what’s available, volunteers follow a loose crop rotation of roots, legumes, fruits, and greens – like the lush Swiss chard growing tall this season. Sometimes, all by themselves, last season’s crops will sprout back up, like a living legacy left in the soil. 

Volunteers distribute the food, along with donations from the food bank, to the community, using Faith Presbyterian as their distribution site. Thousands in the area have benefited from their work, says Mr. Billups, and, without prompting, many of them volunteer. One man offers to cut the grass. Another woman in a neighboring apartment building keeps watch, lest an intruder break in. 

“Project Eden was really founded as an engine of agency for people to be able to see that you can grow your own food and you can stake your own claim in your own environment,” says Mr. Billups, who recently graduated from American University and plans to continue his work with urban gardens when he starts a job in Baltimore.

Ervin Bias, a deacon at Ms. Gaines’ church, is one of the volunteers. He’s been with the project almost since its beginning and has worked so many hours that Mr. Billups calls him the “master gardener.”

Despite having two jobs, Mr. Bias visits the garden at least once a week. Getting his hands dirty reminds him of childhood moments in the garden with his father. On still mornings, tending to the crops alone – especially his fragrant mint – makes him think of God. 

Volunteers at the garden regularly call each other “brother” and “sister.” On a mid-April Saturday, the day of weeding, watering, and other scattered work began with an a cappella rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. Everyone stood in a circle and sang together.

But the sense of community fostered in the greenhouse is fragile. The building whose yard houses Project Eden’s greenhouse recently went up for sale, and they couldn’t compete with an enormous bid from developers. 

While they hope to stay, they’ll move if they need to, says Ms. Gaines.

But even if their work at that location is done, it’s not over, Mr. Bias says. A seed planted in the garden is a seed planted in the gardener. In him, and in Mr. German, Ms. Gaines, Mr. Billups, and thousands of others who’ve passed through the greenhouse, eaten the food, and tasted the fruit of their land, that seed still grows. 

“I don’t know when this will ever end,” says Mr. Bias. “It’s something I can always take with me, to share with somebody else.”

Editor’s note: The name of Mr. Billups’ award has been clarified.

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