Edinburgh - Granton Community Gardeners
Granton is an area of Edinburgh where at first sight there are only housing blocks. As one resident put it: Here, people only scurry between the bus stop and their front door. When the district was built at each street corner a patch of grass was left. Surrounded by fences, and too small to be parks, these street corners became wasteland where rubbish accumulated.
Four years ago, two friends put surveys through the doors of all the flats which overlooked one of the street corners: wouldn’t it be good to do something together with these pieces of land? No one said they objected, but quite a number replied that it would be a waste of effort: anything they tried to do would be trashed straightaway.
The friends were rather discouraged, but they put a second leaflet through letterboxes: on a certain Saturday morning everyone was invited to come, bringing spades or whatever other garden implements they had. Tom and his friend thought that at least a couple of people would turn up and they would get to know others who were keen to improve the area. The day was blessed with good weather, nearly 30 people came, and one street corner was completely dug over and planted!
- Working on one of the gardens in Granton, Edinburgh
Then some neighbours from the other end of the street asked for help to start their own garden. The gardens and the group have been steadily growing since, and there are now 5 sites and over 60 group members. The plan is to grow as much food as possible in Granton (an area where foodbank usage is dramatically on the rise) and to involve many local people in the process. All the food is shared between volunteers, or cooked by members of the group to provide community meals, where increasingly large numbers of local people sit down to eat together.
At a recent gathering in Edinburgh, Tom described how he had become increasingly interested in the way in which the restoration and care of land, the healing of people, and the flourishing of communities, all seem to be very linked; perhaps part of the same process:
“We’ve all made some great new friendships while working alongside each other. People have reported that working in the gardens has helped them with stress, depression, and even chronic pain. Some neighbours told us that they felt the ‘whole feel of the street had changed’, and we’ve created oases of biodiversity in what is a bit of a desert of mown grass, roofs, and concrete.”
It’s not all plain sailing and the group has its clashes and challenges, but like many people around the world, they’ve found a great dignity and satisfaction in being able to provide food for their family and friends from the ground under their feet. Tom says: “when we are so often labelled ‘consumers’ as if that is the sole purpose of our existence, the opportunity to become a producer can be a taste of something politically and spiritually quite different.”
Huelva - An Experience of Solidarity in the South of Spain
Pierre, a young French volunteer, wrote this article after an experience this spring with Andrea, from Italy, in the province of Huelva, in the South of Spain.
We had an amazing experience for a month in Isla Cristina, a small town of 20,000 inhabitants. Huelva is the Spanish province with the lowest standard of living, the highest unemployment rate and a record school dropout rate for Europe.
And we–an Italian and a French volunteer, with a Spanish Taizé brother—what were we going to do there? We simply wanted to offer a short period of our lives to share the lives of those who live at the extreme south of Europe, where you find the sun as well as distress, latent anxiety. We went there empty-handed, for a simple presence of prayerful solidarity with those who are in difficulty, knowing that we could do very little.
At the Catholic Relief Services (Caritas), we filled bags of food, helped push wheelbarrows, opened the door... very basic things, living out the dimension of welcome, listening, attentiveness. Poverty was not visible on the street, but at Caritas, we saw people who needed material assistance (food, paying the electricity bill) but who needed above all to have their dignity restored. We are left with images of tears and heads bowed in shame for having to ask for help.
The volunteers working there were normal people, ordinary people who wanted to help in any way they could, in very diverse situations. We also had the opportunity to hear about other places of hope: “Naim, ” a rehabilitation center for young drug addicts, or “Puertas Abiertas” (Open Doors), which welcomes street people every day to share a cup of coffee, provide a shower and a bit of human kindness.
We took advantage of the days when we were not working with Caritas to visit schools who had invited us or to meet with groups of young people from the parish. Listening, sharing, witnessing, and inviting them to share our common prayer.
Every day, we had three prayers. The first, in the morning, in the privacy of the apartment where we lived, in a beautiful oratory made of cardboard boxes wrapped in gift paper and covered with a few icons, candles and shells collected on the beach, all in a corner of our dining room. The two others were held in churches in the city. We tried to melt as well as we could into a particular context: an age-old Catholic tradition deeply steeped in popular piety. A very strong religious sentiment, very assertive, is found here in Andalusia. So for decoration, a few candles were enough.
We were prepared to pray alone, but we were surprised to see every day more and more people of different ages joining us to pray so naturally in front of images of Holy Week, with meditative Taizé songs and with the silence so rare in their celebrations...and in life in general. A deep prayer brought together and united people of different fraternities, youth movements, groups of parishes. For them, this Lent was different. So every day someone new came, invited by another person.
We led a very simple life together, sharing daily chores: the preparation of the daily prayers, shopping, cooking, cleaning. All this between meetings, work, prayers...and also some time out for fresh air, to walk a little in the sun on the beach.
In general, the hospitality was very warm and incredibly generous. That really helped us feel at home, as if we had always known each other.
Strasbourg - Addressing student poverty
Fr. Thomas Wender, who is responsible for youth ministry for the Catholic Church in Strasbourg, sent us this story about the Bernanos Centre, the University Chaplaincy to the Strasbourg campus.
Every Wednesday evening at 6pm, on the pavement outside the university chaplaincy, some weeks up to 300 students stand waiting their turn, a shopping bag in hand. Inside laid out on tables are oil, sugar, flour, pasta, rice, fresh vegetables, tins, meat, bread, chocolate ...
For €1, students in serious financial trouble receive food for the whole week. Over the last few years the economic situation of students has deteriorated. Eating enough each day has become a challenge for many. Students who attend the chaplaincy and others from across the campus have formed a partnership to respond to the urgency of this new vulnerability.
Few at first, the volunteers saw their numbers increase with the recipients themselves taking turns to do different jobs: driving the van to collecting the food, unloading the lorries in the morning, stocking, organizing and distributing the food. When the cold arrives, giving out hot drinks helps to make the wait seem shorter. Standing around a big drum of hot water, the community grows. Many come out of isolation. They realize that some things allows them to live more easily with their situation and can help them in the search for life as a young adult. Discretely, the hope of a few is given to others .
On the campus, the call to offer accommodation to the young people who will come to take part in the European meeting in Strasbourg strikes a special chord with students: what was done for me, I’ll do for others.