Summer church camps are often known for signature events such as campfires, sing-alongs and swimming. But some camps are igniting newfound appeal in outdoor ministry by expanding their roster of activities to include gardening and farming, bees and billy goats.

Children at a growing number of Lutheran outdoor ministries across the country now have the opportunity to plant and harvest tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, peas, green beans and more. In many cases, they will get to eat the fruits of their labor when the vegetables are used in camp meals.

At the root of these gardens is the focus on helping feed poverty-stricken families in Appalachia, stocking shelves of homeless shelter pantries in California and teaching children about service to others throughout the country.

“It’s been huge,” said Glen Egertson, co-executive director of Lutheran Retreats, Camps and Conferences in Frazier Park, Calif. “We have stirred a new wave of interest in our ministry.”

Staff at Luther Glen Camp, one of the organization’s sites, were inspired to start their farm while attending an ELCA World Hunger leadership gathering. Luther Glen was in need of renewal and rejuvenation, and a sustainable farm and environmental education program on the food chain was the agreed-upon solution, Egertson said.

They broke ground on the farm on the ELCA day of service (“God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday) in 2015.

“Bible studies and summer camp worship happen inside the farm fence, meaning it’s not uncommon for a goat to walk into your Bible study and try to eat your Bible,” Egertson said.

Supervised campers can work the farm in their free time or as part of camp service. They harvest vegetables, collect eggs in the chicken coop, and plant new seeds or seedlings for the future. The process educates campers about the food chain as the produce they grow and harvest helps support Central City Lutheran Mission in San Bernardino, Calif., a men’s homeless shelter in the middle of a food desert.

Luther Glen is one of a growing number of camps and retreat centers that are building a ministry around gardens, animals and farms. “Farming and gardening as a camp endeavor instills in campers an enhanced sense of gratitude to Creator God for the blessings of this life,” said Don Johnson, executive director of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries.

Johnson, who has observed many of the gardens and farms at camps, said campers go home with a greater understanding of where their everyday food originates, have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into providing food, and reap the joy of tasting food that is fresh and local.

“Farming and gardening as a camp endeavor instills in campers an enhanced sense of gratitude to Creator God for the blessings of this life.” — Don Johnson, executive director of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries

Since 2012, Hungry Mother Lutheran Retreat Center, Marion, Va., has worked with nearby First United Methodist Church to educate campers, young and old alike, about the benefits of growing healthy organic produce at home. The project is called Sprouting Hope Community Garden.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” said Chris Stevens, executive director of Hungry Mother, reciting the familiar quote. “Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. We are just like that.”

Hungry Mother hosts five summer camps with more than 200 children attending in total. Each gets to plant something, nurture it while at camp and take a plant home as well.

“We want this to go beyond just a camp garden,” Stevens said. “We are in the middle of Appalachia. There are a lot of low-income families here and many live in poverty. We also have a childhood obesity problem.”

The children love it, he said. They get to witness firsthand how chickens lay eggs and the basics about food production.

“We have trails and creeks and outdoor beauty,” Stevens said. “Our garden is another facet of what we offer here. It makes us a little unique in that respect.”

In addition to the garden, Hungry Mother is home to beehives. Stevens, a former beekeeper, donated some of his hives to the camp and purchased more for a total of four. “What better of God’s creatures to have at a garden than some local pollinators? It’s a natural way to discuss things,” he said.

After summer camp, the garden is maintained by volunteers and food is distributed through two food pantries in Marion. In spring 2016, Sprouting Hope grew 8,000 pounds of produce, with about 450 families benefiting from the harvest.

“Food has the power to heal and to bridge communities,” said Robert Kell, director of Sprouting Hope. “On a local level, Sprouting Hope is concerned about community healing and personal empowerment. It’s spiritually motivated.”


Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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