A favorite children’s book in my house for years, come summer, was “The Carrot Seed” by Ruth Krauss. It tells the tale of a little boy who plants a microscopic seed. First his mother, then his father, and finally his big brother tell him to abandon all hope: nothing will come of it. The boy ignores their skepticism. Every day he hunches over the place where the seed went into the ground. He weeds and waters. The chorus of naysayers continues. Until one day a fully-formed carrot-top appears, the boy’s faith rewarded.
This story spawned generations of vegetable gardens in my backyard. Years later, as I pull weeds and fill the bird feeder alone, I’m painfully aware of those neighbors who don’t have green patches in which to make a story of faith and hope come alive for their children. Shades are drawn on public housing windows, window boxes gather grit behind heavy grates. What if summer doesn’t offer the luxury of slowing down, planting seeds, and hovering over them with expectant hope? What if it means wandering the streets, school out and the ice cream truck rolling past you, the days piling up with no horizon beyond abject boredom?
We know about the food deserts in poor city neighborhoods — blighted areas where the only available stores sell liquor and lottery tickets, Twinkies and Doritos. But do we have a name for places where almost nothing of nurturing substance grows in the high season of summer, where the spirit often dies?
Jesus was a sower. He planted hope wherever he went, often in the form of stories. But not only in stories: he stood by wells, walked beside rivers, healed the sick in body and soul. In so many ways, he brought the waters of new life to those who occupied the desert places in his time. They may not have grown carrots in ancient Israel, but they did know mustard. I imagine Jesus putting in seed and relentlessly flouting the naysayers, watering, weeding, tending, much like the boy in the story.
We all know what the desert places in our midst need. It isn’t hard to catch glimpses of what summer ought to be like when good seeds are planted on behalf of poor children. Not far from those shade-drawn project windows, a fine pocket park filled with sprinklers, spinning gushers, and tidal pools is jammed on sunny days with happy toddlers, kids in diapers, and parents enjoying the shade and the music of their children’s pleasure. Scan any major city newspaper and you can read about city-run camps, fresh-air programs, teen job initiatives.
Over the course of many years, my students who have come from inner-city backgrounds invariably tell me that what transformed their lives, and their sense of what was possible, were good, enriching summer experiences — often away from the deserts they go home to each night. Programs in nature, learning about the wilds, ecology, and the health of their own neighborhoods. Programs that improved their life skills, taught them how to lead younger children, pushed them to discover their own capacities when they broke through self-protective shells and took risks.
We know these things. And we know that there are not enough of them.
For those of us who go to church and have yards of our own, the call is clear. More seeds are needed, more fertile oases.
In the latest issue of OnFaith, an online journal of spirituality and faith, author Stephen Mackey offers a useful corrective. “It’s so easy for church to become a country club,” he writes, in an article entitled, “Pastors: 7 Hard Truths You Need To Tell Your Church.” Perhaps especially in the summer, church can easily slide into a place of safety and solace, not a place where we go to sow seeds.
But Mackey writes, “Church is about seeking and healing the lost. The church should be a refugee camp for the lost and hurting. It should be a place hurting people are brought in to be made well and then sent out to bring others who are hurting back in. We weren’t brought in to simply socialize.”
This is a large order. Life is full of stress and challenge, even for those with concierge lawn services. And simply dividing the world into rich and poor, able and less able, is bad theology. But there is powerful truth in the fact that when we neglect the needs of the whole — if we hoard our carrot seeds, or even forget that we have them — for the pleasures of the coffee hour, we are failing to truly follow Christ, and are maintaining human wastelands.
Churches are one of the few institutions organized and faithful enough to guide members toward seeding and growing more initiatives like those already in existence. Youths can spend a bit of their summer time as volunteers. Adults can do the same, and can contribute financially. We will all be the richer for it, if we are committed to bringing the kingdom of God closer to the life in time.
That is, if we are willing to plant hope as readily as we plant our carrots.