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Taking care of spiritual and physical needs

For persons with green thumbs, a garden might very much be like a sanctuary and toiling in the soil would be very much like worship. For the people of Okra Abbey in New Orleans, the garden is their church, and the meal they share is their sacramental worship.


Okra Abbey is a New Worshipping Community of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). And while vegetables grow in colorful planters, the mission is far beyond just food.


“Our mission really isn't growing vegetables, it just happens to be the tool through which we do community development and church,” said Rev. Hannah Quick, Organizing Pastor and Executive Director of Okra Abbey. “Our hope is to bring people together and to take care of both their spiritual needs and physical needs. The garden is just the resource that we have at the moment. It may be that the garden goes away tomorrow, but we can still find a way to hopefully bring people together and to do church, caring for people and our community.”


On Wednesdays at Noon, Okra Abbey hosts a program called Grace and Greens that brings people together in the Pigeon Town neighborhood of New Orleans for a meal. At the long lunch table are people from the neighborhood who had lived in poverty for quite a long time with people who are new to the neighborhood and are gentrifying it. At the table are people who don't necessarily have a lot in common, but are living in the same space. In that tension of more impoverished people and newer folks, the Wednesday community meal is one way to bridge that gap.


“We have a meal on Wednesdays which is our worship. We began with a devotion and a prayer. And we sit around tables family style, and it feels like a family dinner” said Rev. Hannah. “People are sitting next to one another and serving one another. And it's very casual, beginning with the devotion and prayer. And it's really, really lovely.”


In addition to Grace and Greens, the second ministry of Okra Abbey is Peas and Love. Because the Abbey is a giving garden, all of the produce is given away. Often, vegetables are delivered to folks who aren't necessarily able to come to the garden. “We take vegetables to folks who are homebound or elderly and have mobility issues. Some of the folks might be able to visit us every once in a while, but not necessarily are going to be with us every week” said Rev. Hannah.


Through both programs, Okra Abbey’s garden does more than create food, it builds community and ministry. “Our space isn't just for folks who are homeless or who are food insecure, but there are also places where folks who are doing really well to find community and be spiritually fed as well as physically fed.”


Rev. Quick moved to New Orleans from another New Worshipping Community experience in Philadelphia, where she developed her passion and skill for neighborhood-focused ministry. However, she didn’t exactly come to the Abbey with a green thumb. Thankfully, the Abbey has a full-time gardener and YAVs that work alongside the gardener to tend the garden.


“Yes, I'm learning a lot a lot more. We really have a wonderful gardener who is able to fill that gap, because if I had to be the gardener, the pastor, and the director… I already have like six jobs!” said Rev. Hannah.


the right gardeners at the right time


Like it’s unique ministry, how Okra Abbey came to be is a unique story. The space had been a garden in a couple different variant variations over the years. It was started with the hope that it would be more of a community garden where people would have a plot that they would tend. While this is a workable idea in many places, it didn't quite work in this neighborhood, even with the help in YAVs.


“A couple of years ago, the community organizing team got a really amazing YAV who had a ton of gardening experience. A kind of a one-in-a-million perfect match. Someone who could really take on more responsibility than the YAV normally would” said Quick. “They just had so much more knowledge of gardening than anyone that was supervising them or anyone who was in the neighborhood.” 


In addition to the gardening YAV, Okra Abbey came into being with the help of the right pastoral leadership at the right time. “The Revs. Layne and Crawford Brubaker saw so much potential in the garden and were amazing pastors for community and advocates for Okra Abbey,” said Quick.


Because of this knowledgeable YAV who could teach them, what started as a typical community garden became what Okra Abbey is today. Not just a garden, but an abbey. It became a space where people could sit on a bench, have some cold water, and be in an area where things are growing and beautiful. “That’s part of the mission.. to be kind of a sanctuary that looks different than the sanctuary we worship in, but still a place of peace and rest and refuge in the way that Abbeys have historically have been,” said Quick.


challenges and blessings


There are blessings and challenges to being a space without a building. While Okra Abbey doesn’t have the burden of upkeep, Rev. Quick relies on coffee shops or being at home for internet connectivity for e-mails, grant writing research and more. As a result, she isn’t able to be on site at times when someone needs to talk or be engaged with people in the community. Additionally, the staff and the YAVs find themselves using the facilities of the French Immersion School that is next to the garden, who have graciously allowed access for bathroom facilities and kitchen use.


Another challenge, of course, is funding. There is no pledge campaign or passing an offering plate on Sunday mornings. Thanks to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the Growth Grant and funding from the Presbytery of South Louisiana, Rev. Quick’s position is funded for two years. As an employee of the Presbytery, she is also doing outside fundraising as well, particularly in New Orleans. Now, for the first time, the Abbey is applying for more significant grants that are related to the kind of communal work that they do. 


“So I’ve done a lot of fundraising… a lot of grant writing before in Philadelphia, because we did a lot of work with children and creative writing and visual arts programming” said Rev. Quick. “And so now I'm kind of moving that those skills over to again community work, but in a garden. That's actually that's kind of the season I'm in right now.”


Whether she meant to make a pun about the “kind of season” that she’s in right now, there’s something always in season at Okra Abbey. It might be winter vegetables, leafy greens or the okra pods so famous in Louisiana. What’s always in season is a place “where all find rest, refuge, spiritual recreation, and community.”


Find out more about Okra Abbey



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A bountiful crop from January!


Grace & Greens is an opportunity for all our neighbors to gather together around a meal and grow deeper in friendship.


Peas & Love is this ministry that brings fresh, locally grown produce into the homes of neighbors who are homebound.

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