SILVER SPRING, Md. — Pure joy registered on the faces of Anjali and Tobias, third-grade students at Saint Francis International School. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, and they were surrounded by a group of 30 other children who gathered in their school’s open-air courtyard to celebrate Earth Day.
Anjali and Tobias picked up with reverence and held in their hands an earthworm, as if for the first time. A local gardener, Alan Megan, had the children’s undivided attention as he told them, in a dramatic way, about the earthworms and how they help to transform a compost pile into rich, fertile soil that produces lettuce and other vegetables.
When I asked Tobias if he was excited about gardening, he nodded his head and said: “Yes, I can’t wait to plant vegetables and eat them.” A little girl named Isabelle added: “I love gardening, too. You get to make compost, let the worms aerate the soil, plant and eat healthy vegetables.” Another student, Favour, chimed in: “I’m excited because I don’t have a backyard at home. I can’t wait to eat the salad that my friends and I will grow all by ourselves.”
Learning About the Divine Gardener
Angel Vazquez, a Franciscan postulant from nearby Holy Name College, has been doing his ministry at Saint Francis International School. This has included working with the children on the school garden project. Angel helped to organize and lead a beautiful Earth Day prayer service and dedication of the school garden.
The children formed a circle around the garden and spent a few minutes giving thanks to God for the gift of creation, the healthy soil, earthworms and the seeds planted in the ground. The children then reflected on the Scripture image of God as a divine gardener, breathing life into the soil and creating diverse forms of life. They have also learned about the important stories from the Bible that took place in a garden, not only about the Garden of Eden but also about how Jesus Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene in a garden near the tomb.
At one point during the Earth Day service, I told the children about how St. Francis of Assisi regarded every creature — even the sun, moon and water — as brothers and sisters. I also taught the children about the similarity between the ways that St. Francis and Native Americans speak about how all of God’s creation is part of one family.
Growing Future Leaders
Holding hands in a circle, the children then prayed for the healing of our sister, Mother Earth, and that God would help them to care for it. After the prayer service, one of the children, Jon, said: “God made us all gardeners – it’s so cool!” “It helps us to learn about our earth and protect our environment,” added two other kids, Chelsea and Fred, their faces still beaming with excitement about the school garden.
Angel was thrilled by the opportunity to share his love and passion for God’s creation with a young generation. Earlier this year, this Franciscan postulant took part in the local Polar Bear Plunge to raise awareness about the moral dimension of climate change and the need to protect our environment.
“The celebration of Earth Day in the school garden was a good way for the children to recognize that the soil, the plants, the vegetables that will grow in their garden are part of God’s creation,” Angel said. “It is great being involved in the school garden project and shepherding the children as they grow their own food. I hope that the children take what they learned about creating and caring for a garden and take it home. That way they can start their own gardens, take more responsibility with the food they consume, and learn how to care for the Earth that God gave us.”
The children’s activities at the school garden are part of a larger, ambitious plan that Saint Francis International School is trying to develop. As a multi-disciplinary project, it seeks to combine science and religion with a hand-on, permaculture garden that helps to feed and nurture children’s bodies, minds and spirits. This project also is intended to help infuse the children with Franciscan spirituality and concern for integrity of God’s creation, and to empower them through action to become impassioned future leaders in healing the earth.
To learn more or to assist in this effort, please contact Alan Magen at email@example.com.
— Fr. Jacek is chair of the HNP Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Directorate, and guardian of St. Camillus Friary in Silver Spring.