Walking down a typical city street in Bogota, Colombia, one might barely notice the pale walls, the white wrought iron bars on first-story windows or the cracked sidewalks.
The passerby might, however, spot a light post bedecked with recycled soda bottles and plastic flower pots housing ivy, succulents or other young plants. He or she might be surprised to see a crate of flowers on what was once a bare corner at the end of the block. Around the corner there is an even greater surprise: children gleefully shoving their hands into the freshly poured soil of a curbside flower box.
Gardens and greenery are not uncommon in Bogota but, as Judy Bohórquez points out, people in the community “just walk by and look at them. We are never involved in taking care of a garden or watching a plant grow, let alone sowing vegetables or fruits in the city and being able to eat them later.”
All of that is changing, thanks to the efforts of Bohórquez, creative director at Fundación Comunidad Viva, founded by missionary Jorge Enciso and Enciso’s wife, Ginny. Getting kids in the community involved in urban gardening not only gives them something productive and inspiring to do, but also opens doors of communication. It allows them to develop relationships with local families and share God’s love. Over time, the team of three has grown to seven, and the project continues to grow, much like the sprouts in the motley containers.
As soon as they moved into the downtown area a couple of years ago, the Encisos sought ways to connect with their neighbors. Ginny says as she got to know some of them, she discovered they all shared an interest in gardening. “It was my first time gardening, ever,” Ginny says, “but I noticed right away that, for me, it helped me grow spiritually as I understood how things grow. So many of Jesus’ parables are about growing things.”
The Encisos’ neighborhood is small but unique, Ginny says. “It has a lot of intellectuals, a lot of artists — all secular — so it’s been a challenge to be able to help build a community and really show the love of Christ in practical ways,” she says. “Through gardening, we’ve been able to do that.” Outreach in the neighborhood has happened in two key ways: by engaging local children (and, as a result, their parents) and by simply attracting the curiosity of passers-by.
Bohórquez says many of the children in the neighborhoods around Bogota have nothing to do other than play in the streets. Teaching them to garden “is a way of giving them a task that can be beneficial for them and for the community,” she says, adding that, just as gardening is new for her, it’s new for others in the neighborhood. It gets the attention of parents, like one who remarked, “Wow, my son is doing this! It’s nice.” Many of them want to get involved, too, because they realize they can enjoy the fruits of their labor when they harvest the plants they tended. Ultimately, though, the goal is to present the message of Christ to the children and their families. “When they see the results of the plants growing, we start comparing gardening with life,” Bohórquez says. “Just as we take care of the plants, God takes care of us. We connect what we’re doing with what God does for us and all that he provides.”
Developing relationships takes time, but the Encisos are making progress. Jorge has been lending Christian books to a neighbor who keeps coming back for more. “She’s very open,” Ginny says, “and we have another family that we’ve started visiting, and we have something like a pre-house-church. We’ve started going there and having a time of singing and reading Scripture.”
Ginny has always been passionate about teaching children about character. “We have had such a good experience here with the seeds we’ve planted in them that we created a Bible Club, which we now have in two neighborhoods,” she says. “The kids learn that there is a biblical character trait and its opposite.” She adds that, along with the gardening, they teach the children about things like taking care of the planet and being patient while watching something grow, pointing out that patience builds character.
Bohórquez hopes that these children will love what they are doing so much that they one day take over the project.
One of the neighborhoods where Bible Club takes place is “all pavement,” Ginny says, “so we’re literally bringing life into these neighborhoods and, with that, planting God’s Word in people’s hearts.” She says the team hopes to bring this program into two other areas where the Foundation is active: Pacho, a small town in the mountains, and Villavicencio, which is about three hours away in the plains of Bogota. The climates are warmer in these areas, and the gardening experience will be different, yet Ginny still feels it will be a valuable venture.
Once believing she couldn’t grow anything without killing it, Ginny says she never imagined this is how she’d do missions. “But I’m really happy to do it!”
-Words by Ann-Margaret HovsepianDownload This Issue of TEAMHorizons