Evangelizing in the Garden: Conservative Christian efforts to Convert Non-Believers via Urban Agriculture in US Cities

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

Up next for the Anthropologies #22 Food issue we have this essay from Chhaya Kolavalli, who is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Her research interests center on the raced and classed impacts of US socioeconomic policy, US cities, and the alternative agrifood movement. Her dissertation research explores the racialization process at the center of food justice work, through investigation into differential understandings of racialized urban space, understandings of hunger and ‘food desertification,’ and racially restrictive urban development. –R.A.

“In faith work, you want your faith to fuel you, personally, and it will shine out in what you do—you won’t have to try to convert anyone. We don’t want to tell people what to believe. But we do want to beg the question, ‘Oh my gosh, why are things going so well for them?—Well, let me tell you! It’s because of the light of the lord. And you know I’ll answer questions if people ask, but I won’t push it. And lots of times people start asking these questions in our garden”

– Carly Smith, co-founder of a Midwestern urban-agriculture centered faith based organization (FBO).

Federal welfare rollback has made nonprofits and faith-based organizations like Carly’s increasingly responsible for urban governance and welfare provision in the United States (Morgen and Maskovsky 2003; Swyngedouw 2005). The 1996 Personal Work and Responsibility Act (PWORA), specifically, ushered in drastic policy changes—PWORA’s “Charitable Choice” provision opened up funding for religious nonprofits, allowing them to retain religious identity while competing for government contracts (Nagel 2006). Concurrent with these policy changes has been the rise of new, youth-led conservative Christian movements—championed by former mega-church attendants, disenchanted with what they see as “consumer Christianity” and outmoded methods of evangelism (Bielo 2011b; Clayborn 2006). Many of these movement participants, largely white, upper-middle class Americans in their 20s and 30s, attempt to enact their faith through simple living and social service—an increasing number are moving to urban areas, staying in Catholic Worker houses, neo-monastic intentional living groups, forming non-profits, and working in service of the urban poor (Bielo 2011a; Bielo 2011b).

A dominant trend among these “new” Christians has been to utilize urban agriculture and community gardening as a means of feeding and creating community with the poor (Carnes 2011; Clayborn 2006; Roberts 2009). The garden, however, is also emblematic of new methods of domestic evangelism (Elisha 2008)—as outlined by Carly, above. For the evangelical urban gardeners involved in this study, the garden served as a site to recruit new church members and to ‘model’ several aspects of their conservative religious ideology—most notably, as I’ll argue, a heteronormative patriarchal family structure and gendered division of labor.

Here I draw on ethnographic research conducted over the course of 2013-2014 in a large Midwestern city in the US. In addition to living with a FBO for 5 weeks—the Urban Pioneers, a 501c3 nonprofit—I conducted 20 in-depth semi-structured interviews with FBO staff and volunteers, who collectively represent 10 FBOs. The Urban Pioneers is headed by a husband and wife team, Carly and Mark Smith, and draws on volunteer labor from a 35-family Christian intentional community located nearby. The Urban Pioneers purchased 10 large abandoned lots in what they identify as a “blighted” area of the city, and at the time of this research were placing raised garden beds—to be used by community members—on each lot. The organization also offers training courses in small-scale aquaponic tilapia farming and chicken and rabbit husbandry. This research was conducted collaboratively with the Urban Pioneers and other local FBOs—staff and volunteers spoke to me about their work in exchange for my labor in their gardens, and feedback on how their efforts were being perceived by community members.

Sharing the Gospel in the Garden

As Carly’s quote illustrates, urban agriculture and community gardens serve as important sites of evangelism for new, urban-relocated Christians. These domestic methods of evangelism draw on long traditions of intentional Christianity—in which faith is lived in daily life, rather than in a church—and place focus on becoming embedded in impoverished urban neighborhoods, forming cross-racial relationships, and sharing the gospel by example, rather than proselytization (Kauffman 2009; Bielo 2011b). For the Urban Pioneers, having a prominently placed garden—colorful and overflowing onto the sidewalk—and clucking chickens that could be heard several blocks away, served as a means to meet “non-believers” and form relationships that could eventually lead to acceptance of faith. Numerous times per day, during my stay with the Urban Pioneers, neighborhood children would walk past the home-based nonprofit and comment—“That’s a good lookin’ garden!” which prompted one of the staff or volunteers to invite the neighbor in for coffee or snacks. Visits like this had led to at least five Christian conversions at the time of my stay in the summer of 2013. Jonas, a 23 year old volunteer at Urban Oasis—a nonprofit offering free gardening plots to the homeless—states:

There’s enough food pantries and charities, we don’t want to do that. You know, people just come in and use up the resource and that’s that—we’re not trying to knock on  people’s doors and answer questions they’re not asking. But these things often come up while we’re working in the garden, you know?

In this statement, Jonas echoes Carly’s assertion that conversations about religion are easily broached during garden work. He also points out that in contrast to food pantries or other traditional methods of feeding the urban poor, there are fewer perceived guarantees that community members will regularly return. FBO staff like Jonas voice the idea that when community members are placed in charge of their own garden plot, they’re more likely to regularly return, form relationships with FBO staff, and are ultimately more likely to be receptive to evangelization.

Shaping Patriarchal Family Futures

In addition to providing a space in which to meet and possibly convert neighbors, the Urban Pioneers and other Midwestern FBOs involved in this study envisioned their gardens as “modeling” sites, where conservative Christian ethics could be demonstrated and hopefully imparted. The most prominent “modeling” I witnessed was of heteronormative patriarchal family values, and a gendered division of labor. Evangelical Christians strive to fulfill a “nineteenth-century model of the bourgeois family,” in which “the family operates as a haven from the outside world, characterized by romantic love, the glorification of childhood, unquestioned parental authority and instruction, and clear hierarchical roles for men and women.” (Wadsworth, 1997, p. 346). Within this “haven,” gender roles “find expression in traditional ideals regarding wives’ domesticity and husbands’ leadership”(Gallagher, 2003, p. 9). For many conservative evangelical men, leadership and authority—within and outside of the family circle—are important definitions of identity (Gallagher, 2003; Bartkowski, 2000; Bartkowski, 2002).

These ideologies were prominent at community garden workdays at FBOs involved in this study. I was told by Samuel, founder of a soup kitchen that asks neighboring homeless to help out in the garden—tending bees, chickens, and citrus trees—that part of the reason they moved [to the inner city] was to “provide a strong male presence, show neighborhood boys what it looks like when a man provides for his family.” This patriarchal discourse is racialized—African American men were often spoken of as particularly devoid of leadership skills, and in need of the hard labor and consistency that garden work teaches. Elijah, speaking of the Urban Pioneers, where he volunteers on weekends, states:

One of their goals is to produce food, but also their goal is to help [community members] to find out what their gifts are, what their talents are, what their abilities are, and help them invest them. A man largely gets his identity out of what he does. And a woman often gets her identity out of her family. You know if I say who are you to a man, he’ll tell me about his job. If I say who are you to a woman, she’ll tell me about her family. And if a man is not investing his talents, his self-esteem is low and he’s a lot more susceptible to the temptations that are around. So that’s one of the things that [Carly] and [Mark] and ministries like theirs are doing.

In this passage, Elijah clearly establishes masculine identity as work-derived, and feminine identity as borne out of motherhood and family. Manhood, for Elijah, cannot exist without the investment of energy and work into proper pursuits.

Consequently, in order to reform “dysfunctional” urban families according to conservative Christian ideology, the Midwestern FBOs involved in this study modeled “proper” investment of labor for men and women during community garden workdays. The Urban Pioneers solely recruited men—predominantly African American men—for their aquaponic tilapia farming and chicken and rabbit husbandry training courses. Several neighborhood women expressed interest in these courses, and were redirected into canning and preserving seminars held by Carly. During community garden workdays at the 10 FBOs involved in this project, women—regardless of skillset or expressed interest—were consistently given “feminine” tasks, such as watching the children of other volunteers, picking berries, or providing water to rabbits and chickens. Men were handed power tools, charged with building raised beds, slaughtering rabbits or chickens, and tasked with tree pruning. This gendered division of labor frustrated women in particular, many of whom were interested in learning to use tools and build garden structures at their own homes.

This focus on the reformation of urban male labor and behavior draws on ideology concerning the dysfunctional black family, as evidenced most prominently in the 1965 Moynihan Report (Lewis 1996; Goode 2009; Di Leonardo 1998). Many US conservative evangelical Christians have been found to draw on the culture of poverty thesis, and believe “African Americans do not have good ‘family values’ or have bad relationships with others” (Tranby and Hartmann 2008:344). Hannah, a staff member at Urban Oasis, spoke to me at length about the issue of urban fatherlessness, and the abandonment of fatherly duties by urban black men.  During one of our conversations she argued:

A big factor we’re seeing is a generational fatherless-ness, where…the fathers are the beginning and it just snowballs from there. But when kids are taught from a young age that they don’t have to take responsibility for their children, or their wives, or vice versa—that the wives aren’t responsible for being a good wife to their husband and raising their kids, then kids grow up without any kind of role model. I mean, our father is usually the one who teaches us about responsibility, and what it looks like to take care of something, and to go to a job faithfully, and to fix things, and take care of things, and all that. As good as mothers try, they can’t always do it all—and especially not without good male role models.

The onus of teaching children about responsibility, work ethic, and stewardship are placed solely on the backs of fathers—mothers can try, but they can’t really teach children about such things. This patriarchal conceptualization of parental roles manifests as gendered labor roles in the garden, and the dismissal of single mothers who express interest in Urban Oasis’ programing on turning local food production into a small business.

Implications & Suggestions for Future Work

Religious ideology consciously and unconsciously permeates the actions of religious actors. Policy changes placing the onus of caring for the urban poor on nonprofits, and increasing the access of religious organizations to federal funding, raise the importance of studies examining how such organizations actually interact with and disperse aid to the needy. The creation of urban green space and community gardening plots, in particular, are often seen as an unequivocal good—by troubling this narrative and interrogating the different ways garden sites are employed by different actors, we gain a better understanding of how urban agriculture is actually functioning in today’s US cities.

The manifestation of these gender ideologies in the garden created uncomfortable distance between these FBOs and those being served. The dominant idea that women-headed households were deficient both socially and economically resulted in the exclusion of many single-mothers from FBO programming. Perhaps a viable method of reform would include educating faith-based welfare actors in diverse family structures, specifically, female-headed households. More broadly and ambitiously, training for FBO staff that dispels the culture of poverty myth—which includes many of these discriminatory ideas against women-headed households and black men—would work to ensure equitable welfare provision for all.


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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “Evangelizing in the Garden: Conservative Christian efforts to Convert Non-Believers via Urban Agriculture in US Cities

  1. As someone who has struggled – not only as volunteer, employee, but also ethnographer – among the communities and sites written about here, I understand intimately the issues at stake. I would offer a couple of concerns of mine, or perhaps wishes. First, the analysis sounds to my ear too monological. I want to hear the author’s full interviews, such as this one:
    The couple there challenged any simple notion of helping the poor, even calling some paternalistic and colonialist. The stress was more on building relationships, building community.
    I’d also like to hear about other community garden initiatives out there and how these differ from that described here. For example, the first lady has been a very strong proponent of community gardens, and has done much to promote them, for example:
    From my own experience moving among both evangelicals and liberals offering community services (i.e., meals, gardens), I’d venture to say that a similar notion of personal responsibility that structures PWORA exists, one that causes the very stress and anxiety in those that seek participatory community bonds. The depressive tragedy is those bonds are so fleeting, ephemeral. One quickly becomes locked in the identities and choices imposed upon them.

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