A Church's Grassroots Work toward a Greener Future
"You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." Isaiah 58:11b-12 NIV
The hazy morning light washes over a rare community garden in Pomona, California, where a gentleman sits most mornings enjoying his cup of coffee. He takes in the scene: grass creeping into his neighbor’s gardening plot, meandering rows of seedlings planted by child-sized hands after school. It’s more than just a quaint scene. It’s a sign of God’s shalom and a cleaner, greener future to come for this community.
Nine years ago, this same lot was vacant, filled with trash, needles, and prophylactics—remnants of the prostitution and drug transactions on the street. But across the street was First Presbyterian Church of Pomona, a Servant Partners ministry partner site. Pastor Pablo grew fed up with seeing it every day and sent a letter to the city requesting permission to revitalize it. Drew, the church custodian, worked with the city, the church, and countless volunteers to clear the land of needles and broken glass, transforming it into a community garden. Neighbors now rent plots to grow fruits and vegetables of all shapes and colors, and Pomona Hope, a community non-profit started by the church and Servant Partners, incorporates the garden into their program. The corner saw a 40% drop in crime once the garden was planted.
Pomona has been challenged by violence, unemployment, and environmentally hazardous industries. A massive waste transfer station and more than two dozen recycling facilities sort and hold trash from the whole region. These facilities and the many diesel trucks needed to service them have been long-standing threats to public health and safety, breeding rodents, poisoning the air and water table, and creating daunting fire hazards.
Derek and Lisa Engdahl, long-term residents of Pomona and the General Directors of Servant Partners, have worked for years in community organizing through First Presbyterian Church’s partnership with the broad-based organizing network ICON-IAF. In 2012, Lisa, SP board member Tom Hsieh, and local graduate student Carla Dhillon founded Clean & Green Pomona, a grassroots organization of residents working for environmental justice and public health.
“Initially, many residents felt hopeless, saying, ‘You can’t do anything to change things,’ and ‘It’s not worth fighting,’” Lisa explains. “In situations of oppression and corruption, people lose hope and learn to settle.” As the community began to share their stories and experiences, deeply-buried pain began to surface. The stories were heartbreaking. A local teacher contracted asthma after years of working at a school in the industrial heart of the city. Three students at her school developed childhood cancers.
As community leaders connected with the pain of the city, they patiently cultivated that grief into hope. “Justice work deals with pain, anger, and loss,” Lisa shares, “but how you process and cope with those emotions in Christ sets you on a path of transformation instead of destruction.” Lisa has found that the key to advocacy and community organizing work is not letting anger lead to bitterness and vengeance, but letting Christ transform that anger into truth, sacrificial love, and perseverance in God’s work of restoration, breaking the yoke of oppression, and restoring the streets to dwell in.
When a recycling facility near Mission Boulevard dangerously went up in flames in January 2014, it simultaneously ignited the community into action. That same year, ICON and Clean & Green Pomona proposed a city ban on all new waste, recycling, and pallet facilities; it passed in 2017. Inspired by those results, Clean & Green Pomona initiated other projects. They worked with the school district to replace all of their diesel buses with a new non-diesel fleet, and they are now planting nearly 400 trees at eight local elementary schools.
As the sun gently rises over the Center Street community garden, signs of transformation are all around: the skies above are clearer, the garden boasts rows of green, the after-school students taste fresh-picked vegetables, and across the street, an old church building is full of Christians working to renew their city.