Rural Community Garden Rehabilitates Returning Citizens
by Tom Costanza
It all starts with a vision. What if formerly incarcerated individuals (we prefer to call them returning citizens) could become servant-leaders in our community? That is the vision and belief behind the Catholic Charities Cornerstone Builders AmeriCorps program led by Ronnie Moore.
Cornerstone began five years ago as the Civic Justice Initiative with the intention of returning citizens being rehabilitated through service and empowered through servant leadership and education to make necessary changes to themselves and impact their community. Cornerstone has since expanded to not only offer servant leadership and educational opportunities, but also employment opportunities for returning citizens and support for the families of the incarcerated through child mentorship and family visitation. Cornerstone Builders now flourishes as a comprehensive re-entry program in the New Orleans Metro area.
As the Cornerstone program evolved, the idea of using community gardens with land donated by Catholic parishes was envisioned. The life and dignity of the human person and care of God’s creation are fundamental to our Catholic social teaching. We wanted a rural garden, but it would also be much more.
We needed committed people and a place to implement these ideas. Enter Father Joseph Dzien, Deacon Garland Bourgeois and Donnie White from St. John the Baptist Parish in Paradis, La. Providentially, the parish had a community garden located right next to its rosary walk.
The hope that citizens returning from State and Parish correctional institutions could be accepted and welcomed to work in the church parish with the garden was part of the vision. We knew that the parish staff was onboard: Father Dzien was very pastoral in his approach of hospitality to the returning; Deacon Garland and Donnie White wanted more Catholic Charities presence in their community; and Deacon Garland, a former police officer, found the garden’s mission close to his heart.
Yet, how would the wider church community respond? Once the garden was tilled, parishioners and nearby community members took an interest in the buzz around the neighboring church grounds and asked, “How can I help?” One farmer from the area said he has never seen such fast growth of the vegetables, “Can it be this is on holy ground?” Holy it may be, but the garden is also located on very rich former farmland.
Gerald Bourgeois is one of our returning citizens. Gerald’s task is to work the garden as part of his rehabilitation. The garden is almost ready for harvest, with okra, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and squash ready to go. The idea will be to give part of the produce away to the poor as part of the parish social ministry outreach program. Another part is to involve the parishioners to work the garden in solidarity with the returning citizens.
This combination of rehabilitation, service to the poor, and building up of the parish community is a concrete example of the Catholic concept of restorative justice. In this concept, all are restored to right relationship with God.
Cornerstone Builders is pioneering a new relationship between the Church, religious congregations, and returning citizens in the Greater New Orleans area. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that is spiritually cathartic and supportive of many community stakeholders.
Returning citizens receive much needed support and direction, encouraging them to continue on the path to reestablish themselves and improve the communities and neighborhood, ultimately promoting community development and reducing violence and recidivism within those communities. Churches and religious congregations receive able minds and hands to assist in the work of the church to reach out to others, empowering communities, churches, and individuals, as well as expand church membership. The rural setting of this ministry provides a calming effect on the men and women returning from prison. The warm welcome of the parishioners from St. John the Baptist Parish to the returning citizens encourages them to continue on the right path. In terms of their rehabilitation, as they work the garden and interact with parishioners, they see themselves as servant leaders: giving back instead of taking away (though perhaps through a temporary lapse in judgment) what got them into their situation. And in caring for God’s creation of the rural land, they become stewards of His creation.
The vision of Archbishop Aymond was a part in this ministry. He envisioned Catholic Charities visibly present in Catholic rural parishes. The BP Oil Spill Disaster in 2010 heavily impacted this fishing and farming community. Catholic Charities went out into these rural fishing communities to provide case management and disaster workforce development services. This began a clearer and concrete connection between Catholic Charities and rural parishes.
As this garden produces material vegetables, it will continue to produce spiritual fruits and be much more than a garden. The special gifts of rural Catholics that welcome returning citizens to their land and community will continue to provide hope and build community. It offers a safe haven from the urban settings that sometimes are not conducive to rehabilitation and connection with God’s creation.
Tom Costanza is the executive director of the Office of Peace and Justice of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, La.
Photo 1: Returning citizens prepre the grden for planting.
Photo 2: Jim Ennis, NCRLC executive director, speaks with people involved with Cornerstone Gardens on a recent visit to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Social Ministry diocesan director Diocese of Honolulu Carol R Ignacio | Monday, September 16, 2013
This is awesome. Re-entry of “returning citizens” is a focus in our diocese. Can you share information on how you got started, etc. Aloha. Carol
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