A Milwaukee Congregation’s Commitment to Nurturing Green Space Continues

Aug 11, 2017

After a decade leading Milwaukee's All Peoples Church, Pastor Steve Jerbi left for a post in California. In his parting sermon, he told his congregation: “When I think about the ministry we have done together, it has been a ministry of providence.”

All Peoples first orchardist Manning Jackson.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Three blocks from All Peoples, Manny Jackson sees providence at work in its young orchard - a few of the pear and apple fruits are bearing fruit. He says a neighbor taught him how to tend to the trees, which lead him to becoming the church's first orchardist.

Jackson beams with pride as cars zoom by seemingly oblivious to the central city orchard. “I spent a lot of time with these trees and I can see I should throw some wood around these trees and do some pruning. It’s just great knowing we can plant our own trees and start supplying ourselves.”

He seems surprised but delighted that kids and adults alike gravitate to the trees. “I have people who ask about the orchard right to this day that have never been to the orchard – they only see it they want to come and what is it they can do."

When the trees begin bearing loads of fruit, All Peoples will serve it up at meal programs.

The church's fruit trees aren’t restricted to the orchard. Cherry and apple trees also rise in what was a nondescript courtyard next to the church. It's a park-like oasis in the middle of a mainly poor neighborhood. Tall grasses sway and giant rhubarb still looks succulent.

Space next to the church transformed by fruit trees, native plants and its centerpiece, the greenhouse.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Volunteer partnerships minister, Linda Muth, says All Peoples cobbles together gifts and grants to make the projects happen. She points out dozens of garden beds kitty corner from the church. They're filled with greens and squash, others sprout flowers.

Muth says the initiatives are designed to create safe and productive green space. “We need to look at our community in the sense of all of the people who live in our community, that visit our community and that includes the creation. We are called to be good stewards of that creation."

If you want to know what's growing in the pots and planters exploding with life throughout the grounds, ask Veronica Barfield. She volunteers at All Peoples' greenhouse.

“Oh and my raspberry bushes,” she laughed. “They keep eating my raspberries.” She beams, saying she likes nothing more than having people enjoy what she loves.

Veronica Barfield and April Merrills in the greenhouse.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Another volunteer, April Merrills, is learning from Barfield. Inside the greenhouse, they’re nurturing tomato plants and peppers at various stages of development. “What we’re trying to accomplish is to make this a year-round greenhouse so that we have vegetables and plants in here all year round,” she says.

This time of year, Merrills dedicates most of her time to All Peoples' program called Kids Working To Succeed, KWTS. It mentors youth to build a work ethic and financial savvy. Kids are paid a stipend and encouraged to put a portion in savings.

Merrills and her husband were so impressed with the church's program that they power through some physical limitations – they both have cerebral palsy – to help lead the effort. “Whatever we can do we lend a hand. I can sit down, do whatever has to be done, work with the kids and that’s the whole core value of the church – it’s that the kids come first,” she says. “The garden as well as the greenhouse is a way to keep kids off the street as well as providing fruit and vegetables for the community.”

Jermel Veasy recently joined KWTS.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

One of the kids in the program, working amid the profusion of color and activity, is Jermel Veasy. He's pulling weeds and is brand new to the program and to gardening. 

“It was kind of difficult at first because you’ve got to plant seeds and stuff and I’m very heavy-handed,” he says.

Veasy checks on the plants' progress every day. “Yeah I see how far it has grown, but it’s not like magic,” he explains.

Maybe providence led Veasy to the garden.

“You come here, you can make your time something, you don’t have to waste your time. You put all your effort in the garden and you hope it will succeed,” he says.

"I've been here for three or four years now....I like how they actually try to work with the community and bring everybody together. And this program they set up to keep kids off the street - that's nice too." - Phylisha Dixon is about to start her senior year in high school.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio