Church of All Nations – Symbiotic Roots

John Nelson and Laura Newby

Symbiotic Roots: A Perennial Food System for a Multicultural Village with the aims of Ecological Restoration and Mutual Aid within the congregation of the Church of All Nations, a multicultural faith community of 150 members founded by immigrants from Asia and Africa where interconnectedness is assumed.

Located in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, the project expands an urban, multicultural neighborhood food garden based in well-established social networks of mutual aid with fruit tree guilds and a small food forest.  The goal is to increase the amount of food grown to establish a perennial food system rooted in mutual aid.

John Nelson and Laura Newby are pastoral staff at Church of All Nations, both of whom have taken the PDC.  They are passionate about the need for ecological place-based theologies and healing ourselves as we heal the land.

Plan of Organizational Design

Church of All Nations (CAN) is a multicultural faith community of 150 members. Our congregation is non-Western, founded by immigrants from Asia and Africa where interconnectedness is assumed. The values that flow from this are relationships, reciprocity, balance, fruitfulness, and diversity. Our organizational structure and design perspective grow out of a complexity paradigm. Complexity science is now “discovering” what traditional and indigenous cultures have long understood—that deep connection to a diverse community and place allows for increasing levels of growth. What’s important is not control but rather rhythm, flow, and patterns. This is the movement of Spirit (or energy) that Daoism calls chi. When there is an openness for this life energy to flow, communities become syntropic, generating an increasingly spontaneous and complex network of interconnectedness. Life begets life.

We are located in Columbia Heights, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, in the Rice Creek Watershed District. Our property overlooks Silver Lake, a 72-acre lake that is listed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for impaired waters due to excess nutrient. Last year we began the implementation of a permaculture design, in consultation with Ecological Design, to heal the water that flows through our property by restoring soil and water systems. Permaculture has learned from traditional and indigenous knowledge, and so emphasizes “care for people,” “care for the earth,” and “fair share.” Through this work, then, we are also working to translate our community’s non-Western immigrant ethos to the land, which we trust will have a healing effect on both the land and on our community.

In permaculture language, one of the core operating principles of our community is​ ​symbiosis.​ ​We believe that interdependent relationships between individuals of different cultural backgrounds living in close physical proximity lead to increasing growth for all. And further, we recognize that these benefits increase exponentially when individuals choose to put down​ ​roots.Committed long-term relationships create the conditions for communal—and thereby personal—maturation and flourishing. Because of this, we have four intentional community houses near the church (see the fourth image below) where 30 members live together. These are diverse housing arrangements in which we share daily life and resources, including the practice of jubilee where we help each other get out of debt.

As we continue the permaculture work this coming year, we will weave this ethos deeper into our relationship with the land. Our goal is to develop community through the creation of a neighborhood-wide, integrated perennial food production system. The installation of a food forest and other perennial polycultures at the church will create more symbiotic and deeper rooted relationships on the land. This will both revitalize the local ecosystem and generate increasing yields of food, fiber, and medicine for the community. The church will serve as the production center and training site for our members (e.g., workshops on how to plant guilds, placing plant orders together), as we plan for each community house and other interested church members to participate in growing food at their homes. We will plan a community-wide crop rotation tying all the gardens together. As harvests occur, we will gather at the church for communal processing of the crops through drying, canning, pickling, and freezing. The fruit of our labor will be redistributed to the community houses and the broader church community. The result will be a tightly woven network of mutual aid rooted in the local ecosystem that matures and strengthens our multicultural village. The land will heal as our people heal through an ever more complex, interconnected, resilient, and generative ecological-communal structure.

Narrative Explanation of the Design

Church of All Nations was founded to address racism in the church. Over time, this led to deeper analysis of the way white supremacy operates as a tool for capitalist exploitation, and of how forced displacement destroys ancestral traditions of relating sustainably to place. Out of the interwoven experiences of our immigrant, indigenous, POC, and white American members, we’re working to heal from these disconnections. Thirty of our members live together in four community houses near the church. We’ve hosted conferences on settler-indigenous relations and on nurturing watershed consciousness. We founded Underground Seminary, an alternative education focused on decolonization. And this all coalesced as we began to implement a permaculture design on our church grounds.

As we grew more aware of climate catastrophe’s underlying cultural causes, we realized we had to relearn how to connect with the earth in a restorative way. We formed a core team of 20 members from our church who met every two weeks for six months to learn about permaculture so they could help lead the implementation. In our first year, we replaced grass lawn with clover and fescue, began restoring soil and water systems, planted diverse trees and bushes, and established pollinator gardens. In addition to the multiple environmental benefits, this also led us to begin learning land-based skills (e.g., herbalism) and to developing seasonal communal rhythms (e.g., maple sugaring). City council members and community organizations expressed their appreciation, the local paper featured our work on the front page, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization highlighted us as their “Good Neighbors of the Month.” Churches also started reaching out, so we’re offering classes, workshops, and consulting to help them get started.

This coming year we’ll plant a food forest and other perennials, install community gardens, and add supporting infrastructure. Our goal is to increase the amount of food we grow and to organize a perennial food system for our village rooted in mutual aid. Our community houses have regular evening meals together, and our whole church eats together every Sunday. We have a unique opportunity to create a perennial food and community garden system that provides an abundance of fruit, nuts, vegetables, and medicine for our multicultural village. We’ll design and install supporting infrastructure, including a 500-gallon water cistern and two three-bin compost systems. We’ll teach our kids about permaculture and have them tend a garden. And we’ll offer workshops for our members to plant fruit tree guilds at their homes, in anticipation of communal processing seasonally at the church (e.g., jams, pickling). In doing so, we’ll not only increase the ecological symbiosis happening on our grounds, but also strengthen social ties within our community—the web of connections between our local ecosystem, our labor, and our village meals will be expanded and deepened. Our investment in ecological restoration will simultaneously be a form of community building, as we tend the land together, collectively enjoy the fruits of our labor, and increase our communal adaptability and resilience.

Timeline for Implementation

February 2020: Biweekly neighborhood garden education and planning begins.

April 2020: Plant Guilds and Food Forest Workshop

May 2020: Build, install, and plant raised garden beds.

June 2020: Fruit tree, food forest, and perennial planting day; distribution of pre-ordered trees and plants for member homes

July 2020: Build compost bins, install cistern.
June-October 2020: Ongoing work nights for food forest care and gardening

Project Leaders & Partners

Laura Newbyand John Nelsonare pastoral staff at Church of All Nations, co-founders of Underground Seminary, and community house leaders in the CAN village. They are the CAN permaculture project leaders, and also offer classes, workshops, and consulting for churches interested in permaculture. Laura received Permaculture Design Course certification from Midwest Permaculture in Stelle, IL and John received PDC certification from Mastodon Valley Farm in the Driftless area of WI.

Church of All Nations consulted with Paula Westmoreland and Lindsay Rebhan of Ecological Designfor the initial design work (see the first image above). They are a women-owned business with 17 years’ experience in permaculture design and land regeneration, and have been important mentors and partners for us in this work.

Online Resources & References

Article on CAN’s permaculture project in Sun Focus, the local paper:

“Rooting Our Faith”, our permaculture classes and consulting for faith communities:

CAN’s 2014 Conference on indigenous-settler relations and the Doctrine of Discovery:

CAN’s 2015 Conference on indigenous-settler relations and the Mississippi Watershed:

Silver Lake: Nutrients — TMDL Project from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency