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A Community Takes Root

By Grace Shields, Fall 2015

In the midst of a Main Street neighborhood, in the shadow of Missionary Ridge lies an unexpected treasure. As the afternoon heat begins to settle over the grass, I sit with Father Peter Kanyi and Susannah Murdock in the Taking Root Community Garden under a shelter constructed to shade as well as to collect rain into large containers. A series of small garden plots bordered by backyard fences and Auto service stations, this spot used to be an empty lot on a city corner. Now it is a fertile green space where local residents can grow. As its name implies, this is a space that offers cultural roots in the community and a place where people relocated to Chattanooga grow a sense of belonging.

Taking Root is an offshoot project of NEEMA Resettlement Outreach, a program supported by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga. Founded by Father Peter Kanyi in 2010, NEEMA, the Swahili word for grace, provides services for refugees and immigrants, both individuals and families, to help them “successfully integrate into American life,[1]” while developing self-sufficient and stable futures. Services include English and literacy classes, counseling, help in finding jobs and housing, and now a community garden where NEEMA students meet one another, work together, and grow their own food. After their classrooms moved this year to the Youth and Family Development Department building on South Watkins Street, NEEMA became more involved with the Main Street community and Taking Root was born. Because of its close proximity to NEEMA, Taking Root acts as an extension, NEEMA’s very own “outdoor classroom”. Signs posted with tool, vegetable, and garden words reinforce vocabulary taught in classes to those learning English for the first time. It also offers students a place to practice English in an informal, conversational setting.

Above all, the garden serves as a safe space where new arrivals to and residents of the Chattanooga community alike can learn about other cultures and customs. Many people who turn to NEEMA for help have fled countries torn apart by civil war or corrupt governments. Susannah Murdock, Chairman of NEEMA’s Steering Committee, explains how feelings of fear and isolation are common among refugees, especially when culture and language barriers prevent these individuals from connecting with those around them. The garden provides a neutral and common ground where people from all walks of life can learn from one another, share stories and experiences, and gain a sense of stability and security in the community we call home. For Muhammad Musa, a NEEMA student from Sudan, the garden has taught him more than just planting, something he was familiar with before moving here. He says working at Taking Root has taught him how to help others. It is not just his plot that he cares about; Musa spends long hours in the garden tending to other plots that need looked after or given special care. For Musa and many others, it is the sense of community and unity offered by this space that turns this act from a chore to a natural urge to look past oneself and take care of those around them; to help others take root.

There are 12 families who currently have plots at the garden. Each plot has a small sign at the top of the vegetable row with the name of the person who is responsible for taking care of it printed across it in neat letters. Father Peter provides the gardeners with tools, seeds, and his knowledge of gardening, but insists that those who come to work on the garden are responsible for maintaining their own space.  “I tell them, you have a place where you can come and cultivate,” says Father Peter. “Not me, but you.”

 In many ways, Father Peter has a foot in both worlds. A native of Kenya, he has worked with refugees since the 1970s. He came to America for seminary, with the goal of working with the international community here. Father Peter ultimately settled in Chattanooga, and met a group of Burundian refugees who had been sponsored to relocate to the Scenic City. His interactions with this small community opened his eyes to their needs as new arrivals in America. Since then, Murdock says, Father Peter’s knowledge of a variety of cultures and his fluency in several languages has allowed him to become a trusted resource in the community, bridging the gap and helping these families settle into their new lives. But, as Father Peter points out, it is anything but one-sided. “We are all students of one another,” he says.

Father Peter and Murdock share the dream that NEEMA’s work will help strip away the labels so often placed on others and instead help build a culture of understanding and acceptance among Chattanoogans. They hope to encourage the Chattanooga community to realize that, no matter on which path life has taken us, we are all simply people. Here, it does not matter of you come from Sudan, Guatemala, Kansas, or Ooltewah- everyone is welcome to grow in the garden. The vision for Taking Root is that everyone can bring what they grow and share a bit of their home culture with others. For example, if there is one family that wants to grow only okra, Father Peter will help them find okra seeds. But he also encourages them to see what others are growing and to try new foods, too. The garden acts as a perfect equalizer, where everyone is on the same footing. It is, in a very literal sense, a common ground for people from different countries, races, religions, and experiences, and it unites them in a common goal. Father Peter wants to see the community garden become a meeting place for anyone who wants to grow here, despite different work schedules and personal lives. “I look forward to a time when we can all be there together,” he says. 

You, too, can get involved with Taking Root by volunteering in the garden or donating to the cause. For more information, contact: Father Peter Kanyi or Susannah Murdock by calling 423-903-6707 or 423-718-0571 or by emailing peterkanyi77@gmail.com or slrmurdock@yahoo.com