Grand Rapids church evicting urban farm and youth program

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It may come as a surprise that in the middle of the Grand Rapids’ Creston neighborhood is an acre and a half of tomatoes, lettuce and about every vegetable you can imagine.

But not for long.

New City Neighbors will tell you its garden is about more than fresh produce.

“The organization is very important to the Creston neighborhood. There are a lot of people that depend on the fresh produce that we grow,” said Ricardo Tavarez, the executive director of NCN.

Tavarez, who joined NCN in December, is an ordained Christian Reformed minister. He is also gay.

“I didn’t come in here waiving a rainbow flag. I came here ready to work,” he said.

NCN was created at Fourth Reformed Church in 2007 before becoming an independent charity in 2012. It leased the garden space on Union Avenue NE north of Leonard Street from the church.

The garden grows according to Community Supported Agriculture guidance, allowing people to buy shares and come each Thursday to pick up their produce. People on public assistance can get fresh food. Some of it also goes to area food pantries.

“I like knowing that I’m supporting a farm that has donated shares to food pantries,” said downtown Grand Rapids resident Krista Benson, who comes with partner Grant Stancliff to get produce. “It’s meaningful as well as being delicious.”

Other produce was used in a small café serving food prepared by neighborhood kids — though it has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I love the fact that they are using this farm to reach kids who need job skills,” said Julie Horndyk, who drives 45 minutes from her home in Grand Haven for produce.

The kids are mentored and trained in skills they might not get at a normal service industry job, including learning about race relations and social justice.

“I have a hard time understanding a decision to completely remove such a valuable resource from this neighborhood,” Stancliff said.

A few weeks ago, the church decided that after 2021, the garden would have to find a new home.

“They are concerned about the organization taking an affirming stance on same-sex marriage and they don’t want their congregation to be confused as to where they stand on these issues,” Tavarez said.

The Reformed Church in America is grappling with the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. It was expected to make a definitive decision at this year’s synod conference but it was canceled due to the pandemic.

The pastor of Fourth Reformed would not go on camera with News 8 but did provide a written statement. It said the church wishes the program well but theological differences forced the decision.

“Although NCN has framed the disassociation around human sexuality, we have communicated with them that our primary concern is about their departure from their original mission of holistic discipleship,” the response read in part.

“This is something that makes us so sad and it’s something that shouldn’t be. There are ways to solve this problem,” said Horndyk, who along with others is writing a letter o the church pleading NCN’s case.

She as a believer in Reformed Christianity and believes that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin but she also says everyone sins and being a sinner should not keep a vital mission from continuing.

“That really grieves us because we want to continue serving the Creston neighborhood,” Tavarez said.

Finding a farmable acre or two of land in the city will be very challenging.

“I don’t know how to say that we love God and love our neighbor if we can’t do a mission like this,” Tavarez said.

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