"Hospitality is a form of worship."
—Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a
I want to tell you something about the June garden. Not about the knee-high rainbow chard or the hot pink zinnias, though both are splendid. Look closer: beneath heart-shaped leaves, hiding parallel to their own twining vines, are the humble treasures of early summer: the green beans.
In the early 2000’s, when I got serious about growing a significant amount of my family’s food, I signed up for a plot at the Florida A&M University community garden in my then-city of Tallahassee, Florida. The FAMU community garden is one of the oldest community gardens in the country, and run by the historically Black university. I was one of only a few white gardeners. There were two Asian-American women. The other gardeners were Black. On my first day, I pulled up in my beat-up little Volvo, toddler in tow, and gazed out at the huge 40’ by 40’ expanse, spade in hand but having no idea where to begin.
Mr. Rose, from two plots over, saw me standing there. “Start with green beans,” he called out. “They’re forgiving, and they build up your soil.” I would later find out that with care and attention over the years, he himself had built his soil up right out of one type—red clay—and into another—rich loam. The next week, he came over to my plot with his tiller. The week after that, he helped me hook up an irrigation system made from recycled parts. “We help each other around here. That’s how we do,” he said. Everything that came up in his garden was a foot higher and a sight denser than the neighboring plots, and often, I’d overhear other gardeners—sitting on the tailgates of their trucks in the car paths and chatting with Mr. Rose about football—sneak in a question here and there about how his vegetables grew so fine. He would rib them a little bit first, but then share advice—and offers of assistance—freely. “Most of us give away much more than we eat. But that’s about how it ought to be,” he said.
I was shy and awkward most of that year, never able to fully relax into Mr. Rose’s warm hospitality. I watched, listened, and learned, but didn’t really form friendships, unable to get past my worries about saying or doing the wrong thing as often the only white person in an energetic, bustling, new-to-me mostly Black space. That was my loss. When we moved the following summer, I took with me that regret, many lessons on food growing, and a very deep appreciation at having witnessed and experienced firsthand the welcoming of the stranger.
Light We Seek, wherever I am on the journey toward wholeness for all of us—that is, toward racial equality—help me to plant the green beans. Help me to forgive myself and others for missteps and missed opportunities, and guide my efforts to build up the relationships where love, justice, and understanding grow.