What do you do if the nearest worshiping community to your church is a Sikh gurdwara?
Plant a garden together, of course.
That’s what River East Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Winnipeg, Man., is doing with its neighbor, Guru Nanak Darbar.
The project got its start in 2010 after a chance encounter between Gurpreet Brar, a member of Guru Nanak Darbar, and Sara Jane Schmidt of River East.
Brar was campaigning for a seat on the school board when he knocked on Schmidt’s door.
“We had a wide-ranging discussion, including the role of religion in schools,” recalls Schmidt. “It felt like a meeting of minds. We agreed it would be great if our faith communities could get together some time.”
A year later, that idea turned into a reality when members of the two congregations met for a sod-turning for an interfaith garden project.
The garden, located on the Northeast Pioneer Greenway, which runs between the two meeting places, has become a place for members of the two groups to meet each other regularly to maintain the garden.
Along with that, members have also visited each other’s meeting places to share about Mennonite and Sikh history and beliefs.
On May 4, they met again to unveil a sign for the garden that describes their effort to beautify the neighborhood.
The sign also speaks about how Mennonites and Sikhs “both believe in sharing and helping others” and about their shared immigrant experiences in adapting to Canada.
It includes a photo of Major Singh Gill and Gerhard Friesen, elders in their congregations who are involved with the project.
For Schmidt, the garden isn’t only about restoring native plants and grasses but also about building understanding between the two groups.
“Religion is a major source of conflict, and much of that is due to ignorance, misunderstanding and fear of the ‘other,’ ” she says.
Through the project, Sikhs and Mennonites are celebrating their commonalities, such as their immigrant experience, faith values, hopes and dreams.
For Brar, the project is inspiring as the two groups work together and develop respect and understanding.
“We share common core values of hard work and helping others,” he says.
Along with developing the garden, the two groups raise funds for a breakfast program at a nearby school, helping as many as 50 children get a nutritious start to their day.
In addition to flowering plants, the garden will feature wild prairie grasses and flowers, a pollinator bee house and a bench inscribed with a version of what Christians call the Golden Rule: “In all circumstances, do to others as you would have them do to you.”
For me, the garden project encapsulates what faith is all about: Building positive, healthy relationships between neighbors, breaking down barriers between different groups, connecting communities, feeding hungry people, caring for creation — and sharing good food like Mennonite platz and Punjabi samosas.
John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.