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A Church Without a Building? Congregation Builds a Garden Instead

By Paul Biasco | September 3, 2015 8:49am
 Pastor Bruce Ray waters plants in the garden, which has sprouted on the lot of the former church.
Pastor Bruce Ray waters plants in the garden, which has sprouted on the lot of the former church.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LOGAN SQUARE — How's a church supposed to operate without a physical church building?

The Kimball Avenue Church was faced with that problem when a steam boiler ruptured and ruined the 110-year-old structure at 2324 N. Kimball Ave.

In 2011, the building was deconstructed — taken apart nail by nail, with most of the materials sold through The Rebuilding Exchange, a nonprofit in Bucktown.

In its place, a garden oasis has been slowly growing on the empty lot.

At first, there were just a few planter boxes. Then there were full garden beds.

As of this summer, the 100-by-100 foot space included 33 plots that are ripe with zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, corn and more.

"I've told people it's the best thing that's ever happened," said Pastor Bruce Ray. "It's forced us to think of ways to serve the community without a building."

Pastor Bruce Ray waters the garden in the lot where the church used to stand. [DNAinfo/Paul Biasco]

After transforming the church lot into garden and urban oasis, the congregation is taking the next step by constructing a meditation/prayer labyrinth in the center of the space.

"It's not just gardening. It's not just walking a labyrinth. It's engaging one another and building a community," Ray said. "We want to be a place of welcome."

Paul Biasco discusses the church's transformation into a garden:

Seventy-five Chicago high school students from Voice of the City and After School Matters have been helping transform the site over the past two years, first designing the layout of the oasis and then constructing it.

The design includes waterfalls, fruit trees, two small lily ponds, a rain garden, a rock wall speckled with succulents and, of course, the vegetable garden.

"I think as the community has changed, there needs to be those places where there's interaction and where there's kind of the commonality of, we all eat, we all need refreshment, we all need greenspace," Ray said.

The interior of the church before it was deconstructed due to a ruptured boiler. [Kimball Avenue Church]

To move forward on the final step — the seven-circuit labyrinth that will be centered by a crabapple tree — the church is seeking to raise $5,000 for materials.

The labyrinth, an ancient circuit and guide for reflection, is planned to be ADA-accessible and permeable, which has raised the cost of supplies.

So far, the church has raised $3,590 of its $5,000 through an Indiegogo campaign.

Since the physical church was deconstructed — 94 percent of the building was kept out of landfill, according to Ray — the "micro congregation" of about 30 people have been meeting at Elastic Arts, 3429 W. Diversey. 

"It was a tragic event and people were disappointed that we had to tear it down but at the same time it gave us an opportunity to do kind of a resurrection in a different way," Ray said.

The new oasis will be open to the community, but Ray is asking that neighbors don't take any food from the garden.

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