In 2017, the pews at Gethsemane Lutheran Church were more empty than full: a few dozen were attending Sunday services.
“We were not at the point of not surviving,” recalls congregation member Dennis Frick. “But we were not in a good trend.”
Frick, an Irvington resident and attorney with the Senior Law Project at Indiana Legal Services, has been a member of Gethsemane for about thirty years. He and others in the congregation brainstormed how they could better fulfill the church’s mission of serving their neighbors.
The church sits on a flat six-acre tract on East Tenth Street. On one side, Charleston Apartments is filled with families. On the other, across a tributary of Pleasant Run Creek, was Crestwood Village retirement community.
The group that Dennis worked with began a project they dubbed Neighborhood Connection: events that would welcome neighbors into the church, and not just on Sunday morning. They organized a community Thanksgiving dinner, and hosted an Easter egg hunt—complete with a college student dressed up as the Easter Bunny—on the grounds of the apartments next door. They filled new backpacks with school supplies to get the academic year off to a good start for local kids.
But still, Dennis recalls, church members wanted to do more than one-off events. “We wanted to find a way to make the church more inviting to the community.”
The answer was right in front of them: there was lots of undeveloped, unused space beyond the church building and parking lot.
Frick and others from Gethsemane approached Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) for some advice. Ethan Olson, Director of Natural Landscapes, came out to the church to take a look. He noticed what the church had already done to beautify its space: flowers around the building, supplemented by beehives. A labyrinth designed and built in honor of Pastor Barbara Dahl’s tenth anniversary leading Gethsemane. And the creek that runs along one side of the property.
That meeting turned into a series of planning sessions—and ultimately, a grant proposal to the IPL Project GreenSpace . KIB awarded the grant in late 2018, and hired Hitchcock Design Group to do a site plan.
Olson says the congregation was a terrific project partner with KIB. “They were good communicators, patient, and trusting” as he led church members through the planning process.
The design includes a winding path around the church campus, a perfect spot for an after-lunch stroll. There’s a ‘council ring’ with a fire pit, which will, no doubt, become a popular spot for neighbors and church members to gather. There’s also a wooden overlook at the creek side. A large landscape has been planted with 31 different species of native plants and 14 species of native trees. Volunteers from Roche Diagnostics and Eli Lilly helped prepare the site, spreading gravel and digging the flowerbeds. Tree and perennial planting was completed in the fall of 2019, performed by several dozen church members and other KIB volunteers. Church members “were very participatory in our workdays, with at least one person from the church at every work day,” says Olson.
KIB’s Olson lives near the Commons project, so he sees first-hand how the new space is being used. “Each time I drive by, there is always someone using the benches we installed (particularly the one near the bus stop) or using the walking path.” He says that later in 2020, the church will again offer garden plots to neighbors, and will add new plantings around the labyrinth, with the goal of turning it into an outdoor venue for community ceremonies and photography opportunities. “The council ring and the overlook will serve as a place for neighbors to relax and gather to enjoy nature, while the prairie serves to feed the bees in the church’s beehive and thousands of other native pollinators and birds.”
Now, in mid-winter, it looks stark and brown. But look closely, and there are already a few green shoots. By mid-spring, the native grasses will be swaying in the breeze, and the spring-blooming flowers will be providing colorful landing sites for the resident bees.
On Sunday, May 17, the bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Lutheran Church will consecrate the Commons at Gethsemane: a small congregation’s effort—with a lot of help from KIB and the community—to share its gifts.