Volunteers come every saturday to the 10-acre Stillmeadow PeacePark, where 1,800 saplings have been planted to replace dying ash trees as part of Pastor Michael Martin's vision for bringing his community together in a healthy outdoor environment.Erika Page/The Christian Science MonitorW
July 12, 2021
When Pastor Michael Martin began preaching at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship in 2017, he heard only whispers about the creek. No one seemed to know for sure, but rumor had it that deep inside the 10 acres of dark, untended woods on the church property, a stream might flow.
A year came and went before the leader of the suburban church in southwest Baltimore convinced a congregant to show him the land, which the church couldn’t sell or even give away. When Mr. Martin finally got a glimpse of that creek, hidden in overgrown brush and vines, he realized something: All his preaching about stewardship of the community could take on a tangible shape.
“We’ve got 10 acres of stewardship that we haven’t accounted for,” he told his congregation the following Sunday. And he went on to paint a mental picture of his idea of stewardship: a peace park where churchgoers and visitors could worship, connect with nature, and join in fellowship. Before long, and with the input of dozens of community members, his vision included walking paths, vegetable gardens, meditation stations, an apiary, and even an amphitheater.
A new pastor at Stillmeadow Community Fellowship saw an opportunity for community stewardship and fellowship in converting a bramble of dark, scary woods behind his southwest Baltimore church into a peace park that has become a model of environmental justice.
As word got out about the idea of the Stillmeadow PeacePark in a historically underserved neighborhood where green space is sparse, volunteers began to pour in.
“The momentum has just been unreal,” says Jackie Griswold, a church member and volunteer at the PeacePark.
Erika Page/The Christian Science MonitorMichael Martin, pastor of Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, saw a chance to nurture the overgrown and untended land around his Baltimore church – and in doing so, nurture his church flock and his broader community with green space for food gardens, peaceful gathering and nature education.
The United States Forest Service partnered with Stillmeadow. Organizations like Blue Water Baltimore and the Interfaith Partners of the Chesapeake offered support for environmental restoration. Students from local schools and from five universities joined the fold. Two and a half years later, the project has become an emblem of environmental justice – equal parts ecological restoration and community building.
On a recent Saturday morning, volunteers tended to squash, melon, cucumber, sweet pea, green bean, soybean, and Swiss chard plants in a vegetable garden by the park entrance. Others carried native understory saplings – laurel, rhododendron, dogwood, and redbud – up the wood chip path that now winds through the park. (The team, so far, has planted 1,800 new trees to replace hundreds of sick and dying ash trees.) Deeper in the forest, in a clearing by the creek, a local educator guided children in a lesson on nature art.
“As someone who teaches environmental justice, this is a perfect laboratory,” says McKay Jenkins, a professor of environmental humanities who brings students from the University of Delaware to volunteer at Stillmeadow every Saturday morning.
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The PeacePark, he adds, is one of the few places he knows where people of so many racial and religious backgrounds are coming together: “They’re starting to realize that they have way more in common than they have not in common. When you sweat and plant trees together, it’s a very healing experience. It’s restorative for people, it’s restorative for ecology.”
Mr. Martin was always going to end up preaching: The oldest of five brothers growing up in Flint, Michigan, he did most of the talking, and he sang in the church choir.
“In the Black Baptist tradition, if you were male, you could talk, and you could sing – oh boy, you were gonna be a preacher,” he remembers.
Erika Page/The Christian Science MonitorA diverse cast of more than 2,000 volunteers – from the local community, environmental organizations, and universities – has made Stillmeadow PeacePark a model of environmental justice.
For Mr. Martin, leading a church is about caring for the community through active stewardship. “My time here [at Stillmeadow] started out with challenging us to be good stewards of the building and of the neighborhood ... to be an anchor and a servant,” he says.
But Mr. Martin admits he had never been much of an environmental advocate. His most regular contact with nature as a child took place on Sunday evenings in front of the weekly TV show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
“There’s no way that you could have gotten me to think in terms of converting all of that nice-looking lawn into a pollinator garden even three years ago,” he says of the Kentucky bluegrass lawn in front of the brick church that the PeacePark team is planning to remove. In its place, volunteers will plant native Maryland flowers that will be beneficial to butterflies, bees, and birds.
Now, thanks to the Stillmeadow forest, the local environment is front and center in his understanding of what it means to be a true steward of the neighborhood: “We as Christians owe God an obedience to take care of what is taking care of us ... to nurture [the land] and help it along.”
Research, volunteering, and peace
What Mr. Martin didn’t know was that this land was a microcosm of problems in ecosystems across the mid-Atlantic region. In fact, Morgan Grove from the U.S. Forest Service says his colleagues didn’t think the project would be possible when they laid eyes on the space. The presence of invasive vines and insects such as the emerald ash borer meant that hundreds of dying ash trees needed to be cleared to rehabilitate the forest.
Volunteering is the backbone of the restoration effort. But the Forest Service has committed $90,000 over three years, six research scientists, trees, equipment, and chain-saw training for volunteers toward the reforestation effort.
If the reforestation experiment works, experts say it could serve as a model for green areas on the East Coast.
For Mr. Martin, the PeacePark wouldn’t be possible without partnerships like these. Underlying his vision for the park is an abiding faith that everything the space needs is already available – sometimes the puzzle pieces just need to be connected.
“I didn’t invent anything. I just used what was already there,” he says of the forest’s natural resources, the volunteer networks, and their expertise. “All I really had was the ability to say, ‘Wow, this is something. It should be honored; it should be lifted up; we should breathe life into it.’”
Indeed, says Ms. Griswold, Mr. Martin “can see things before anybody else, and he just goes for it. ... He’s like, ‘I don’t care if it seems impossible; we’re going to pray about it and God’s going to make it happen.’”
A source of life
Jujuan Lawson was the type of kid who spent most of his time indoors. In January, when he started volunteering at the PeacePark to complete service hours for school, he hated it. Transporting 30 square yards of mulch up a forested hill with a wheelbarrow? No thank you. “The woods” was not a place to hang out. It didn’t take long for the project – and new friends he was making – to change his mind: Soon he surpassed the number of volunteer hours required of him.
“It brings calm to the community. It’s a source of life for the community,” says Jujuan, who eventually spent so much time at the park that the team offered him a paid internship this summer. The rising high school senior is glad to be part of a group making the city more livable for the next generation. “It’s a place for these children to experience the gifts of what we couldn’t really experience,” he says.
As for the creek – no longer an urban legend – ideas abound. Mr. Martin hopes to build a bamboo bridge over it, volunteers want a swimming hole, and local churches would like to conduct baptisms in the pond.
Whether these dreams become reality will depend on pollution upstream, says Professor Jenkins.