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The Project Martha Community Garden Grows Community and Burmese Food

By Kayla Jacob, director of programs of Laudato Si’ Ministries | August 2020

The Project Martha Community Garden Grows Community and Burmese Food

I recently had a conversation with Deborah Mawi, the family support coordinator for World Relief DuPage, which is the refugee resettlement agency in the suburbs of Chicago.

Deborah and I spoke about the Project Martha Community Garden at St. James the Apostle Church, Glen Ellyn. The garden is a partnership between the parish and World Relief that started in 2017 and is housed on St. James’ property. It’s for newly arrived refugees, mostly from Burma, to grow healthy food for their families.

This partnership was initiated by a St. James parishioner, Lisa Mirabella Orwig, who was already involved as a volunteer with World Relief. The parish has a large open space of land, and there is a refugee population in the area, so it made perfect sense to let the refugees cultivate and care for the space. Lisa found a volunteer from the parish to till the land. The parish provides the land and water, and the refugees provide the seeds and gardening skills.

Most of the refugees have a farming background in their homeland, and many of them save their seeds from year to year. When the garden first started, 10 families were involved; this year 17 families are gardening at St. James. They grow traditional Burmese food, such as roselle, which is a sour leaf; mustard; chin paung; samtok; and hot peppers.

Deborah, a Burmese refugee, noted that the garden has many benefits. The garden builds community, provides healthy organic food for families and  reminds people of their homeland.

“It is just a joy to be there,” she said. “Every time I visit the garden, I feel like I’m in my homeland.”

She highlighted the therapeutic aspects of the garden as well, adding, “It is mentally healing, it builds confidence, and it feels like an accomplishment.”

At the end of our conversation, Deborah said, “The refugee families are very blessed with the garden, and they look forward to it every year. I pray that more churches open their land for gardens.”

Laudato si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for creation, emphasizes an integral ecology that tends to the environment and human life and dignity. The Project Maratha Community Garden is an excellent example of Laudato si’ in action.

If you are interested in starting a community garden at your parish and would like some assistance, contact Kayla S. Jacobs, director of programs of Laudato Si’ Ministries for the Diocese of Joliet, at