“Growing a garden church from food scraps and compost”–Article in the Christian Century

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2014 to start a church that connected people with food, the earth, each other, and God, I envisioned a sanctuary created around the table. It would not be built out of stones and stained glass and wood but would be circled by vegetable beds and fruit trees, with sky for ceiling and earth for floor. The vision was to create an urban farm and outdoor sanctuary feeding people in body, mind, and spirit.

Before we had a plot of land to cultivate together, we asked our team: What do we have? What are the resources that are already here and how can we use them to nurture this dream?

Read the rest of the article on the Christian Century page.

Are Thoughts and Prayers Enough?

By Anna Woofenden
July 2018
First published on swedenborg.com

I know that I am not alone in eye-rolling to outrage when something terrible happens and politicians and celebrities respond with proclamations of their “thoughts and prayers.” It’s not that I have anything against people thinking of and praying for whatever hard thing is happening in the world. It’s just that it seems that the subtext under these phrases is often “and we’re not going to do a darn thing about it.”

According to Emanuel Swedenborg, “prayer, regarded in itself, is speech with God” (Secrets of Heaven §2535). Prayer, in itself, is a conversation with our Creator, a dynamic back and forth—speaking and listening, giving and receiving. And then, may I add, prayer leads us to take action. It’s often said that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us; I believe Swedenborgian theology would agree. It gets back to who we think God is and how God operates. Offering “thoughts and prayers” seems to have become the thing to say when you want to express some kind of acknowledgment of what has happened, but you don’t want anyone to expect that you’re going to make a shift in policy or invest in creating a world where tangible action for change is taken as a response to tragedy. Along with this response, it seems there is, understandably, a growing cynicism toward both prayer itself and people’s expressions of prayer. I understand this cynicism and often share the root of the reaction, yet I’m not willing to throw out prayer with this murky bathwater and so limit its definition to all that comes with the expression “thoughts and prayers.”

When I was a hospital chaplain, I spent a fair amount of time praying with people, and most of the time it was in intense situations—life and death for the individuals or their families. I would usually start by asking, “What do you want us to pray for?” and the conversations would unfold. And most often, people would have a pretty specific ask. “Pray that my mom’s cancer will go away.” “Pray that I will not die from this tumor.” “Pray that my baby’s lung will heal.” All of these prayers made perfect sense. Of course, these were the things to pray for. Of course, this was what they desperately and fervently wanted, and it was what I wanted for them. But how to pray?

I stood in those hospital rooms, and I would have these moments where the scenario would play out in my head: Yes, I could pray for the loved one to be cured, and it could happen; but it also was just as likely that the patient would die, and then what? Then God doesn’t answer prayers. So was this prayer not just setting people up to sever their relationship with God alongside their experience of heartbreak and loss?

I wrestled with how to pray with hope and with the wholehearted belief in the power of a healing God. At the same time, I prayed with the deep knowledge that God needed to be big enough, close enough, and loving enough—that even if the worst thing happened, that there was space in the prayer, in the theological constructs that we weave with our words of prayer—to still be there and to still be the force of love in the universe and in the lives of the people we love.

And so, I found myself praying for the words to pray; and then I prayed the grief and the worry, the assurance of the presence of love in the room, the sobs and the hopes. I found myself exploring prayers for healing versus prayers for cures, as healing comes in so many forms, including the peace that comes with trusting and loving through even the most impossible situations.

I found prayers becoming times to squeeze the hands of family gathered round the bedside of the patient on the ventilator; they were times to let the tears flow, to breathe, to sigh deeply, and to feel God’s presence there with us. It was about bringing down the decision-making God—the force that can wave a finger to heal or not, immediately changing the course of events—from that high place in the sky to be the God whose presence of love and comfort are immediately felt there in the hospital room, as we walk the halls. Prayer is a conversation and a connection with the God who is with us in our grief and in our joy, the God who holds all of it and encompasses the breadth of our lives.

The people I spent time with in these rooms taught me how to pray. Flowery, lofty prayers don’t go very far in the linoleum-floored hospital room, with the green heartbeat monitor going up and down by the bedside and the IV fluids dripping through the tubes. What happens in these rooms is about as “real life” as you can get; and God was certainly present, teaching us how to pray. Our prayers didn’t just end with some vague hope for some far-off force to do something but to not involve us in the process. Instead, our prayers were woven in with hands on shoulders offering comfort, with tears being cried and Kleenex being given, with donated bone marrow and the deep wisdom and experience of a surgeon’s lifetime of work. These thoughts and prayers have flesh on them, and they change us and move us to acting for good so that we can change for the better the world around us.


Earth Day as High-Holy Day

For the past few years, I held Earth Day as a holiday—a high-holy day. While pastoring the Garden Church, we raised Earth Day up in our church calendar and took it on as our own. It made sense, seeing that we were a church in what had been a barren lot in the middle of Los Angeles and was now an urban farm. Our mission: to reconnect people with each other, God, their food and, wait for it, the earth. It is no surprise that Earth Day was a big deal for us.

On Earth Day we’d do it up big. It would start with the Expo that filled up our lot with beekeepers and environmental activists and samples from the raw foods restaurant and everyone’s favorite: chickens to hold. This led into an interfaith worship service where we invited our Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, and various Christian neighbors to share from their traditions as we looked to the earth, to our faith, and to the earth again. After worship, we’d gather around the big picnic tables and share food from our various backgrounds and cultures and gardens and share in community together.

I know that we weren’t ending global climate change or coal plants with these gatherings, but I felt clear we were doing something. And we were doing it throughout the year too. When we paused to celebrate Earth Day, it was in keeping with the work we were doing the other 364 days of the year, the education, the growing of food, the composting of waste, the daily nurture and care of this little plot of land in our care.

This Earth Day I woke up a little out of sorts. As I saw the posts from my former church encouraging people to attend Earth Day at the Garden Church, I felt acutely the 3,000 miles between us and that I was no longer the pastor there. My husband and I got up and went to the lovely church we’ve been attending in New York. There was a table set up after worship and a few mentions of Earth Day in the program. We left right after the service and headed out to take a hike in the Adirondacks.

It was beautiful. What an appropriate way to celebrate Earth Day, right? Out enjoying Mother Nature?

Yet a part of me still felt agitated. Am I really doing my part to curb this environmental free-fall we’re in right now? Should I be enjoying this pristine mountain trail when the chances of it still being here for our great-great-grandchildren look bleak?

As I stopped to catch my breath in the crisp mountain air I thought about how most of the people on the planet are breathing polluted air. As I climbed over a stretch of boulders in the midst of the last of the snowpack, I kept seeing that haunting image of the bedraggled polar bear with skin and fur hanging on its malnourished body as it struggled for survival with its ecosystem melting around it.

And I knew, as you do, that just lamenting it all isn’t going to change it.

I do what I can, I think. As we move from apartment to apartment, with no soil to grow our food in and not enough time to root for change in the local community. We drive our gas-efficient car and walk as much as we can, use energy-saving light bulbs and turn off the overheads. And then I get on another airplane for work and we use another plastic garbage bag. And I feel caught in the insidious cycle of it all.

Maybe it’s why I am now verging on compulsive about composting wherever we are. Even risking marital peace when my spouse becomes annoyed at the freezer full of bags of food scraps that are waiting for me to take them to our friend’s farm or to the neighbor’s worm bin down the street.

“It’s one of the few things I feel like a can do for our grandchildren,” I tell my husband when he, understandably, grumbles while trying to find the ice cream.

I keep paying attention to the despair, to the beautiful warm sun on my feet, to the banana peels and slimy spinach. Earth Day is indeed a high-holy day, one that, wherever I am, I want to honor all year long.

Anointed to Love


November 13th, 2013
Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church, San Pedro, CA

Scripture: Isaiah 35:3-8, Luke 17:20-21

“The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united to them through love.” Divine Love and Wisdom 47 Emanuel Swedenborg

As a church, we don’t stand with a particular political view; as people of faith, there is not one right partisan expression. What we stand behind, no matter what, is love. And being people who are anointed to love.

Love goes beyond who we voted for, or how that is expressed. Love looks out into the world to see who is suffering, who is experiencing fear and loss, who is consumed by hate. Love looks inward at parts of ourselves—at what is underneath our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Love isn’t always comfy or pretty. Often love calls us to go beyond our comfort zones.

Glennon Doyle Melton writes “Love is not warm and fuzzy or sweet and sticky. Real love is tough as nails. It is having your heart ripped out, putting it back together, and the next day offering it back to the same world that just tore it up.”

Love is fierce. Love is persistent. Love puts our bodies in between, beside, and behind bodies that are threatened. Love combats the hate and words of condemnation that come into our own heads, and stops us when we want to lash out at other people.

I think love also gently wraps a blanket around us. It encourages us to care gently, for ourselves and for each other. Love reaches out and checks in, “How are you doing?” “How can I support you today?” “How can I stand with you today?” Love calls out to that Divine love, and welcomes it into this place.

This message is nothing new friends; it’s what you hear from me most every week—love God and love each other, honor the dignity of all human beings, we belong to God, we belong to each other, we are loved and we are called to love. This is not new information, nor a new call. But today we have the opportunity to be reminded of its imperative. We have a reminder that love is not easy, but it must be our consistent commitment, for the long haul. The work of courageous love has been the work, is the work, and will continue to be the work. All the resolve we feel now—we must keep that, and continue to stay awake.

We must be awake to where there is hell and negativity that is working to divide us and twist things. We must be awake when it urges us to flare up in anger or take us to the pit of despair, and when it tells us there’s no point and to just stop.

We must stay awake to heaven and its powerful force for compassion and justice and healing in the world. Because heaven is with us and among us—urging and infilling us, anointing us to love.

And this is why we need to keep gathering together, praying and listening and acting. We need to educate ourselves in how to love more effectively and  to encourage each other. We need to hold each other accountable.  We need to widen our circles and expand our friendships. We need to look more deeply at things we might have assumed we know, and question narratives that have been presented as the singular truth. We need to consistently do our internal work of rejecting hell and welcoming heaven and to show up and stand with courage and compassion in the face of injustice and hate. We need to be kind to each other and gentle to each other. We need to call together on God, for the strength and comfort and resolve. We need to come around God’s table where all are welcome, and remember together that we are beloved and we are anointed to love.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear.”
For God is here.


photo“I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” –Brené Brown

The day before Thanksgiving the right side of my body and a sidewalk had an abrupt and violent encounter.
My shoulder burst into searing pain, I tried to stand, felt the world close in, sat down again on the sidewalk, and felt the vulnerability of pain.

A few weeks later I sit on the rug in my bedroom and feel the muscles around my upper arm and back twinge as I use careful motions as my pen moves across the page.

“It feels vulnerable” is how I described my shoulder when the doc and then the acupuncturist moved it around to access the damage. Painful, tender, and vulnerable.

Vulnerability is a word that has been present in my life of late. It’s vulnerable to move yet again to a new place, with new people, start from scratch building relationships and community. Vulnerable to be staring the end of graduate school in the face and knowing that student loans end in May, and salary, health insurance, housing, and all those other necessary things are not yet a known quantity on the other side. Vulnerability of yet again taking large life steps as a single person, with the freedom, and the deep loneliness of moving through these decisions on my own. Vulnerability around my family of origin as final steps of my parents recent divorce are approaching. And vulnerability that over the last few months I have said out loud in a variety of settings, “I am going to plant a church.” Without knowing exactly where, when, or how, I keep saying out loud this call and vision that God is growing within me and around me. Speaking something into being that I have yet to know is possible. It’s audacious. It’s vulnerable.

Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus comes into my meditation as I walk up the hill. Great with Child, traveling away from home, prepared to birth the Son of God, carrying the one who she knew was destined to turn the world upside down. And yet, here she was, in Bethlehem, far from her family and community, and without even a room at the in. I wonder if she wished that she were back home in her own bed, with her mother and sisters nearby. I wonder if she would have said she felt vulnerable.

I go home and pull up the Ted Talk on Vulnerability. Damn your deep, wise, hits-too-close-to-home, wisdom Brene Brown. She winds up her talk with with these words:

“Let ourselves be seen…deeply seen, vulnerability seen. To love with our whole hearts, knowing that there is no guarantee. Practicing gratitude and joy in the moments of terror… I’m so grateful—to feel this vulnerable means I am alive.”

To feel this vulnerable means I am alive. The crisp air at the top of the mountain had a similar effect.

As does Advent. Divinity incarnated through deep vulnerability. God didn’t show up fully-grown, clothed in armor, or sleek and strong with black-belt karate moves. God came to this earth and slipped into the skin of baby Jesus. Carried by a mother who as young and vulnerable herself. Traveling far from home, no place to lay her head, let alone give birth to the Son of God. And it is this tale of vulnerability that ushers in the Divine presence in human form. It is this Christ, this anointed one, who says “come and follow me.” The One who embodied vulnerability as the gateway to life.

It’s scary writing this blog post. I don’t like being vulnerable. Especially in public. And yet this is part of being alive. Being human. Being created by the Divine.

And so I write. And share. And remember. And pray. And I keep rubbing Arnica in my shoulder, honoring this world of flesh and divinity, strength in vulnerability.

A gift of physical pain can be the reminder of vulnerability. And a gift of vulnerability is being open to others and alive to life. May it be.

Without Exception

“I’m grateful that my car got towed and I’m out $322” was not a phrase I’d expected to say by the end of the day. But God is funny that way.

The sermon that morning was about money, and how uncomfortable we are talking about it—especially in church. One woman shared about her shame around not having enough to care for herself, another man his experience that money is not a thing, but a language. Our preacher brought us back to the table and God’s currency—the bread and wine—that all are called to receive, without exception. She reminded us of the way of communion at the Food Pantry and how we give groceries to all who come, without exception, much to the chagrin of non-profit norms and volunteers who have strong opinions about others worthiness to receive. But at the Food Pantry, and around that same communion table on that on Sunday holds the bread and wine, food is offered to all. Because that’s our best guess at following the way of Jesus.

As the sermon time ended, the words “your ways are not my ways” rang in my ears as we moved towards Communion.

And I remembered Friday. It had been my third week at the Food Pantry, and I had finally allowed myself to receive food. All the volunteers go shopping first, before we open the doors. But for my first two weeks, I had not partaken. I was thrilled to be there giving out the food, but, “No, no, I don’t need to take any.” My internal dialog was filled with stories of how others needed it more, and though yes, I am a grad student living on a frugal budget, I do have enough money to go to Trader Joe’s, and who am I to take food?

But on Friday, I was convicted that if I was going to be part of this community, I needed to receive as well as give. Something happened as I walked around that circle, picking up plums, a watermelon, a beautiful box of strawberries, and four pineapple yogurts. And something happened when I ate one of those yogurts this morning on my way to church and felt the nurturing gratitude that I had breakfast to eat, though I hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store in days. Something similar happened when I walked from the seating area to the communion table. I took that currency that’s beyond the earthly substance, yet embedded in the bread and wine, and received together in community, without exception, something that is so beyond what any of us could earn. The bread of life that comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.

The opportunity to receiving that currency didn’t end there that day.

”Am I going crazy?” I asked, “I parked it here, right?” We walked up and down the block in disbelief and all four agreed, my car that I had hurriedly parked there at 7:00 am as we gathered to carpool to church, was now gone. I didn’t burst into tears; the thought of all that it might mean to deal with having my car stolen sent me into an exhausted frozen fog.

“Really not what I need to deal with right now” I said, and went on to methodically call the police and go through 15 minutes of reporting and being sure my car was stolen. Then the phone rang and the Berkeley police deportment informed me that my car had not been stolen, but had been towed due to “partially blocking a driveway” (an allegation that all four of us felt immediately compelled to question). My relief at the car not being stolen was deep, though brief, as I talked to the towing company and discovered the price tag on getting my car back, and the extra fee for “storage” for the afternoon, as if my car was a studio apartment’s worth of boxes or something.

My friends stood by and swore with me at the appropriate moments, and offered helpful support, and then we all piled back into my friend’s car and drove to the towing facility. I got out and was met by Diego, the towing guy.

His friendly demeanor softened me and I found myself saying, as much for myself as to him, “I won’t take out my frustration on you. I know it’s not your fault.”

He went into the office to run my vehicle registration and my credit card, while I lifted the yellow carbon copy slip from under my windshield wiper. Finding there the added insult to the towing fee—the City of Berkeley wanted their cut of the car capture.

I texted the tidings of this yellow scroll to my friends in the car. Along with insisting that they were going to take me out for food and drinks after my car was released, one, in good theological form, wrote: “If anyone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well—right?” To which I replied, “Do I really have to be a Christian right now too?” And then went on to insist that I was being nice to the towing guy.

But this moment of not yelling at the innocent towing guy was not the extent of what God was working on. Because God’s ways are not our ways. No, an opportunity to follow in the radical way of Christ and community, to be a Christian, would come through a text an hour or so later, with cheese fries in front of me and a frosty glass of cider in my hand.

This text said, “Just heard about your car. Shit. Please let pastoral care fund help you cover the cost. Will give you a check Tuesday. Aaargh.” I read it out-loud to my companions at the table, and started to express a mixture of deep gratitude, while totally brushing off the offer because, of course, “I would figure something out on my own.

And then community happened. Again. Because even if you’ve only known each other for a few weeks, we are called to be the church for one another, and sometimes that means holding up a mirror. I looked and saw my self-reliant, independent, don’t-receive-help-that-you-can’t-repay self looking back at me, and I knew. The call to follow Christ, the call to be human, the call to live in community, isn’t all about the giving. It’s also in the vulnerability of receiving.

Because if all are welcomed, without exception, to the bread of life, and if each one of us is a beloved child of God, worthy to eat that bread and drink that cup, then I can’t always be the one handing it out. Sometimes I have to put out my hands, and receive.


tomales bay

Yesterday I had the delight of being able to say, “this is my second week at the Food Pantry.” The last few weeks have been overflowing with first after first as I get settled into this new home and city, school, internship, and work.  Each first could warrant a post or two in themselves, as each overflow with a wealth of interesting things to reflect on. But rather than just never posting on my blog again, frozen in how many posts I could write, I’ll give you a few glimpses.

sunsetFirst days of getting to know the area:

  • Hiking and walking and running near my home and experiencing the dusty beauty of the trails and the incredible views around the Bay.
  • Discovering that I have some city driving muscles to build and thanking all that is good for google maps GPS on my phone which has been my constant companion in the car and on foot.
  • Wandering around Berkeley and San Francisco and discovering nooks and crannies.
  • Learning the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system and getting on and of the right and wrong trains.
  • Discovering that the gem of the Botanical Gardens within walking distance of home.
  • Enjoying the beach, and the redwoods, and the mountains, and the parks, and the cities.

dancing saints

First days as an intern at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church and The Food Pantry:

  • The honor of working with some seriously stellar human beings on the staff.
  • Serving in the Food Pantry and getting to know a beautifully eclectic community that comes together to feed and be fed every week.
  • Worshiping with dancing saints above and dancing saints around and experiencing embodied liturgy.

First days of school:

  • Now being a distance student at Earlham School of Religion and experiencing the education through the online lens.
  • Being in-person at Swedenborgian House of Studies and soaking up the conversations and joy of the in-person connections.
  • Remembering how much homework comes with classes and wondering where that’s going to fit in my busy year!

First day of work at the Beatitudes Society:

  • Appreciating how this job found me and what a good fit it is.
  • Diving into a crash-course on what the job entails and appreciating the network of people I will be working with.
  • Excitement about being part of an organization that is focused on equipping emerging entrepreneurial faith leaders to create new models for vibrant church life and the pursuit of social justice.


My prayer for this year…that I am able to stay present and engaged in this overflowing bounty and find breath and balance in it all.