A community of fellowship
When I envision an abbey, I picture nuns walking single file through ancient religious buildings. So when a friend suggested I visit a garden called Okra Abbey I was curious what I would discover. Not surprisingly I didn’t encounter any nuns, but I did immediately sense I’d entered a special, sacred space.
I arrived a little past noon at the indiscreet but tidy, colorful garden at the corner of Eagle and Hickory Streets for Okra Abbey’s “Grace and Greens,” a free hot lunch and outreach program. Long picnic tables situated in the middle of the garden were filled with people sitting side-by-side listening intently to a young woman. Realizing she was giving a blessing I slipped into an available seat and was overcome by tantalizing smells wafting from containers of food placed along the tables courtesy of nearby restaurant Carrollton Market, who prepares Okra Abbey’s vegetables in addition to donating other dishes. The diverse crowd in ages and races exclaimed an enthusiastic “Amen” at the blessing’s end and began eating and chatting like family. Warmly greeted by all those around me, I quickly understood that Okra Abbey is more than a garden or a meal, it’s a community of fellowship where all are welcome.
The woman giving the blessing turned out to be Organizing Pastor and Executive Director Hannah Quick who, along with additional staff members and volunteers, kindly gave me an overview of the history, mission and current work of Okra Abbey.
Built in 2012 on the school playground, the Presbytery of South Louisiana and the Revs. Layne and Crawford Brubaker revitalized the garden in 2016 renaming it Okra Abbey. Through a combination of seed funding from the Presbyterian Church USA and the Presbytery of South Louisiana, gardening supplies from Parkway Partners, young adult and community volunteers and support from local Presbyterian congregations, Okra Abbey fulfills its mission to offer a safe, enjoyable space where all people can “grow in friendship and faith alongside one another as we share stories and food – pray, play and garden together – learning to use the food we grow to provide care for our local community – especially those in need.”
The staff, young adults, and community volunteers work together to maintain and harvest the vegetables grown in the raised garden beds used for the weekly “Grace and Greens” lunch and the “Peas and Love” program, a biweekly vegetable delivery to homebound community members.
Why the name “Okra?” We know okra is used in many traditional Louisiana recipes but it’s probably most commonly found in gumbo. Hannah explained “Okra” was added to the garden’s name because gumbo is “a dish that cuts across boundaries of race and class as it’s enjoyed by folks of all walks of life throughout the city,” just as the Okra Abbey garden is accessible and enjoyed by many. Hearing by word of mouth and coming from around the city, visitors to Okra Abbey may come for one need but discover their visit can lead to additional assistance, pastoral care or merely a safe environment to relax. Dwight, one of the long-time neighborhood volunteers shared his affection for Okra Abbey, “I have peace of mind in the garden and nothing to worry about. It’s a peaceful spot where I can get away from everything and make friends.” Unique unto itself, Okra Abbey is providing the New Orleans community with much needed nourishment, for the body and the soul.
A little more …