By Rebecca Shipman
In June of 2019, Rev. Gary Russell, pastor of Greater Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, was contemplating scripture during devotions when he came to Mark 6:37, in which the people looked to Jesus to feed the hungry, “But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat’”. Jesus looked to the people to give what they had to offer. Pastor Russell recognized that he and his congregation had the resources and they needed to serve their community.
In July of 2019, the last grocery store in Northeast Oklahoma closed. The store closure caused a nine square-mile food desert, which included Greater Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church and the community it serves. With the Lord’s word resonating in his head, Pastor Russell knew what needed to be done: “You give them something to eat”.
The Greater Mt. Pilgrim congregation sprang into action to help serve their community. That very summer, parishioners started a community garden on church property, growing produce for those who could no longer get to markets. After the initial expenses, the garden needed no extra funding. Cared for by churchgoers, the garden is completely self-sustaining.
People within the community are aware of the work being done at Greater Mt. Pilgrim and will stop by to collect a box of food if they need it. Pastor Russell also connected the garden to food pantries serving Northeast Oklahoma in order to spread their mission to as many people as possible.
Pastor Russell and his congregation were not novices in the Green Church revolution. As Oklahoma (both City and state) have historically been agricultural, the congregation was familiar with and accepting of the concept of caring for the land and understood climate change was affecting their lives.
Pastor Russell was influenced early in his career by the words and teachings of the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, founder of Green The Church. In fact, Pastor Russell was with Dr. Carroll when he started Renewal Worship Center Christian Church in Denver, CO. At the time, Renewal Worship Center was one of the first foundationally environmentally friendly “Green” Churches in the country. Pastor Russell was ordained by Carroll Ministries International at that same church where he served as the youth pastor.
Pastor Russell continues to embrace environmental stewardship as he shepherds his congregation, pointing out that the scriptures clearly tell us we need to take care of one another and the rest of God’s creation. Following the leadership of Pastor Russell, Greater Mt. Pilgrim Church takes practical steps such as using energy efficient light bulbs and has gone almost completely paperless.
Greater Mt. Pilgrim Church is in the process of involving young people in their garden. Pastor Russell called on the church’s own youth group and other youth-oriented mission organizations, such as the Scouts of America, to work in the garden and help harvest crops. By inviting outside organizations, Russell explains, “People who may not normally come to church are now being exposed to a religious organization, where environmental justice is not the norm right now, and so they see another expression of God’s love, not just a professed love for people, but also for the earth”.
Aside from volunteers, Greater Mt. Pilgrim Church needs prayer and donations. Donations can come in the form of seeds, tools, gardening tips, and money (cash app: gmpbcok). Pastor Russell encourages the Black Church to discuss Green Theology. Speaking about the logistics of his own community (but applicable on a larger scale) he says, “If there is a church on every corner, and there is a garden on every corner, that just makes the food sovereignty that much more possible”.