Five years ago, on Christmas Eve, I got an extraordinary Christmas present when I moved house. While I like the two-bedroom unit I share with a friend, it’s not the bricks and mortar that I consider special – it is the bountiful life I get to experience and share in its garden.
I have always wanted a large garden, where flowers and fruit trees, herbs and veggies could all flourish while providing nectar for bees, produce to eat and beauty to behold. But after over a decade of share-house hopping, it didn’t seem that I would ever be able to find such a space.
That is, until I stumbled upon my Christmas gift.
My unit is one of eight, set along a common driveway. It was built in the late 1960s when the suburbs took over from the existing apple orchards in the area. Perhaps this is why the planners decided to dedicate one side of the driveway to a wide, common property garden and the other to smaller garden beds dotted around each front entrance.
Needless to say, I have embraced the garden on both sides and it has given me an opportunity I didn’t expect.
One of the benefits of gardening in my driveway is the attention it receives from my unit neighbours. As they come and go during the day they stop, look around and chat. Many of my neighbours are new migrants, who are cautious about Australians, as they have heard we can be rude or aloof. But the garden helps break down these walls. As we share its produce and appreciate its natural beauty together, I’ve been surprised at our mutual desire to share our lives.
A year after I moved in, so did Amina* and her family, recently arrived from the Gulf. She loved the new leaves on the lemon tree and asked to use a few for her tea, later bringing us a plate of food native to her homeland. My housemate, a high-school teacher, offered homework help to Amina’s teenage daughter, and within a few days, a lasting friendship was born.
In December, I decided to decorate for Christmas and asked my Dad to help me build a manger to place amongst the flowers. Amina was confused and stopped one day to ask me what this new addition to the garden could be. As best I could, I explained about Jesus – who she knows as Isa – and the Christmas story she has never heard.
Later, Liz moves into the neighbourhood. We connect one day while I’m watering the garden. Through broken English, she shares about feeling stuck working for a company with unethical practices. Concerned, I offer to pray with her, and a few weeks later, am delighted to hear that answered prayer in the form of a new job. This prompts her to talk with Asian friends to find out more about Jesus in her own language. Since then, Liz has decided to accept Jesus as her Saviour.
Another Christmas rolls around, and my housemate and I offer to host a celebration for the neighbours in the back courtyard. The new espaliered citrus trees and hanging pot garden offer a colourful and scented backdrop for the get-together, where a community spirit seems to grow before our eyes. Albert, a neighbour who often stays isolated inside due to health, joins in and offers to share some new seedlings for the garden.
Before the next Christmas arrives, the property adjoining the common property garden is being re-developed, creating the need for large-scale pruning before a new fence is installed. A date is set for a neighbourhood working bee, but just before it arrives I have an accident and find myself on crutches. Some church friends spring into action and join with my neighbours to get the job done, as I sit on my front steps and watch. My neighbours are curious and touched by my friends’ desire to help out. Again, I marvel at how Jesus is using the garden for his purposes.
John 1:14 reminds us that Christmas marks the time when ‘the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.’
Never could I have imagined what the true gift of a garden would turn out to be. It is now a daily demonstration to me of the profound truth that Jesus moved into the neighbourhood in order to bring us life and life to the full. A neighbourhood garden is a place where we can be nourished by what it grows. A place where the burden of stress and anxiety can be lifted as we marvel at its natural beauty. A place to build connection and community and a place to witness to the giver of life, the ultimate Kingdom Gardener.
Jane is Personnel Director at Interserve Australia.
*Name has been changed.