Last Tuesday, as neighbors walked by on their way to the polls, four of the beloved birch trees in the Joseph’s House garden were reduced to mulch, their stumps the only reminders of the majestic trees whose leaves had captured the afternoon sun with a particular sparkle.
The day before, we had started construction on our new healing garden after more than two years of design and a long and painful DC permitting process. The pending removal of the trees had been a source of anxiety for months. Just a few days prior we’d held a community ritual to give thanks for the gifts of the trees and to say farewell to the garden itself. We wondered what our garden would feel like without the small grove of birches that had long been its defining feature.
With those emotions on my heart, I was relieved at my reaction to the sight of the cut trees. The scarred landscape was tough to see, but the newfound openness of the garden felt expansive, its brighter light a sign of new possibilities.
Not everyone shared that view. A neighbor who passes frequently stopped to voice her discontent about the trees’ removal and the subsequent loss of habitat for birds. It was not an easy conversation. We understand such devotion to these trees. They were planted early in the life of Joseph’s House. For more than 20 years, they have sheltered deep conversations and moments of personal reflection on the bench in their shadows. The decision to remove them was not one we made lightly.
We envision a garden much like our dining table – with a place for everyone. The garden’s existing design makes it inaccessible for those in wheelchairs and fraught with danger for those using a walker. Having watched too many times as beloved members of our community were stranded on the sidewalk below or the deck above as others of us gathered in the garden, we are determined to create a healing space for everyone. We looked at every possible option for a fully accessible entrance and the only feasible option required the removal of the birches.
The hopefulness I felt leaving the garden the evening after the trees were cut faced a huge test when I awoke the next day, finding an American landscape scarred anew by hate and callousness so deep it threatens the nation itself. The election results pose profound and lasting questions, most of which I am only beginning to acknowledge, but in that moment my focus was much narrower.
Would I be able to concentrate on building this garden, raising the additional funds we need as I watched the nation, and my city, march toward the inauguration of an autocratic bully? Would a now-predicted global recession threaten the very survival of this small community so dependent of the generosity of others?
Despite the fears these questions raised, I found that, somehow, I was in a better, kinder mood than I had been in quite a while. I felt kinship with every person I passed on the street. I sensed connection with those I spoke to in shops, on the phone, across the table. I knew that most everyone in my world was shocked and hurting, more fearful for their future than they had been the day before. Our shared vulnerability was now more tangible than it had been just 24 hours before. And that touched me, deeply.
That evening I attended the Evensong prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, my home church. Beside me, a woman sobbed as we sang “America the Beautiful.” I heard later that tears were common at all three special services that day. Our city is heartbroken.
After the Evensong service, a group of 40 or 50 congregants, clergy, and musicians gathered for an evening of music and conversation. The event was long-planned, without thought to the election, but it turned out to be the balm that many of us needed. At one point, we became a choir singing the Taize chant Jesus Remember Me and we finished our time to together with a rendition of Amazing Grace as moving as any I’ve ever heard.
I walked out of the Cathedral uplifted and found that the spirit continued into the next day. Though I felt waives of despair, my mood was hopeful. Surely part of the reason was the energy of building something new and beautiful, a long held-dream coming to life.
But I also sensed something deeper. Never had I needed my faith – and those with whom I share that faith – more than I had the evening before. And never had I taken more consolation in it. Was this a shaking loose of the Holy Spirit in my heart?
Each morning now, I walk in and around the garden to survey the site and review the progress. I re-read the large signs we posted – banners that feature the words of poets and activists; words that inspire us, words that reflect what matters to us.
On Thursday evening, we added a new sign with Mary Oliver’s When I Am Among the Trees. Just as we finished putting it up, a neighbor – with tears in her eyes – stopped to tell us how much it meant to see these messages posted on her street during this very difficult week.
My colleague Patty and I, standing together, were moved to realize that the garden of which we have dreamed for so long is an agent of healing before it’s even built. Two years of delays have been maddening, but now – as the nation and our city come to terms with a frightening new order – it feels as though our garden is coming to life at just the right moment in time.
Learn more about our healing garden here.