Constance Abbey & Cathedral Sprout New Possibilities
In February of 2017, the successful Diocesan aquaponics program was relocated to Constance Abbey, west of the Cathedral in Downtown Memphis. Constance Abbey, a project launched through the Holy Currencies incubation class of 2016, is a gathering place, safe haven, and worship space for neighbors including many of Memphis’ under-housed population. Neighborhood friends of Constance Abbey working with parishioners of St. Mary’s Cathedral gathered to move the Aquaponics farm to the backyard of the Abbey. The idea of relocation was fueled by the hope that if the aquaponics operation was situated in a place where people frequently gathered, then participants would take ownership of the space and land and the farm could be used as not only a way of engaging the neighborhood, but cultivating gifts and skills of the people there.
On May 15, 2017 seven residents of the neighborhood who spend time at Constance Abbey participated in the first aquaponics training session to learn how to raise fish and food. The group toured the facilities, learned how to test for pH and other chemical balances and planted new lettuce plants. It was clear that participants began to take ownership of the aquaponics project.
On the back porch of the Abbey is a large calendar with a dry erase board and a system keeping track of when fish are fed, the levels of nitrates and ammonium in the water, and a board to share news and information about the garden. Now, there are close to 1,000 plants growing in 120 square feet of growing space. While the project is not yet generating income for the community, it is helping to give people in the neighborhood another sense of shared purpose and identity.
Every morning and evening, a small group gathers for the Daily Office, the prayers of the Episcopal Church. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer bookend the day for Constance Abbey, a tradition that is common in traditional monostatic communities. Constance Abbey has four full-time residents who have taken a vow to live and be among the people of the Medical District grounded in prayer and service to people in the margins. The place is a relational incubator connecting the neighborhood community to the Cathedral community. The community and their guests, sometimes up to ten or eleven people, gather to worship and upon leaving prayers, those who worship are invited to feed the fish, test the water levels, and make sure the farm is running. The community is piloting a new kind of urban farm.
The aquaponics project is helping Episcopalians ask the question, “What does a movement from ministry to, to working together look like? Is this a way of evolving in how we understand our Baptismal Covenant?” At the very least, the project is helping the community share a vision and work together. That’s a start at the very least.