Growing season for Toledo area churches

Toledo has taken to urban agriculture

Pastor Julian Davies stands among the vertical veggie plants at the University Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio.
Pastor Julian Davies stands among the vertical veggie plants at the University Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio.

Like many other houses of worship in the Toledo area, the University Church dedicates some of its ground for community gardens.

But there’s much more for this innovative agricultural ministry. The church is nearly a farm, and its community garden director, Bryan Ellis of Toledo, is skilled in urban agriculture.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view

The United Methodist church, at 4747 Hill Ave., has chickens — including Wolfy the Chicken, who has his own Facebook page — turkeys, and honey bees. The church has areas for hydroponic agriculture where containers are stacked to produce five times more food than the area would give if just the ground were used, tower gardening that can produce 65 pounds of potatoes in very little space, and setups where aquaponic growth (a little ecosystem where plant waste feeds fish and the fish waste fertilizes the plants) is under way.

Mr. Ellis, 38, who is in his first growing season as a University Church staff member, had worked for Toledo Botanical Gardens and was associated with Toledo Grows and MultiFaith Grows.

“I thought, wow, it would be great to come here and work at a church because I could say God and stuff like that, and at the same time just start from a blank slate and have a community that’s directly around it,” Mr. Ellis said.

The Rev. Julian Davies, the University Church’s founding pastor, was serving as the pastor in charge at Epworth United Methodist Church in 2006 when his bishop appointed him to plant a new church. A former chemistry professor at the University of Toledo, Pastor Davies’s plan was to start a church at the campus.

The University Church held its first service in fall 2007, and eventually the congregation met weekly on Sunday evenings in rented space in the university’s Driscoll Alumni Center.

“My original vision [for the new church] involved building a coffeehouse that would have looked something like a Panera’s right on the edge of UT’s campus,” Pastor Davies, 57,of Sylvania, said.

That idea received government approvals all the way to final consideration by city council. But after some neighborhood objections, the vote was against development.

Alex Grashel, left, and Tarnez Jones, both 16, plant beans under corn.
Alex Grashel, left, and Tarnez Jones, both 16, plant beans under corn.

“It would have been in a perfect place. We would have had 20,000 young adults right there. And there isn’t, to be honest, a decent place to get a decent cup of coffee on UT’s campus,” Pastor Davies said.

So about two and a half years ago the church moved into the vacant building of the former New Horizons United Methodist Church, an 8.5-acre site on Hill Avenue.

“We decided we would start using [the property] productively,” Pastor Davies said. “We talked to a lot of people in the community, figured out some things that we felt we were equipped to do, and started doing them. We actually committed to four things that we would do, which we put as kind of goal statements, vision statements.”

The church started its community garden because of its first goal, “There will be no hungry people in our neighborhood.”

“We started growing food,” Pastor Davies said. “The very first year we produced about three quarters of a ton of fruits and vegetables that we gave to the food bank, and since then we’ve really grown this program here. I’m hoping that we’ll go from 1,500 pounds to, if the weather’s good, we might make 20,000 pounds this year.”

And besides growing food, they teach people to grow their own.

The church’s second goal “was that all children in our neighborhood would be loved, cared for, and wanted,” Pastor Davies said. The church connected with Reynolds Elementary School and started an after-school program to help with academics, will soon begin a GED program for parents, and has a smaller version of its gardening complex at the school.

The third goal, “We will seek to be a global church,” supports members who partner with organizations to work all over the world, and it also uses the Internet and social media to share its worship services.

“And then the fourth thing that we do is we say we want to provide many opportunities for people to encounter God,” Pastor Davies said. To do that, the church provides workshops, open-microphone entertainment, and other ways for people to be together.

Community garden director Bryan Ellis grows veggies inside the fish house.
Community garden director Bryan Ellis grows veggies inside the fish house.

Pastor Davies’s own church journey is unusual. Raised in England outside the church, he went with his wife to Epworth, “the very first church that we went to” in his wife’s search for a congregation.

“I walked in there essentially an atheist and [years later] walked out as pastor in charge, all in the same church, and from there I moved on to plant this church,” Pastor Davies said.

The University Church is not yet a full-fledged United Methodist congregation. Paperwork for that achievement should be completed by the beginning of 2014, Pastor Davies said. But as it’s growing — it holds two services on Sundays, with 40 to 50 people attending each one — its members are growing families.

“We’re working very hard to establish a very good children/youth ministry,” Paster Davies said. “The next big thing for us has got to be around children and youth.”

The University Church is the next stop on the annual Summer Tours of Houses of Worship sponsored by Toledo Area Ministries. On Tuesday at 11 a.m., a free tour of the building and gardens, lasting about an hour, will be given at the church.

The later stops on the tour, all held Tuesdays at 11 a.m., are Temple Shomer Emunim in Sylvania July 16, Blessed John XXIII in Perrysburg July 23, First Presbyterian Church of Maumee July 30, Queen of Peace Chapel at Lourdes University in Sylvania August 6, and First Church of God in Toledo August 13.

Contact TK Barger @, 419-724-6278 or on Twitter @TK_Barger.