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The Work of Our Hands: The Story of Beechmont Presbyterian Church’s Peace Garden

Lionel Derenoncourt and Marissa I. Galván Valle

Lionel Derenoncourt is originally from Haiti and has served as the regional representative of Church World Service in West Africa (based in Dakar, Senegal), the associate coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and the associate for international hunger concerns in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the PC(USA). He has been a member of Beechmont Presbyterian Church since 1999.

Marissa I. Galván Valle is the pastor of Beechmont Presbyterian Church and the senior editor for Spanish-language resources for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.

Through all the turmoil we had experienced, it became clear to many of us that violence was one of the gravest issues facing our community. Most, if not all, of the members of our congregation and our partner organizations were affected directly or indirectly by violence. The concept of a Peace Garden emerged.

For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
— Isaiah 55:12

us be the

We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. If you yourself are at peace, then there is at least some peace in the world.
—Thomas Merton

The Peace Garden at Beechmont Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, was built during the summer and fall of 2020. This project came about as a result of reflections on our congregation’s various ministries and affirmations of our members’ determination to overcome the daily difficulties that have threatened our existence in recent years. This is a story of the “little church that could,” a congregation with its sights on those that surround it.

We are a small congregation, counting about fifty members, plus several additional participants in our various ministries. A core group of individuals have been members since the 1950s and ’60s, when the congregation was much larger. They have continuously provided an anchor as the congregation has changed over the years. In the 1990s, the church membership became increasingly more diverse with the addition of various clergy and lay people working for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national offices in Louisville and new immigrant members from Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Still, for a long time our congregation remained very small, and we became saddled with the maintenance of a relatively large and underused facility. To make matters worse, a few crises at the beginning of this millennium resulted in the loss of our pastor and a few members as well.

Lionel Derenoncourt in the first stages of the construction process

Fortunately, we were blessed to have among us a few pastors willing to volunteer their services and guide the congregation through this turmoil. Rev. Brad Kent and Rev. Tony Aja provided leadership, assisted by several additional pastors from the congregation. Soon, we reconstituted our financial reserves to a level that was sufficient to cover the cost of a part-time, regular pastor. We strengthened our identity as an intercultural and multiethnic congregation with a very diverse membership, including Latinx, Haitian, and African members in addition to those who had been members for many years. We began to live into our call and identity by offering bilingual worship services in English and Spanish. In the 2010s we launched a conflict management and peacemaking ministry with the South Sudanese community of Louisville, accompanying them in their transition as refugees from a very violent and prolonged war of liberation in their homeland. We organized seminars and cultural activities with South Sudanese youth and assisted parents as they navigated life in the United States. Soon enough, some of our Latinx members needed help in responding to the surge of new immigrants from Central and South America fleeing violence in their respective countries. During that same period, we extended our outreach in the larger community of South Louisville by offering the use of a wing of our facilities to South Louisville Community Ministries, an ecumenical community ministry organization.

Members gather for peacemaking event in the garden.

Through all the turmoil we had experienced, it became clear to many of us that violence was one of the gravest issues facing our community. Most, if not all, of the members of our congregation and our partner organizations were affected directly or indirectly by violence. The concept of a Peace Garden emerged. We hoped the Peace Garden would provide an open and sacred space set apart, yet informal enough to invite relaxation, conversations, meditation, and prayers amid the trauma around us.

Peace Garden “chancel” area, in preparation for a communion service

Lionel Derenoncourt, one of our members from Haiti who retired from service at the national level of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), led the project. He approached the pastor and a few members with the idea and eventually received approval from the session to construct the Peace Garden on the church grounds. At first, members of the project team considered numerous design ideas, from a prayer labyrinth to a prayer garden. As with any project, we discovered constraints. A large, open labyrinth was not feasible because there was not enough space to construct paths of sufficient length. So we opted for a small prayer garden to be located on the side of the sanctuary, a sacred space surrounded by flowers, greenery, and a small water feature that would become an invitation to meditation and the renewal of our souls.

However, questions of funding arose. How could we undertake such a project without financial resources to cover the cost of materials and labor? It seemed a daunting task, but we discovered that our gifts were greater than our challenges. Setting our lack of financial resources aside, we knew that our congregation was rich with talent, energy, generosity, and dedication. In addition, we were well connected to the network of Presbyterian churches and institutions in our area. We approached the PC(USA) national offices for a small grant and received support from our presbytery through Cedar Ridge Camp, which donated the cedar timber and rocks necessary for the project. Volunteers from the congregation helped with the physical labor, working together to construct a space for the community.

In the spring of 2020, Lionel collected cedar timber from the Cedar Ridge Camp and built and installed a portal as an entrance to the garden. Between April and September, he designed and constructed three large cedarwood benches and, together with James Evanston, Daniel Braaksma, and K. T. Ockels, started the landscaping work on the garden. The congregation contributed plants and flowers. Prayer poles, sometimes called peace poles, were a crucial part of the original design envisioned for the garden. Lionel built four of these poles out of cedar trees from the camp and distributed them to be painted by various families and individuals representing different cultural and ethnic groups in the congregation. One of the peace poles has a prayer that says “God, help us to be the church you envision.” One of them has Bible passages that remind visitors about God’s persistence in speaking about peace: “For you shall go out with joy and be led back in peace . . .” (Isa. 55:12). A Mexican family included words attributed to Benito Juárez, a famous Mexican statesman, that say, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (Respect for the rights of others means peace). And another is a reminder to reflect, change, participate, care, respect, heal, and believe. Some of the poles include small bird houses and were completed and mounted on concrete bases to allow for repositioning as appropriate. They stand in the garden as though shepherding the space with the presence of the members of the community and marking it as a space for enacting the realm of God.

Details, prayer poles marking the four corners of the Peace Garden, painted by members of the community

Members adorn the cedar entrance portal to the garden.

On October 24, 2020, the Peace Garden was declared completed. I was the church’s pastor at the time, and on November 8, 2020, I stood and prayed this prayer of dedication and blessing:

We give you thanks, O God, for the nature that surrounds us and for the peace that it provides for all your creatures.

Send your blessing upon us and upon this Peace Garden, which we set apart today to your praise and honor.

Grant that this Peace Garden may always be a place where your will is done, peace is sought, and your name is glorified; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Bless this fountain that reminds us of your sustenance, of how you created order out of chaos, of your covenant with your children and of your baptism. May people who gather here be reminded of your love and your presence. Amen.

Bless these peace poles and their messages, that they might stand as both inspiration and encouragement until their messages become reality. Amen.

Bless these flowers that remind us of God’s creativity and diversity. God is a masterful painter and the colors of nature invite us to celebrate our difference while recognizing that we are all one in Christ.

May this garden grant those who visit a sense of God’s presence, love, power and peace. Amen.

Since its completion, our Peace Garden has hosted numerous events as a gathering place for peacemaking efforts in the community. The garden has been the site of conversations with Nicole George, the council person for our community, and interviews with journalists on critical justice issues in our city, especially conversations around the death of Breonna Taylor by police. The garden has hosted conversations with members of the congregation who have shared their stories with the church family, helping members build relationship and trust as they get to know each other better. Our greatest joy is that our peace garden has become a center of ministry for our congregation, especially with the children and youth attending a ministry called the Learning Hub, which was initiated as a collaboration between Ministerio Presbiteriano Hispano/Latino de Preston Highway (Hispanic/Latino Presbyterian Ministry of Preston Highway), Beechmont Presbyterian Church, and other organizations to help children from Central and South America whose families arrived recently to the Louisville area, mostly as asylum seekers. The Peace Garden is also a place of retreat for meditation and hope for staff taking a break and community folks waiting to receive services from the South Louisville Community Ministries offices.

Birds chirp and fly above in the trees nearby, drink water and take a bath in the small water feature in the middle of the garden. Some of them have now established their home in the bird houses on top of the prayer poles. Butterflies have found a new source of flowers to collect nectar from, and squirrels have been busy digging our flower beds to bury nuts. Life is renewed all around and a place of peace made in the city. Glory be to God for this.

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