OREM — As Orem Community Church moderator Don Pendergrass pushes around a garden spreader on a plot of land just north of the church Monday night, he gestures towards groups of families showing up wearing work gloves and old clothes.
"The real story is about them," Pendergrass says. "Without them, this wouldn't be a reality."
Hearing what Pendergrass has said, Bishop David Cottrell of the Orem Stonewood 4th Ward gently disagrees.
"I wouldn't say that, Don," Cottrell counters. "We're just grateful to be here to help out."
Despite the difference of opinion on who's behind the project, inexperienced-yet-willing workers from multiple religious congregations in the area get on hands and knees and work together on this seemingly unnoticed plot of land. After the Community Church decided a couple years ago to make use of this half-acre plot behind the church as a means to grow food to donate to needy people in the area, professed followers of Jesus Christ of multiple faiths decided to put their faith into action.
"We wanted to do something with this that could benefit the community at large," Pendergrass says. "Only with our older congregation, it became a project that was a little too big for us to handle by ourselves."
With the help of other congregations in the area, including the Orem Stonewood 4th Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, the Assemblies of God, and a Korean denomination that shares the Community Church's chapel, the interfaith effort has turned out to be fruitful. Last year the half-acre plot produced two tons of donations to the Food and Care Coalition. After expanding the plot, the churches hope to donate four tons after this year's harvest.
Pendergrass attributes the production to remarkable individual efforts and God's good grace.
"One of our church members, Tino Olivera, suggested that we turn the property into a garden that could provide food for the needy in the community," Pendergrass says. "He grew up in poverty in southern Mexico and knew firsthand the need for something like this. Despite him working two eight-hour jobs a day, I can barely keep up with him in the work he does out here."
However, early on, despite the work of Olivera and others in the congregation, the church soon saw that a project of this magnitude was something they couldn't handle on their own. Last summer, weeds began to take control of the garden, and Don's daughter Sherry Pendergrass put out a call for help in local newspapers.
At the same time, Orem 4th Ward Relief Society President Tammy Stephan was looking for a service project in which her ward could participate to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the LDS Church's welfare program. Stephan suggested to then-Bishop Jim Hawkes that a project like this might be a perfect fit.
Stephan says that little experience taught her God hears all prayers.
"Sherry was working and praying for some way to get help," Stephan says. "At the same time we were praying to find something to do that would be meaningful. Both prayers were answered. She felt impressed to put that article in the newspaper and we found it."
Hawkes contacted Don Pendergrass and suggested he could get some of his congregation to help with the weed pulling. To Pendergrass' surprise, 40 members of the LDS congregation showed the first day to help out.
"It was truly a God-like interfaith activity that utilized the true concept of people helping people," Pendergrass says. "The sun shone a little brighter that day."
The two congregations teamed up a few more times that summer to help maintain the garden, leading to the two tons of donations. Olivera says the production surprised him as much as it surprised the folks at the donation center.
"It makes me feel really good, especially when I get to keep going back to the food bank with more," Olivera says. "Every time they see me, they're like 'Oh, its you again!'"
As much as the project is having an effect on the lives of others, the congregations point to how the effort is affecting those involved in the venture itself. The Community Church held a spaghetti dinner to thank all those who participated in the project, with more than 100 members of both churches in attendance. Stephan then invited the Community Church members to the ward's Christmas party and gave them a spot on the program.
"Our interfaith camaraderie took another giant leap forward," Pendergrass says.
Bishop Cottrell says his congregation is better for having been part of it.
"It's been an opportunity for them to get to know people of other faiths, and work together with people of other faiths and find common ground ?— trying to do good in the world," Cottrell says. "It's an opportunity that we don't have here as much as we might have in other locations in the country — to work together with other faiths."
George Lower, pastor of the Orem Community Church, says working with the different congregations has shown him that they really aren't all that different.
"The bottom line is we have some things that are in common, our ministry areas are in common," Lower says. "We care for people, we love our neighbors. We all believe that and we work on what we believe together."
With the church extending the half-acre plot this year and looking to double its production for the upcoming harvest, it is always looking for more people to help out. The next workday in the garden is May 14 and the church invites anyone who would like to participate to come out and join in the service.
Pendergrass says that with all the polarizing talk involving religion nowadays, things like this sometimes get thrown by the wayside.
"Sometimes I think we forget what religion is about," Don says, gesturing towards the volunteers. "This is what it should be about."