Joe Bollinger grows fruits, vegetables and sunflowers in his plot at the Cru® World Headquarters community garden. He loves spending early morning hours in the garden, taking care of his own plot as well as handling upkeep and organization for the whole garden community.

Loving Thy Neighbor With a Harvest


Hector Gonzalez steps out to the garden nestled alongside his house to show his friend Joe Bollinger what’s growing in the Florida heat this summer afternoon. Hector’s garden, enclosed on the side by a wooden fence, holds two rows of flourishing greens and other plants living in rectangular boxes. After finishing an online Bible study with Joe, Hector holds his phone up to potatoes and the little tomatoes he grew from seeds.

“What do I do now?” Hector asks Joe.

Hector caught Joe’s passion for gardening. Joe loves agriculture and nature, and his interest led Hector to embark on his own horticultural adventures. Gardening is now part of their friendship, as is learning from Scripture together in Bible studies and conversations. Hector and Joe both want to grow in their relationships with Jesus.

“Like everything in life, whether it’s with gardening or your relationship with Christ, you have to take the time and effort to take care of it,” Hector says.

Joe has shared his gardening zeal with not only Hector but also with his neighbors and Orlando city residents. Joe, a missionary with Cru®, manages the community garden at Cru’s World Headquarters at Lake Hart. The garden provides staff members who serve there the opportunity to cultivate their own plots of fruits and vegetables in a half-acre sanctuary outside the walls of their offices.

Joe harvests long beans hanging from a fence.

After Joe harvests such produce as lettuce, peppers or spinach, he and his wife, Keijo, give away the abundance to others, using the garden to fuel their ministry with Cru City. Joe and Keijo meet people who might not enter the doors of a church, and Joe calls it the “ministry of availability.” They open their home and schedules to pray, share the good news of Jesus and spiritually mentor people in their city.

Joe and fellow Lake Hart community gardeners develop natural relationships with others as crops of fruits and vegetables supply opportunities for mutual sharing. God uses bridges of human experience like gardening to bring people together and to help them take steps toward Him.

Fresh-picked black-eyed peas, also known as southern peas, appear ripe for eating.

From a plot of land to a front door

Each morning, Joe tends to the garden when nature begins to awaken from its quiet slumber before sunrise. Birds chirp in high-noted squawks and frogs croak melodically as he works among lush green leaves and tangling vines. Sunflowers shoot up out of tall stalks, and bees feast on their nectar. Joe spreads mulch, shovels compost and plants edible cacti, nurturing the plants with a watchful eye. On a warm July day, the earth bears papayas, watermelon, sweet potatoes, okra, red peppers and herbs that thrive in the moist heat.

Skinny lemongrass leaves thrive in bushes that shoot out of the garden’s soil like fireworks.

Joe bundles lemongrass to create a citrusy tea. He boils a gallon of water with one bundle of the plant, and once the lemongrass scent is strong, the tea is ready.

Joe studied landscape contracting in college, and he has loved gardening ever since his childhood days of watching his grandparents plant in the fertile soil of Pennsylvania Amish country. Seeds sprouted and flourished there every season like magic. His curiosity for plants grew, leading to one day when Debbie Barron, a co-worker at Cru, asked Joe if he had considered attaining a plot at the community garden.

“It seems like with your passions and your background, it would be a good fit,” Debbie said.

An okra plant flourishes in Joe’s plot. A seed pod develops after the flower is pollinated.

A heavy watermelon peeks out from vines and leaves in the garden. Watermelons thrive in the summer and need regular watering to bear more fruit. Florida is the only state in the country that produces watermelon from December to April.

Joe and Keijo had four children in four years, and they cared for their growing family in the hours of changing diapers and the sleep deprivation. But when their youngest child turned 1, Joe felt like he could begin gardening and also give something back to others. Later, when their kids began public school, Keijo noticed opportunities to connect with parents and families in the city.

“It all mixed into this invitation to engage in community ministry that we were able to step into,” Keijo said.

Now, Joe and Keijo’s family shares most of what Joe grows in the garden, carrying bundles of produce to the doors of neighbors’ homes.

Fresh mint leaves effuse a refreshing scent.

Joe harvests okra to take to his neighbors.

“Hey, I help manage a community garden here in town and we have more lettuce than we can use,” Joe says, standing outside a neighbor’s door. “Do you want some? It’s free. I just don’t want to throw it away. I grew it.”

Joe carries Ziploc bags full of fresh beans, peppers, okra and leafy greens to his neighbors in Southeast Orlando.

Joe places a vegetable-filled bag next to his neighbor’s front door and rings the doorbell. For safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, he leaves them outside.

Neighbors respond with gratitude and warmth, some asking, “Are you sure I can have this?”

Joe picks a new baggie of fruit and vegetable gifts.

They receive the fruits of Joe’s labors, recognizing them as an overflow of his passion. Some neighbors appreciate the vegetables and the chance to stay home instead of venturing to the store during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe grabs produce out of a tote bag to take to a neighbor’s door.

One neighbor treasures the vegetables because they help her stick to the vegan diet she began with chemotherapy.

Jessica Vasquez, Joe and Keijo’s neighbor, happens to be home to receive the gift from Joe, donning her mask to talk for a bit.

Jessica and Joe celebrate, as Jessica was finishing chemotherapy within the week.

But beyond stocking their fridge with some free groceries, Joe and his neighbors connect on a personal level and start conversations. This helps cultivate fertile soil in them getting to know each other.

Community starts with conversation

The neighbors live their day-to-day lives recognizing each other and remembering names. On a morning walk while he talks on the phone, Joe runs into a neighbor who has become a close friend. His voice raises in volume and pure joy as he shouts, “Heeey!” and they chat just for a moment.

Gerel Guman sees Joe upon picking up the pleasant delivery of vegetables outside his door.

As Joe talks with neighbors, he notices the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives, catching comments related to spirituality and asking questions. He asks to talk more with them about deeper life and faith topics, and his schedule fills with phone calls, Zoom meetings, texts and Facebook messages that open up opportunities for the gospel. These interactions and chances for ministry often bloom from the first connections that Joe makes as a result of gardening.

Joe and Gerel chat as they maintain social distance.

Joe also invited six of his neighbors and friends who moved out of his neighborhood to a Discovery Bible study, a method of Scriptural learning that is especially geared toward people who are willing to explore the Bible to learn about God. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings at 6 a.m., Joe and Keijo have met online with three men at different points in their faith journeys.

“There are people who truly want to know God, so when we find them, we connect over a mutual sense of discovering God through prayer and living it out, through practicing what we’re learning.”

Joe Bollinger

Joe finds joy in conversations with his neighbors during deliveries.

Through meeting people in an uncontrived way, Joe says he feels seen.

“Good morning! Oh, that dog is beautiful!” he calls out to another neighbor.

“[Being known is] such a gift, to break through and have a conversation when we live in a place where everyone’s ducking into their garage doors as they close behind them or watching Netflix for five hours,” Joe says.

In a 2018 study from Barna Group, 29% of non-Christian adults who participated said they would be open to talking to a Christian who demonstrates interest in their life or story, but only 17% of them personally know Christians who do so. A majority of those surveyed said they would interact with Christians who listen without judgment, but only one-third of those individuals know people they would describe in this way.

“Christians’ ability to witness for Christ may be impeded by the simple fact that they don’t have meaningful relational connections with non-Christians, or the conversational skills necessary to talk meaningfully about faith.”

Reviving Evangelism, Barna Group (2019)

Myron McGhee, Joe’s neighbor who lives across the street, loved the collard greens Joe brought to his home. He says he feels a sense of community and caring among the people who live near him, and it makes him want to reciprocate.

Joe talks with Myron McGhee outside his home as he holds a bundle of vegetables and a melon. Myron also stops by Joe and Keijo’s home with gifts from time to time.

Myron calls these visits with Joe “everyday acts of kindness.”

Myron views initial connections that form through gardening or his personal love for music as important, rather than thinking about an objective.

“I’ve learned that it’s not the ministry first, it’s humanity first,” Myron says, picking up on a theological concept called the Imago Dei, which describes how humankind is made in the image of God. Myron continues, “If I can’t connect with someone on the basis of my and their humanity, then I tend to falter on the rest; there’s nothing really to build on.”

Growing relationships that multiply

Melinda Horsey serves at Cru’s world headquarters and has brought bouquets of greens to co-workers’ desks after spending her lunch hour in the community garden, knowing they’ll appreciate kale or collard greens. She has seen surface connections and deeper relationships grow as a result of time in the garden.

Bees taste the nectar of a golden sunflower.

Melinda approaches the garden as an art installation to create and sculpt rather than a well-oiled machine. Gardeners have different ways of viewing their plots, which are marked by signs with their names and email addresses. But they interact as they find commonalities with each other.

They praise one another without judgment, and Melinda particularly sees this on social media. Vibrant red and green hues color the snapshots of plants and flowers on Melinda’s Instagram account. She shares her passion online with people that she wouldn’t have otherwise met.

Melinda has also found a new way to connect deeply with her sister-in-law, who caught “the gardening bug,” as she calls it, a few years ago. They find it easy to talk for hours about their shared hobby and show a fun interest in each other’s lives.

Joe Bollinger provides a special peek around his garden plots at Cru’s world headquarters.

The community garden’s Facebook group also draws people together, and Joe connects with Orlando residents over his gardening videos or by answering questions online in other groups as well.

Outside of his neighborhood, Joe helped a local men’s homeless shelter start a community garden, and he brought produce from the garden at Cru to the shelter’s kitchen. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he personally delivered fresh fruits and vegetables once a week. Now, the shelter grows its own food and gives it to a safe home for women and children, as well as a community farmer’s market.

Just as the homeless shelter has taken the initiative to care for people’s physical and spiritual needs through the simple means of a garden, Joe says people can show the love of Jesus in the places where they live.

“Wherever we are, wherever we have a presence, those are the places that are part of our community.”

Joe Bollinger

Joe packs bags full of vegetables and writes his and his wife’s names on the outside.

Joe walks away from another neighbor’s door after dropping off bags.

Keijo sees neighbors from a distance on walks and prays with friends on the phone when Joe gets home from mornings at the garden. Unfortunately, conversations with other parents no longer happen while their kids hop on the school bus.

But in the midst of the pandemic, God continues to bring opportunities for relationships.

Keijo says she interacts with teachers more than ever before. Now, Keijo helps her children grow, guiding their learning through a virtual school’s full-time program as their family adjusts to a new schedule. Gatherings like Joe and Keijo’s morning Bible study or ministry trainings still take place online.

An outlook of expansion

As Joe serves inside and outside the garden, he envisions more. Joe put together a proposal to triple the size of the garden, adding more plots, an area for fruit trees and a larger space for gardening specifically to support the Cru City ministry. This would allow more people to receive the produce and enable others to join Joe in his efforts at the garden. Joe has taken harvests to his church, and with a larger space, people who have offered to help there could take part in serving as well.

“I think the heart of it is... facilitating the coming together of people,” Joe says.

Investing in relationships with community members full time does not look how Joe and Keijo envisioned when they first jumped in before COVID-19. It doesn’t occur at charming backyard parties where people dine under the glow of neatly strung twinkle lights, Joe says. Instead, it happens in everyday moments of planting seeds, making friends and seeing God bring life.

Joe’s hat hangs near a sunflower during his daily visit to the community garden.

Reach Out

If you would like to discover more about helping others near you know and follow Jesus, visit Cru City’s ministry page.

Steps Toward Growth

Want to learn how you can encourage people in taking the next step toward Christ?

Rachel Streich
Words by

Rachel Streich

Rachel serves as a journalist with Cru®. She grew up in Minnesota, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with a degree in journalism in 2014, and has since lived across the country and overseas. She loves sharing real-life stories.

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Guy Gerrard
Words by

Guy Gerrard

Guy isn’t much of a city person. Paddling down the Wda river in northern Poland with participants of a Cru® summer mission project describes a great place for him to photograph. He likes being outside, doing anything with water, and he enjoys making things with his hands. Guy serves as a photographer for Cru.

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Read more from the September 2020 issue


Summer Missions Went Virtual

This year, Cru® summer missions continued pursuing evangelism, discipleship, fellowship and community, but with a heightened online focus.

September 2020

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