The young man in the community garden, AJ, has had his share of struggles: with the law, gangs, drugs, homelessness. Squinting into the late-afternoon sunlight filtering through an arbor’s wooden slats, AJ tells a visitor what draws him to this green space. “Before the garden, I was in a real dark place,” he says. “Now whatever I’m going through, I come here and get a kind of peace. When I’m gardening, I’m able to think, refocus. Reboot my mind, you know? It helps me calm down and process everything.”
He shakes his head. “Without this place, I’d probably be locked up somewhere. This place, it saved my life.”
AJ doesn’t know this, but the 62-bed Compton Community Organic Garden saved Fuller alum Deb Walkemeyer’s life, too—as the resolution in a process that started for her more than two decades earlier.
In 1991 Deb [DMin ’14] and her husband, Larry, planted Light and Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California, growing the church over the years into a large, multiethnic urban congregation. Along the way, the Walkemeyers found themselves moving into roles that were distinct but harmonizing: Larry, the charismatic speaker and “activator” of ministries at the church; Deb, the “arranger” who knew how to negotiate details and bring people together to make vision into reality.
The church thrived, generating over a dozen more church plants nationally and several international church networks. Deb thrived as well, supplementing her organizational aptitude with counseling skills from a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fuller. It seemed the perfect scenario.
As time passed, though, Deb began encountering roadblocks that she noticed seemed not to hinder Larry’s life. When she proposed ideas within her denomination for empowering, connecting, and resourcing women ministers in new ways, she felt shut down.
“I kept hearing, ‘We don’t have the money for that,’ or ‘That’s a nice idea; let’s talk,’ and then never getting a follow-up. Or ‘No, we already have programs for women’—but those programs were outdated and not geared to a new generation of diverse women ministers,” Deb says. “These kinds of conversations made me feel like my voice was being minimized.”
Seeking to strengthen and develop her leadership, Deb applied to and was accepted in Fuller’s DMin program. With a gut-level commitment, she dove into her classes in 2005, but conflicting messages she was getting from outside of Fuller about her leadership didn’t resolve. One experience painfully defined her feelings of marginalization, when she was asked to speak at a conference in Pennsylvania where Larry was keynoting. “I prepared a 20-minute message on leadership,” Deb recalls. Then, the night before, the organizer told her that he was only expecting a brief personal reflection from her: “nothing more.” Deb rewrote her talk, discouraged and dispirited.
It was a tipping point when, says Deb, “I wove a story in my mind that went like this: ‘God has gifted me to be a great mom and a supportive wife to Larry, and to help him and others in the denomination be the leaders God has called them to be. That’s it.’” She repeated that story to herself and to others, until it started to sound like the truth.
She pulled away from the leadership development she had been doing at her church. She questioned why she was in the DMin program, where a final project loomed for which she had no ideas and little motivation. “I was in a dark fog,” she says. Friends and family tried to reason with her, but Deb was unable to give them credence, thinking, “They’re just being kind because they love me.” Then Deb learned of a DMin retreat for women leaders led by ministry consultant Sally Morgenthaler. She recruited several of the women in her denomination to go, but, tellingly, didn’t sign up herself. It was Larry who convinced her that she should go, too.
There were only about ten women at the retreat, Deb remembers, and at one point Morgenthaler looked her square in the eye and said, “You think you’re not a leader? Really? Let’s talk about this.” Others at the retreat, too, “called me on the lies I’d been telling myself.”
The fog began to lift slowly. “It took about a year of praying, journaling, crying, reverting, and having to talk myself out of that misguided self-image,” Deb says, until finally, she got to a better place. “Now I’m able to embrace what I’m really good at,” she shares, “which is facilitating other leaders, developing teams, collaborating to get the job done.” She has learned to not compare herself with Larry or anyone else and “to be confident in who I am.”
“There is no one style of leadership,” affirms Kurt Fredrickson, associate dean for Fuller’s DMin program. “Some leaders are up-front personalities; some work behind the scenes. Some are visionary; others do the daily work of making things happen. Ministry leaders need to live out their own style based on who they are.”
Once Deb embraced those truths, the pieces began to fall into place. Having already developed a learning garden at her church, she dreamed of establishing a new garden in a community that deeply needed it. “As I prayed about it,” she says, “it came to me: that’s the final project for my DMin!” Drawing on what she does best, Deb joined forces with ministry partner Bob Combs at Metro Community Development Corporation to secure a vacant lot in a low-income neighborhood, rallied teams of volunteers to develop it—and the Compton Community Organic Garden was born in 2013.
It’s an affirmation of Deb’s leadership that can’t be denied. Her tireless, often behind-the-scenes planning, connecting, negotiating, weathering setbacks, and dogged pursuit transformed a stretch of Long Beach Boulevard known for violence and crime into one known for its organic vegetables.
On one weekday afternoon, AJ and a few of the others join Deb at one of the planting beds for instruction on their carrot and lettuce seeds. “You’re going to just barely pat that dirt down . . . then run your finger along here to make a little trench for the water,” Deb coaxes. “Doesn’t take much.” K-Sone, who lives across the alley behind the garden, has appointed himself “guardian angel,” keeping an eye on things when the gates are closed. DJ, pulling himself out of a life ensnarled by drugs and time spent in prison, has just been invited to a seat on the garden’s managing board. Nancy, who lives next door, volunteers to water, finding it a contemplative escape from her struggles in and out of prison and prostitution. Says K-Sone of the garden: “You walk outside the gates and there’s violence and crime and drug sales, and right inside the gate is peace and serenity. I see people out there on the street and I say come inside here, have a seat with us, come enjoy something that God gave us.”
“Now I know that God has given me my own unique voice,” Deb says. “I tell others who question their leadership: ‘Look at your life, look at the fruit, and let that speak for itself.’”
+ [Above] In the garden, left to right: K-Sone, Lawrence, DJ, and Juan. Watch Deb’s reflections during Fuller’s Commencement 2014. If you want to learn more about Deb’s experience with Fuller’s DMin program, watch their video here. See a television news feature on the community garden here.