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For Lansdowne pastor, gardening is spiritual

David Braneky is thinning arugula shoots, weeding rows of baby broccoli, and feeling great. Of course, he is. His day-off to-do list is shorter by two tasks, and he gets to watch the miracle of spring unfold, row by row. Those are no small gifts, as every gardener knows.

David Braneky is thinning arugula shoots, weeding rows of baby broccoli, and feeling great. Of course, he is.

His day-off to-do list is shorter by two tasks, and he gets to watch the miracle of spring unfold, row by row. Those are no small gifts, as every gardener knows.

But Braneky, called "Pastor Dave" by his congregation at Lansdowne Baptist Church, experiences something else in the garden, too: a profound connection to the Earth, to his food supply, humanity, and community, and to his God.

"For me, the garden is a spiritual place. It's proof of the power of God and it reconnects us to each other and the land," says Braneky, 34, who folds the garden's lessons - patience, humility, and the seasonal cycles of life and death - into his ministry and worldview.

And sometimes, into his sermons.

In one, he speaks of the garden as a place of grace. "Gardening is my way of immersing myself in God's grace," he says, citing the first warm days of spring, the early growth of kale and collards, the delightful flavor of a ripe cherry tomato.

"It's all part of the natural cycle," Braneky says.

With these beliefs, Braneky "has caught on to something that's really important about how to read the Bible," suggests Norman Wirzba, author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, due out later this spring.

"A lot of people think religion is about disembodied souls, but when you read the Bible, it's about the whole person, whole bodies, and you have to deal with things like food. It's a dangerous thing to think of religion and spirituality as some strictly ethereal realm," says Wirzba, research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

Braneky is no "disembodied soul." Just the opposite. He's firmly rooted in the ground.

He has a community-garden plot at 47th and Spruce Streets, where he grows primarily for himself and his wife of 10 years, Leanne Krueger-Braneky. He also gardens on a small parcel behind their West Philly rowhouse that belongs to another house of worship - the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Mediator - on the corner of 51st and Spruce.

Here, Braneky grows for neighbors, food cupboards, co-ops, and the church whose yard he uses. In 2010, he harvested about 500 pounds of produce, which he hopes to double in 2011.

It's an impressive goal, considering this garden is maybe 450 square feet, barely enough to squeeze in nine raised beds measuring 8-by-4-feet each.

This place is quirky and urban to its core, what with the Market-Frankford El squealing in the distance, the wails of an unhappy infant raining down from an open window somewhere close, and skittish little birds zooming from fence to tree to roof and back again, in endless geometric variation.

Here, Braneky can water and weed and be pleasantly blank - or not. Watching him, you can't tell whether he's zoning out or working through some difficult issue: how to bring change to his congregation, perhaps, or, on a grander scale, how to resolve conflict and promote peace.

Before being "called" to Lansdowne Baptist six years ago, Braneky worked in places as different, and alike, as Harrisburg and South Africa, where all of these themes came into play. He also studied them at Messiah College in Denver, Pa., where he majored in Christian ministries, and at the former Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, where he received a master of divinity degree.

So the church is not an escape from the world, though it could be. Neither is the garden, necessarily, though - Lord knows - it often is.

One thing Braneky's garden is . . . is hard work.

Last year, he single-handedly transformed the harvest, augmented by trips to pick-your-own farms, into "Pastor's Produce" - delectable pies, jams, salsa, and tomato sauce (40 pints!). He learned to cook, preserve, and bake from his mother and grandmother in Massillon, Ohio, where the family had a huge garden for many years.

"He gets so excited. We both do. We celebrate the first tomatoes of the season, the first peas, the first figs, the first blueberries," says Krueger-Braneky, 34, executive director of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, a business-advocacy group.

She shares something else with her husband - a commitment to social-justice issues, including the belief that all people should have convenient access to fresh food.

That is a key goal of the City Harvest Growers Alliance, an urban food-growing program run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. Braneky is in the second year of a three-year commitment to the program.

Last year, in addition to the produce he donated, he raised money for Lansdowne Baptist by selling his homemade preserves and baked goods at the church bazaar and Lansdowne Farmers Market, which is where Peg Ruby met him and divested him of several jars of sauce and jam.

"I am totally addicted to Pastor Dave's tomato sauce and strawberry jam," she declares.

Ruby, of Aldan, Delaware County, likes the sauce on linguine and the jam on crackers, toast, and sandwiches. "I'm counting the days till the farmers market opens for the season," she says. (That would be May 28.)

And what kind of season will it be? That question leads to yet another lesson the garden teaches - relentlessly, sometimes maddeningly - every year: Stuff happens.

The spring's too wet, the summer too dry, or any combination thereof. You can get spammed by fungus or invaded by spoilers named slug and harlequin beetle. Sprouts can shoot up straight and clean, testament to your genius, only to be smothered by ruinous weeds.

There are no guarantees in the garden, no instant lettuce or magic asparagus. As Braneky knows, a garden takes time, a gardener needs patience, and sometimes - no, more than sometimes - justice prevails, and the rewards are very great.

Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at