By Mike Pardee
A multi-faith, highly diverse group of volunteers has been hard at work in April and May on a uniquely exciting art and service project. This motley group of pilgrims is collaborating to install an 11-circuit labyrinth in a prayer garden right in the shadow of Houston’s skyscrapers downtown. They have worked on constructing the labyrinth’s foundations for the past 5 consecutive weekends. In the final 2 weeks of their project (Saturday mornings May 24th and 31st), they plan to finish installing the labyrinth’s serpentine path itself. New volunteers who would like to participate are welcome to join them either day. Their aim is to dedicate the completed labyrinth structure and other enhancements during a closing celebration at 10:00AM on Saturday, June 7th.
Freedmen’s Town (aka the 4th Ward)—where this labyrinth and prayer garden sit—is one of the most endangered National Register Historic Districts of its kind in the US. It is an historic residential neighborhood that was founded and built by previously enslaved families and their descendants immediately after Emancipation in 1865. It’s one of those places where there is a church on virtually every corner. About one-hundred years ago, neighborhood residents founded the Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, located at 1407 Valentine St. Over the long years and decades since then, however, the church building became structurally unsound and was eventually demolished. So all that has endured recently of the Mt. Carmel Church is its Prayer Garden, some flowering plants, and vegetation that congregants had planted to memorialize its members and preserve the site’s sacred character.
Some of the plants have been tended by a group of volunteers called the Texas Rose Rustlers; others were planted there because they are mentioned in the Bible. Since 2008, fences have been donated by Fretz Construction and Linbeck Construction. Only the baptismal font, the bell, and the front steps to the church structure remain, as did many of the original bricks strewn about in piles of debris. So the labyrinth pilgrims are reclaiming those discarded bricks to recycle in order to mark the labyrinth’s path. The volunteers hail from many different faith traditions. Some profess no particular religious faith at all. Three crosses prominently displayed on the property indicate that this is clearly a Christian prayer garden, dedicated to the glory of God worshipped by Mt. Carmel Church members, in particular.
Yet the funding for this grass-roots project came from a diverse array of greater Houston community members. As a matter of fact, the largest donors in terms of money raised were Muslims and Jews! Similarly, the students and adults who have been contributing all the labor come from many different parts of town, and represent several different religious traditions. The biggest thing they share in common is a commitment to improving this once-neglected corner of Houston by sprucing up the Mt. Carmel Prayer Garden in all sorts of ways.
In addition to the herbs and flowering plants that devoted gardeners are tending, the labyrinth will anchor the space as its largest central feature. High school students from the Boniuk Institute’s Sacred Sites Quest have also created and donated four mosaic-tiled benches to frame the four corners of the Prayer Garden plot. Mt. Carmel congregants and 4th Ward neighbors have raved about the “amazing generosity and dedication” of the labyrinth donors and several-dozen volunteer workers thus far. But the project isn’t even quite finished yet. So feel free to drop by 1407 Valentine St. either to participate or witness their progress on any of the next 3 Saturday mornings: May 24th, 31st, or June 7th!
Mike Pardee is the Associate Director for Community Engagement at the Boniuk Institute at Rice University. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.