Life is full of meaningful symbols. Some are universal among a group of people like the cross for Christians or the star that shone above a Bethlehem stable. Others are unique to individuals like a piece of jewelry or some memento of an event that has meaning far beyond the object itself. Occasionally, a place becomes symbolic like the Notre Dame Cathedral that is precious to an entire nation, continent, and beyond.

For me, these days a significant symbol is a simple garden. It’s not just a miscellaneous garden, although I’m always moved by beautiful plants, especially blooming flowers, or artfully designed outdoor displays. This sacred space is the small, newly created garden of Bethesda.

From the day three years ago when I first toured what is now Bethesda Workshops’ home, I saw the potential. It took some time, tears of frustration, and the patient persistence of our commercial broker (who was freaked out by the tears), yet when it clicked about how the space could be utilized, I was certain the property was right for the ministry. Only one item was missing from the Must Have list the board of directors had compiled a year before: an outdoor green space.

When I saw the original warehouse area and the loading dock with its banged-up, massive metal garage door, I had a foreshadowing flash. Thanks to an eye for possibility — a gift inherited from my father, who loved renovating old houses — I pictured the transformation of the cracked asphalt outside the dock into an inviting garden showcased by a modern, restaurant-style rolling door full of window panes. The process would be the reverse of the song lyrics “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Acquiring and renovating the building, then getting established and settled there, pushed the garden into the background. We had spent our available funds on the building itself, and creating a garden seemed far into the future and even frivolous. (Still, every time I showed someone the building, I described the vision outside the rolling glass door.) Then one morning early last fall, an envelope with an unfamiliar return address was tucked among the junk mail. Inside was a totally unexpected, very large unrestricted donation from a couple who had been through Bethesda Workshops.

Immediately, creating a garden came to mind, but I dismissed the idea as selfishly extravagant and sifted through a list of more practical ministry needs. Ironically, our accountant reminded me of God’s unexpected gifts and assured that all who came to Bethesda Workshops would be blessed by a beautiful garden. Easily persuaded for the good of our workshop participants, I had no idea how much a garden would minister to me.

Like revamping the building, planning an outdoor area also took time and prompted tears as we engaged multiple professionals before someone caught my vision: a simple, open, serene space. (See pictures of the process and a video of the result on our Facebook page.) Piece by piece, the image unfolded with the help of Joe, an amazing landscaper who designed and did the work almost single-handedly. In God’s graceful providence, this man’s story has a surprising connection to Bethesda Workshops’ mission and even to my name. As the weeks passed, it became sweetly clear that creating the garden was healing for Joe as well as for me.

Unexpectedly, I found it was an extraordinarily emotional process that even for a writer is hard to put into words. This space is so much more than a garden! The freshly minted area has come to represent the ministry of Bethesda Workshops, which, in turn, was fashioned by my history of incredible pain, followed by a more incredible redemption. The physical process of creating the garden unearthed beautifully uncanny parallels that repeatedly brought poignant waves of reflection and gratitude.

Marking the space’s dimensions on the cracked asphalt reminded me of the boundaries I had crossed and those I had held. The yellow paint pointed out the safety of living within the bounds and reminded me that stumbles don’t always have to lead to falls. The chunks of pavement and the scream of the jackhammer that carved them represented the 15 years of childhood sexual abuse that spawned nearly an equal number of years struggling with sex and love addiction. I felt the pain of those decades and the surprisingly greater pain at times of recovering from them. The uncluttered canvas of the cleared and swept space felt fresh and ripe with possibilities.

The low retaining wall and tall fence brought gratitude for protection, along with a feeling of strength. Despite the emotional turmoil of a very difficult season of growth this year, I am safe and stronger than ever before. The arborvitaes that encircle the garden nurture me with their flourishing green and remind me that regeneration is ongoing.

The flagstone walkway represents the importance of staying on the path of healing. The pin oak tree in the middle of the garden promises enormous covering, as my master-gardener friend teases that my anchoring selection will one day be hundreds of feet tall with a canopy the size of a basketball court. Well, hallelujah! Who wants a smaller, perhaps more practical cherry or dogwood tree when you can have a majestic pin oak? The symbolism of a mighty oak located at a ministry on Acorn Drive delights me.

The reflecting pool is the garden’s most striking feature. The ministry’s name, of course, comes from the account in John 5 of Jesus’ healing of a man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The passage is stenciled on our blue wall in the main teaching area, and I was certain we wanted a pool in the garden. To contain costs, we repurposed the hefty metal plate embedded in the pavement that at some earlier time could be raised to bridge the gap between the end of a truck and the warehouse entry, and it became the base of the pool. How fitting to use something that was old, broken, and very difficult to remove (weighing over two tons) to form the foundation of a healing pool.

To be sure I liked the plan before starting construction, Joe stacked the wall of stones around the metal plate and built a non-working version of a fountain he had designed with a basin for cascading water. The generosity of effort and spirit touched me deeply, and the result was exactly how I had pictured a water element but could never adequately describe.

Each transformational development brought tears, which initially distressed Joe as much as they did our broker/angel investor. Why would someone cry to see the asphalt chunked up, or the posts set for a fence, or a tree planted, or stones stacked around a dirty metal plate? After I kept insisting they were mostly happy tears, Joe got more used to the reaction, and he started texting things like, “Got something to show ya – bring tissues – ha!” EA, my daughter and the workshop coordinator, or Tania, the financial coordinator, would troop outside with me and tease as I sniffled at the latest reveal.

When the Pool of Bethesda was complete — permanently constructed, lined with smooth river gravel, filled with water, showcasing an amazing fountain, and shining with soft blue lights — I sat down on a bench in the bright afternoon sun and sobbed. I felt a bit ridiculous as Joe, EA, and Tania watched uncomfortably, but I couldn’t stop. It seemed like a lifetime bubbled in the clear water — a lifetime of pain, growth, and redemption that had flowered into a ministry that offers hope and healing to others. My daughter came to sit beside me facing the pool, and I saw the reflection of the generational healing that flows from my children into my grandchildren.

Most times when I’m alone by the pool, I still weep. Its message is as true today as it was for the lame man whom Jesus stopped to help: The Healer is always present and healing is possible.

And the cost for creating the garden I thought we couldn’t afford for years? The all-in amount, including the electrical and plumbing expenses, plus installing a glass door into the space to replace the existing metal warehouse-style one was… (wait for it…) about two hundred dollars less than the amount of the couple’s donation. Wow! God provided for the garden above and beyond what we could ask or imagine in our wildest dreams, the same way God provided the enormous challenge gift that kickstarted the whole process and then an angel investor for the building.

Most nights during workshops I sit in the garden after participants and staff have left and enjoy this oasis planted in the middle of a commercial district. It has all the elements I originally pictured: slender evergreens, flowering plants, an impressive tree, soft ground covering, rocking chairs and teak benches, a glider, a table, and even wind chimes, all protectively encircled by a tall fence with a locking gate. I sip wine from a small paper cup and marvel at the space and all it represents. All that’s lacking is a speaker for the soft jazz I love, yet the silence is beautiful.

In the semi-darkness seated in an Adirondack rocker, I commune in the garden with the God who has faithfully met my needs and those of the ministry I’m blessed to lead. When I see the soft lights in the pool of Bethesda and hear the gurgle of the water basin, most evenings I’m certain I see an angel hovering above it, promising help for all who long to be well, including for me.

Marnie C. Ferree