Around the Network: Deep listening in Topeka

When Reverend Jenn Allen began working with the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, she determined that the largest impact she could have on her community was to simply listen.

For her, real impact takes shape through the creation of Bethany House and Garden, a three-acre space on the church campus. Once the College of the Sisters of Bethany, an Episcopal school for girls, the site is now home to the bishop’s offices and an established partnership with Agatha Amani House, a shelter in Kenya for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. 

Reverend Jenn Allen

Situated just blocks from the State Capitol and behind Topeka High School, the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas serves as a social hub for the surrounding community. The largely residential area is quite diverse, a bustling neighborhood in central Topeka — and like any city, is faced with its fair share of socioeconomic disparities. Like many communities facing these challenges, this community is starkly lacking public green space. 

Neighbors have expressed to Jenn just how much it would mean to have a place to walk, to sit, to breathe. A place to feel welcome without the fear of being shooed away. A permanent fixture in the community for anyone and everyone — and Jenn listened. 

Along with the Rt. Rev. Cathleen Bascom, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, Jenn reached out to Nature Sacred last year with a keen interest in learning best practices and engagement tools from other green space stewards across the country. 

Jenn describes her vision;

“I want people to experience the wholeness of themselves in nature”. 

When a community connects with Nature Sacred, we aim to amplify the all too often underheard voices of those we serve. During the charrette process, Jenn ensured that typically quiet voices were amplified, and heard loud and clear. 

Scott Bingham (BBN Architects) and Ann Palmer (Designscapes), both Topeka-based landscape architects, were the designers for this project. Nature Sacred supported their work by connecting them with one of our Design Advisors, Jay Graham. Alongside Jay, they collaborated to guide Bethany House through the Nature Sacred design process with guiding tenets and features of a Sacred Place. Scott and Ann were able to integrate community feedback with key elements of Nature Sacred’s community-led process into their connections with the Bethany House Community. For a landscape architect or designer, the ability to draw inspiration from someone enmeshed in the community, someone with intimate knowledge of its story, history, culture and unique challenges – is invaluable to their design. This project was fortunate to include the ideas of the community at large, with the guidance of local landscape architects, Scott and Ann. 

The garden will feature a long, winding path for visitors to stroll.

Lined with tall, swaying grasses, this path will create a “sense of moving and a sense of arriving, wandering where your heart draws you”. 

The space will also include the Nature Sacred bench, alongside additional, undivided benches that will allow people to rest if they need. A meditation garden will provide a space for visitors to escape the city bustle and security lights will be installed, to maintain visibility and safety of visitors.

Visitors gather for the Fall Festival at Bethany House

Further building upon community feedback, the new Sacred Place will also include a culinary garden, cared for by church interns. In partnership with a local youth culinary program, cooking classes will be offered to the community as well. Portions of the produce will also be donated to the community and local food pantry.

Through Jenn’s hard work and passion, Bethany House is primed to be all that she and her community foresaw, and more. 

Night of Remembrance at Bethany House

As a Firesoul, Jenn is now part of the Nature Sacred Firesoul Network – which exists to cultivate collaboration and alliance between Firesouls across cities and states. Through education sessions, inspirational speakers, career development tools, and virtual and in-person gatherings, Firesouls are able to share, learn and grow from each other.  

In fact, Jenn has already made connections with other Nature Sacred Firesouls, including Phebe McPherson, of Epiphany Chapel in Odenton, MD, and Steve Coleman of Washington Parks and People, who shared with her during the design process the importance of cultivating the vision of, “elders who remember and children who dream.” 

Steve also recommended community activities and programs to continue to cultivate community interest in the project between design and the grand opening. Jenn was able to harness these ideas and host a Fall Festival and Night of Remembrance on site.

The groundbreaking, or ‘groundblessing’, of the Sacred Place at Bethany House and Gardens  is scheduled for early April of this year, with the larger grand opening celebration planned for the fall.