Westchester church is adding an outdoor public bread oven to its well-established community garden

By Bonnie Eslinger

A section of Holy Nativity’s community garden Photo by Bonnie Eslinger

A section of Holy Nativity’s community garden
Photo by Bonnie Eslinger

Seven years ago, parishioners at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in Westchester ripped out a portion of the church’s manicured lawn and planted a community garden — a public green space that each year yields several hundred pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables that are shared with hungry families through the LAX Food Pantry.

They’ll soon bring freshly baked bread to the table.

A coalition of church members, neighbors and local bread bakers broke ground in April on an outdoor clay bread oven behind the church that will be available for public use. Plans for the seven-foot diameter cob structure also include nearby seating to encourage people to gather in the area while bread and wood-fired pizzas are baked.

Cob structures are built from earth mixed with materials such as sand and straw. The word “cob” comes from an Old English root meaning “a lump or rounded mass,” and the construction technique is similar to that of adobe structures.

Holy Nativity pastor Peter Rood calls the oven a “natural progression” of the garden, which has increasingly become a place for locals to congregate.

“We’ve created this place, a remarkable place of belonging and sharing,” said Rood. “The idea of having us gathering together around that oven and sharing a meal and conversation is quite compelling.”

Spearheading the project is an adjunct group of the church called the Environmental Change-Makers.  A group of amateur artisan bread bakers is also involved.

“It’s a really sweet thing,” said L.A. Bread Bakers organizer Eric Knutzen. “I’m really excited about this.”

The oven should be ready for its first firing in mid-July, said Joanne Poyourow, a cofounder of Environmental Change-Makers along with Rood. The group will also train and appoint “oven masters” to oversee use of the wood-burning appliance.

“Any group can use the oven, they just have to make a reservation and ask one of the masters to come and supervise,” Poyourow said.

The Holy Nativity oven project is being funded through about $2,000 in donations and the sweat equity of volunteers, according to Poyourow.

The garden is hosting a free adobe brick-making workshop on Saturday for anyone who is willing to get their hands dirty for the project.

“These will be the bricks that will form the base of the cob oven,” Poyourow said.

There’s also a four-day class scheduled for June in which participants will pay $175 to $200 to build the earthen oven and learn how to make their own in the process.

“A lot of this is a project in creative financing,” said Poyourow.  “But this is for a community-scale oven that will be able to hold up to 10 loaves of bread.”

Although produce from the church’s garden is currently distributed through the local food pantry, there is no immediate plan to use the oven for large-scale baking.

The Bible puts plenty of significance on bread — Jesus calls himself the “living bread” in John 6:51. But Rood steers clear of putting a religious spin on the oven project to ensure that the community at large feels welcome to use it, as they do with the garden and other church offerings such as yoga classes.

“I want to be sensitive,” Rood said. “One of the things that Jesus did when he brought people together is offer food, but the danger in using that language is it makes it seem exclusive.”

Poyourow imagines the oven being fired up about once a week for events such as a pizza party for the Girl Scout troop that meets in Holy Nativity’s community room.

“Bread is something that people gather around,” she said. “If you have a feast, you have bread.”

The free brick-making workshop is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday behind Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, 6700 W. 83rd St., Westchester. Call (310) 670-4777 or visit holynativityparish.org.