Envision a church camp and what comes to mind? Creaky bunk beds and food that’s less than stellar? Now picture a nonprofit, faith-based ministry event space and what do you see? A drab church fellowship hall, perhaps?
Head to a retreat at New Water Farms on Lake Martin, and you might be surprised to find something different. Drive down the street to SmoothRock Center in Liberty Park and it’s a similar story. What visitors find instead is purely artisanal. At New Water, it’s lush gardens harvested for farm-to-table dinners and watching glass blowing and woodworking in action. At SmoothRock, it’s farm-fresh salads and salmon burgers dreamed up by Shindigs Food Truck chef Mac Russell and served against a lush wooded backdrop—at your conference, baby shower or lunch with friends.
What ties these two locations together is the same visionary team spearheaded by dermatologist Dr. Chris Harmon, who just so happens to call Liberty Park home. SmoothRock, which opened in March off Liberty Parkway, was to be multi-tenant building for the “healing arts.” What resulted is a sophisticated treehouse of sorts. Dr. Harmon’s practice, Surgical Dermatology Group, is housed on the top floor. Venturing downstairs takes you to a café run by Shindigs Catering, a window into Big Sky Bread Company’s bakery space and an idyllic outdoor patio that begs for the al fresco party of your dreams. Step beyond these culinary spaces, and you’ll find offices for two nonprofits the Chris and his wife, Sandy, have long had ties to: New Water’s retreat and event center, and E3 Medical, a medical missions organization that uses healthcare as an avenue to planting churches.
Although SmoothRock is adjacent to suburban office buildings and strip malls, the building’s setting takes you to a remote-feeling retreat. The center backs up to a vibrant wooded conservation easement with a trickling tributary from the Cahaba River. That backdrop was only part of the inspiration for the space’s name. “It represents the work of the Holy Spirit in your life smoothing out the rough edges,” New Water board member Robert Brandon explains.
For he and the others behind the enterprise, SmoothRock’s setting also signifies the Biblical narrative that starts in the Garden of Eden in Genesis and ends in the Tree of Life in Revelation. In fact, you can find a “tree of life” when you enter the building too: a metal forged tree with 100 glass blown fruit pieces.
In fact, they see the Biblical themes of redemption and gardening as woven throughout the space. “We can plug people in to go on a mission trip or get involved with social justice and things that are near and dear to our hearts,” Robert explains. “We want to champion great causes that are going on around the world that are redemptive in nature.” And at one entrance you’ll find a 2,500-square-foot garden bearing tomatoes, squashes, radishes, beets, carrots, cucumbers and more in its first season. Its fruit then ends up on the menus at the café (and Shindings’ other new venture, Whistling Table in Forest Park) and perhaps on a tray for a baby shower in the conference space.
It all connects with a unique synergy too. The bakery sells to café, and the café is the exclusive caterer for the conference space, which hosts meetings, conferences, birthday parties, rehearsal dinners, you name it. Medical employees and patients venture into the café for breakfast or lunch, and are helping spread the word about its unique offerings the likes of steamed buns and grain bowls to friends and neighbors.
Also at SmoothRock’s heart lies is hospitality in a form Robert explains based on a book called The Celtic Way of Evangelism. In Ireland during the Middle Ages, there were two models of Christian practice. In the monastery model, monks lived and prayed in a structure outside of town, and had little interaction with the village. The Celts were a different story. “They came out and drove their tent pegs in the middle of town and said, ‘Y’all, come on in! Let me teach you how to make a great meal and share it with us. Let’s have conversation,” Robert explains. “That’s what New Water is. That’s what SmoothRock is. We want people to come in and talk and enjoy a meal or work together.””
Which takes us back to New Water. The faith-based event and retreat center on Lake Martin boasts robust farmland whose fruits help fund the ministry (see sidebar for more details). Its jams, honeys, and other food products—which you can find for sale at Pepper Place Market or SmoothRock Center, or online— have come as a result of figuring out what to do with a plethora of crops. Bushes of cucumber begat a pickle recipe, jalapeno peppers gave rise to both blackberry jalapeño jam and salsa. “We hear a lot that it tastes like what their grandmother used to make,” Sandy Harmon says. “That’s why I think people enjoy it so much. It brings back those memories.”
SmoothRock and New Water are both still in startup mode in many ways, but that only drives their visionaries to dream even bigger. Those dreams takes lots of forms too. One is countering to how they see culture segregated, with different bins for work, play, family, recreation. “How can we make those things seamless? That’s our grand mission,” Robert says.
But perhaps even more than that is making relational connections that lead to ideas that grow far beyond their walls. Robert and Sandy envision staff running into Liberty Park residents at SmoothRock, patients asking questions about New Water and E3, and men’s groups or tennis teams meeting up for a meal. In these conversations perhaps an idea pops up for, say, hydroponic gardening. From there that idea could be prototyped at New Water and then launched to Third World counties though missions organizations that train at New Water. “These ideas are birthed here out of relationships, tested and sent out,” Robert summarizes. “That would be a major dream come true.”
On the (New Water) Farm
What to Know About SmoothRock’s Lake Martin Sister
New Water Farms’ story started back in 2011 when a career long missionary with International Mission Board came to Dr. Chris Harmon with a dream for facility to train missionaries. One thing led to another, and soon they had 23 acres on Lake Martin that were formerly home to a camp for adults with mental challenges. With renovations and new building came the evolution of the New Water vision came the creation of a Christian faith-based event and retreat center and working farm that supports the ministry side financially.
Three rows of blackberry bushes became 1.5 acres of blackberry bushes, plus an additional three acres with all kinds of fruit (blueberries, persimmons, figs, muscadines, apples, you name it) and a growing vegetable garden that has given rise to CSA (community supported agriculture) shares and farm-to-table dinners alike.
All the fruit and veggies are harvested by volunteers and Alabama Girls Ranch residents they employ. Add some sugar and hard-earned labor, and the further fruit of their labor becomes jams, cobblers, pickles and all sorts of products Pepper Place Market customers look for each Saturday. Perhaps the most essential ingredients to all things New Water are the volunteers, who bake cobblers, make jams, work the land and staff events—among countless other roles.
Oh, and there’s one more artisanal element. You’ll also find a glass blowing studio, woodworking and blacksmithing on site—all of which can become part of a retreat or conference itinerary along with boat rides and garden exploration.