Elaine Thompson strides into Riverside Church like she owns the place. The 73-year-old greets every person there, from the security guards to the reverends. When she’s told the main chapel’s closed for an event, she pays no heed and cajoles her way in. She’s been a parishioner at the church for nearly a decade, but she’s got another title on her resume. She’s the unofficial head gardener.
She’s a constant presence at the church. Without fail, she’s there every Saturday and Sunday, attending services and cultivating the garden that she brought to life two years ago.
It’s late summer and the garden is a blaze of color, blending in with the blue tinted rinse in Thompson’s white hair. There are hydrangeas, lilacs, lilies, tulips, hyacinth, all diligently cared for by Thompson.
This plot, roughly the size of a basketball court, now filled with blooming flowers was once a barren landscape of weeds and shapeless bushes. For years, the garden at Riverside Church lay little more than a fallow patch of wiry grass. On her way to church, Thompson says she would pass by and ask herself why it looked like that, and why no one had taken measures to improve it. There were no answers. So she attended the church’s annual meeting in 2011 and when she volunteered to help, she was answered by a standing ovation.
Thompson drew upon her gardening experience of more than two decades. She had once taken home prize ribbons for her home garden in Long Island, where she lived for more than 20 years while raising her family. After she moved to New York in 1998, the church sexton, the de facto gardener at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, passed away. When the weeds began to slowly creep up, she gathered her tools and got to work.
Those who know her were hardly surprised that she took that same initiative at Riverside Church. Debra Northern, Riverside Church’s Director of Social Services, describes Thompson as a doer, someone who’s willing to put in the work, even when she’s under no obligation to.
“We’re never lacking for ideas around here, never. Ideas are always abound, but they’re not so many people that will follow through on those,” said Northern. “[Elaine] jumped right in there, showed up every morning bright and early, even before paid staff.”
Initially, Thompson says she easily logged more than 20 hours a week at Riverside’s garden. After the church granted funds, she and the landscape designer’s team planted more than 2,500 bulbs. Now, the workload has decreased, but the garden still requires constant year round care. Building maintenance lends a hand by trimming the lawn, but she continues to singlehandedly tend to the flowers. There are no other volunteers, which she attributes to the church’s aging congregation, seniors less enthusiastic about getting on their knees to garden. Elaine is well into her 70’s, but she’s a tall, sturdy woman equipped with seemingly unflagging energy.
Northern says that Thompson gives a new definition to the word volunteer.
“When she has an idea about something, she always follows through,” said Northern. “I don’t know when she sleeps.”
Thompson credits her upbringing for instilling in her a love of activism and community engagement. She grew up in Florida, while it was still segregated, where her father was a teacher and her mother a homemaker.
“We had flowers blooming and everything just like everybody else does. But the family in the south was really the instrument in your life,” Thompson said. “The family, the church, and the school. The church was the politics in the sense of that’s where information came through.”
Those three pillars of family, church, and school continue to be among her guiding priorities. She’s a mother of three grown children, a grandmother of three, who’s proudly stored countless moments and smiling faces of family on her smartphone. A divorcee of 30 years, Thompson has lived in Inwood for decades with her grown daughter, who works as an engineer. When she’s not at Riverside Church, she’s working as an assistant at Harlem’s National Jazz Museum, reading several historical biographies simultaneously, or volunteering.
Her motto of doing what needs to be done, the same logic that inspired her to create the garden, seeps through all aspects of her life. Come the holidays, she says she makes 90 pounds of fruitcake. When asked why, she simply responds, “Because people ask for it.”