In 2005 I realized that too many people were dying young in my home town of Conetoe, North Carolina. In one year alone, I officiated at the funerals of thirty congregants under the age of thirty-two. Many of the deaths were health-related: poor diets, no exercise. Nearly two-thirds of the congregation were obese. It started to feel unconscionable to me to see someone one hundred pounds overweight on Sunday morning and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack and we’d have another funeral. Although I had been a minister for a quarter century – nearly half my life – only now did I see that my pulpit went beyond the church.
Only a third of the adults had jobs. Most didn’t have insurance and lived in poverty. I wanted to find a way to lift up my community and improve its members’ mental, physical, and economic health.
Conetoe is a little town in an area once filled with cotton plantations. It has long been a “food desert”: fresh vegetables were rarely available, and even when they were, people couldn’t afford them. I realized we could grow fresh, healthy food for ourselves. That’s when we started the Community Garden and Family Life Center, which began as a summer school program to grow healthy food and keep the children physically active.
Farming may sound romantic to some, but it was a painful hardship for me growing up. I was one of thirteen children in a sharecropping family, which meant doing work for another man’s gain. I will never forget my father’s face when he was underpaid by the farm boss. He was unable to respond to the injustice because he knew the consequences for his family. Farms would hire him because he had all these children – thirteen males, including my brothers and boy cousins – and time after time I watched him struggle against poverty and my mother’s disappointment. I saw him turn away to avoid my mother’s eyes, and her anger. That life was not for me.
I am a carbon copy of my father, but I tried to escape his fate by joining the army after high school, serving overseas in Germany. I loved the structure and the sense of order, and when I came home I enlisted in the National Guard. In 2001 I was called to serve the church in Conetoe, and I returned to build a future in a place that had long held many sorrows for me.
Starting our own garden in Conetoe meant that the fruits of our labors would be our own. It was a chance to rewrite that old story into something new and hopeful, but I had to confront old memories that were easier to forget.
Now nearly a decade has passed since we started our garden, which feeds our community in body and soul. It began with two acres of land donated by members of the community, and now has grown to fifteen farm plots around the county. The largest is twenty-five acres, with four fields, two greenhouses, and about 150 beehives. The young people do the hard work, taught by their elders, who have their own stories of sharecropping and of the family gardens that used to mean the difference between hunger and a full belly.
You can see the change happen. And it’s a change that lasts.
We have afterschool and summer camp programs that teach the children to plan, plant, and harvest the produce, which they then sell at farmers’ markets, on roadside stands, and to restaurants. We gather honey from our hives and sell it or share it with our low-income neighbors. While much of the produce stays within the community, we’ve also been growing a business, which now makes around $5000 a year. We raise and sell seedlings to individuals and businesses, and our honey is on supermarket shelves seventy-five miles away, in Raleigh. The money goes to school supplies and scholarships. Now that more of our youth are graduating from high school and going on to college, it’s been put to good use.
Adults donate time to help with homework, transportation, and the garden work. Everyone participates in Healthy Sunday suppers, where healthy, garden-grown food is cooked and served by the youngsters in “right-sized” portions.
Season by season, Conetoe is growing healthier and stronger. Many people have lost weight. We’ve seen fewer visits to the emergency room and, thankfully, fewer deaths.
People from outside Conetoe are asking us what we’ve done. We are one of several churches participating in a study of diabetes and heart disease being conducted by The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, which has verified the health improvements over time. Churches in twenty-one counties are using our model to build their own community gardens, sowing the seeds of good health one row, one acre, one field at a time. That’s the lesson which is important to share: this work took time to build and grow, but over time, it has become the center of our community, and a source of physical and spiritual sustenance. Everyone has a role, everyone has a voice, and everyone can make a difference.
Our young people take pride in their work, and that pride shows in how tall they stand and how they speak. When an older member of the community gives a child a blessing – placing her hands on that child’s head with the prayer that the child grows strong and does good in the world – you can see the change happen. And it’s a change that lasts.
Now in my sixties, I am still healing from my youth. Seeing the young people learn and have fun while farming has redeemed the humiliation I felt as a sharecropper’s son. I don’t know when I’m going to die, but I know I’m not going to go with all the anger I once held inside me.
A few years ago a child in our community stole money from the church. Some of the congregants wanted to press charges to teach him a lesson, but we decided to ask our young people to handle the matter. A bunch of teenagers from Conetoe talked to the prosecutor and the youth was sentenced to community service in the garden. Today his life is back on track. He is in community college and I see him in church almost every Sunday.
The moral leadership the kids showed is an antidote to the pain and negativity they could be carrying around. Just as our young people learn from us, we learn from them. Together we get closer to the spiritual, physical, and economic healing that I dreamed of ten years ago when we planted our first garden.
Photographs courtesy of Richard Joyner