July/August 2007


A Garden Becomes a Protest

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

THE STORY of Anathoth Community Garden really begins with a murder. On a June afternoon in 2004, Bill King was closing up his shop on the corner of Mill Creek and Carr Store roads when someone walked through the door and shot him in the back of the head. Before Bill and his wife, Emma, bought the place, the little bait and tackle grocery was a haven for local crack dealers. The first thing Bill and Emma did when they arrived was to ask the dealers to leave. Parents began bringing their children to the store for ice cream; neighborhood kids rode their bikes down for a soda. When people couldn’t pay, Bill would let them take food on credit. Whatever sense of safety this little farming community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina, had enjoyed before that afternoon in June, one trigger-pull had shattered. The people of Cedar Grove were angry and afraid.

Valee Taylor, a friend of Bill’s, was just plain angry. Several weeks after the murder, he visited Grace Hackney, pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church (UMC), to talk about what the community should do. It’s not often that a black man will set foot in a white church in Cedar Grove, but Valee and Grace had become friends after meeting at the post office one day. Valee wanted to put out a reward. Grace had another idea — a prayer vigil.

The town of Cedar Grove is no bigger than a church, a post office, and a stoplight, yet over one hundred people attended the vigil in the parking lot of Bill’s store. To hear Valee tell it, that afternoon was a sort of mystical experience. “The sunlight was shining down on us, the air was crisp, there was a light breeze. Here were blacks and whites together praying for peace in the community.” One of those in attendance was Valee’s mother, Scenobia Taylor, a fifth-generation African-American descendant of sharecroppers and daughter of the man who was once the largest landowner in Orange County. Scenobia was moved by something she witnessed at the vigil. After the murder, as she tells it, God told her in a dream to give five acres of her land to the community. She felt that somehow this land would help heal the community’s wounds. But to whom would she give it?

In the spring of 2005, Grace initiated a series of community conversations about faith and land, calling them “Food-Faith-Farm.” People from Cedar Grove UMC came, and so did residents of the wider Cedar Grove community — farmers, retirees, even the local librarian. The discussions began with a look at some troubling realities: Why was it that many of those gathered had land, yet within five miles of the church there were people who didn’t get enough to eat? Healthy fresh produce wasn’t affordable for most of these folks. As much of the arable land around Cedar Grove was former tobacco land now lying fallow, couldn’t some of that land be used to grow food for people who needed it? And if the church’s mission is to practice reconciliation, doesn’t that include mending the relationship with the land, perhaps restoring some of the fertility lost from years of soil erosion? In the midst of these questions, the idea for a community garden arose.

Scenobia knew that her dream had been prophetic. She donated the five acres to Cedar Grove UMC to act as trustee, and Anathoth Community Garden was born.

As these conversations were unfolding, Grace invited me to get involved. From what little I’d heard of the story, I was intrigued. I live near Cedar Grove on a small subsistence farm that my wife and I work together. In May 2005, I quit my job as a writing tutor at Duke Divinity School, wrote grants over the summer, and by August was hired as the garden manager. Donations helped us get started initially, as well as two grants: one from Valparaiso University, and the other from the Duke Endowment. The latter of these organizations, a philanthropy foundation seeded by the American Tobacco Company’s James B. Duke, agreed to fund the first three years of the garden’s life. One way to describe Anathoth Community Garden is that it’s a place where the fortunes of a robber baron now feed illegal immigrants and crack addicts.

Not everyone was supportive, though, including several members of Scenobia’s own extended family. They wanted to know why a black family would give five acres of prime road frontage to a white church. Some on the receiving end of the gift weren’t too excited either. The land on which the garden sits is a mere quarter mile down Mill Creek Road from where Bill King was murdered. What if the murderer started coming around the garden? Within a three-mile radius of the garden are several known crack houses (yes — crack houses in rural America). Some folks worried that vegetables and tools would be stolen. “You should at least build a gate and lock it,” they said. One church member — I’ll call him George — approached Grace and asked why the church was building a garden Down There (i.e., where the crack dealers live). George suggested that we build it closer to the church on a forgotten three-acre lot the church owned and had done nothing with.

“The reasons you don’t want to build the garden Down There,” Grace told George, “are exactly the reasons why we should.”

THE BREEZE COMING IN THE BACK-SEAT WINDOW of Grace’s Volvo is the first I’ve felt all day, my first respite from the Piedmont’s July heat. Valee guides us along far-flung back roads with names like Doc Corbett, Pentecost, Lonesome. At each of the houses we visit, he gives us a two-sentence life history of the people who live there.

“This is Pigfoot’s house. He works, but he still doesn’t get by.”

We drive through a tobacco field to a forlorn little shack perched on concrete blocks. Covering the spaces in the door and windows where glass should be there is only yellow, opaque plastic. “That’s James’s place. Works in Big Red’s tobacco fields. Every day but Sunday he works and still only makes two or three hundred a week. Can’t feed a family of four on that.”

As ambassadors of Anathoth Community Garden, Grace, Valee, and I are out delivering vegetables. It’s only our first season. In addition to squash, beans, lettuce, and peas that just wouldn’t quit producing, we’ve harvested a whopping 750 pounds of potatoes. And then there’s the cucumbers, basil, and okra. The garden has produced far more food than our twenty-five members could use, so lately we’ve begun delivering it to needy families throughout the Cedar Grove community.

Valee grew up here, near the borders of Orange, Person, and Caswell counties, and has become something of an unpaid one-man social services unit, driving people to look for work, getting housing and food stamps for those who can’t find work, and growing his own half-acre garden of corn, squash, and beans for anyone who wants to come pick. This evening Valee is introducing Grace and me to some of his “clients.” These are people who are off the radar of Social Services. Or who simply get ignored.

We turn down a dirt road and pull up to a trailer with a washing machine in the yard. A man steps out the trailer door, one of two mentally disabled brothers who live here. Larry is amiable, in his forties with a broad, winsome smile, and when he sees the vegetables he expresses interest in joining the community garden. I ask for his phone number so I can arrange to pick him up for workdays. “I don’t have a phone,” he says.

Most of these people have jobs, Valee tells us, even several jobs. Still, nearly half of the seven or eight houses we visit lack either running water, electricity, or both. Outhouses are common. Poverty in Cedar Grove shows no prejudice in choosing its victims. They are young, old, black, white, Latino, addicts, immigrants. The common thread is that most, even the addicts, are “the working poor.”

When the last bag of potatoes, beans, kale, and okra has been emptied from Grace’s trunk, we make our way back to the garden. Dusk has fallen. The others leave, and I stand alone to get one last look. Despite all the food that’s grown here, the garden is really quite small compared to the larger pastures and fields of the neighboring farms; just two acres of open field with another three acres of woodlot. Even in the twilight I can make out familiar shapes: the newly built barn with its red roof, the solar-powered electric deer fence, the gentle northward roll of the land itself, sliding away from the road toward a tiny creek, the headwaters of the Eno River. Finally my gaze takes in the raised beds themselves. In the fading light they appear deceptively large, a wave-and-trough succession of soil and vegetables, an ocean in miniature. I look out over the fields lying dark and pregnant, their fertile presence oddly comforting after tonight’s disquieting visits, and give thanks.

THE YEAR OF BILL KING’S MURDER, 2004, was the year the book of Jeremiah came up in the Revised Common Lectionary, the cyclical weekly readings most Protestant churches follow. It was also the year American forces tried to mop up the aftereffects of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Jeremiah knew something about invasions. At the time he was writing, the Babylonians had just sacked Jerusalem in a “shock and awe” campaign and carted off the first wave of captives. Jeremiah’s people were dragged from their homes and forced to live in a strange land where they had no power, no job opportunities, and didn’t speak the language. Nevertheless, during the Babylonian siege, God told Jeremiah to buy a field at Anathoth. The known world was crumbling. Yet this little chunk of real estate became a symbol of peace in a war-torn world, a continuation of God’s earlier message to the first wave of exiles already living in Babylon: “plant gardens and eat what they produce . . . seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” The Hebrew word shalom is often translated as “peace,” “welfare,” or “salvation.” It is a state of well-being, of living in harmony with one’s community and with the land.

Jeremiah made clear that planting gardens and seeking peace were symbiotic practices — like sowing beans with your corn, and marigolds with your tomatoes — and exactly the kind of companion-planting the church should be doing.

How curious that Jeremiah doesn’t tell the Jews to escape, or seize the reins of power, or advance the Jewish cause by getting legislation passed in Babylon’s halls of power. Instead, he tells them to build houses and inhabit them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry, and multiply. In other words, settle down and flourish. Shalom doesn’t begin once every last person is convinced they need to get on board. It begins with a few people planting gardens in a land at war. It begins with a field.

When we read ourselves into Jeremiah’s story we come up short. In many ways we white middle-class Christians aren’t the exiles; we are Babylon. Real exiles — the rural poor, migrant workers, crack addicts — live all around us. North Carolina has one of the fastest-growing Latino migrant worker populations in the country. Many of these people have been driven from their own farms by the pressures of falling corn and coffee prices, thanks in large part to neoliberal economic trade policies like NAFTA, created and enforced by our own government. Welcoming these landless exiles to grow food at Anathoth seems one way we can seek the shalom of our community.

THIS IS HOW OUR COMMUNITY GARDEN WORKS: When members join they pay five dollars for the entire year; they agree to work two hours a week on one of our three workdays. In turn, they receive a share of the weekly harvest — everything from arugula to Zapotec tomatoes — from April through November. We advertise by word of mouth. Though we seek out migrant and low-income families, anyone can join. Most members, like Cynthia, a single mom who brings her three kids to the garden, live in the immediate vicinity of Cedar Grove. But Taisuke, a Japanese chemistry student, drives an hour to the garden each Saturday from his home in Raleigh. He wants to grow rice here. Zongyao, a Chinese woman married to an American, started coming when she discovered that we had garlic scapes, the long seed-head tendrils that are a hard-to-find Chinese delicacy. Then there are the Ebrahimis, a family of Baha’i refugees from Iran. They get especially excited about the okra. Adela is from Michoacán. She enjoys harvesting squash blossoms, which she then brings to the following Saturday’s potluck transformed into delicious quesadillas.

From its beginning the garden has been a host site for Volunteers for Youth, a nonprofit organization placing in various work sites teens with community service hours to fulfill. In an average week we’ll host ten to fifteen of these kids on our Saturday workday. Plans for 2007 include a prisoner work-study program in which inmates from Orange Correctional Center can volunteer at Anathoth in exchange for vegetables.

We grow our food at Anathoth without fertilizers or chemicals, relying instead on cover-cropping, manure, and the compost we make ourselves. Initially, the ground was plowed with a neighbor’s tractor. But building raised beds and, now, nearly all ongoing tasks — carting manure, weeding, planting — are done manually. Our goal is to make Anathoth Community Garden sustainable in the most basic sense: it operates almost entirely on sunlight and the work of human hands — and the invisible movement of God’s spirit.

JEREMIAH TEACHES US THAT THE WAY TO GET ALONG in this world is to skirt Babylon altogether. Don’t waste time fighting the empire, or trying to make it a little less evil; opt out. Step around it and go about your business. Grow your own food, for instance.

One reason you plant gardens and eat what they produce, from Jeremiah’s time until now, is that you can’t trust Babylon with the food supply. Since the end of World War II and the ensuing proliferation of cheap petrochemicals, we’ve entrusted our eating to the American industrial food system. A friend of mine in Bolivia calls the U.S. “the Great Northern Feedlot”: we don’t much care how our food is grown, so long as a steady, cheap supply of it comes rolling into the trough. The results are ruinous and myriad: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, topsoil disappearing faster than the Earth can make it, poisoned aquifers, children starting puberty before their tenth birthday. What if we stopped relying on oil and hubris, and relied instead on sunlight and local knowledge? All food was grown this way before the advent of petrochemicals; it is how food will continue to be grown when the oil runs out.

I’ve come to exult in the resistance inherent in the act of growing food. In a recent book called Defiant Gardens, Kenneth Helphand describes World War I soldiers on Vimy Ridge growing celery along the bottom of a communications trench, Jews growing cabbage in the Lodz ghetto, a hillside of “bonsaied” desert sage in front of the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese Americans. I think of Anathoth as a garden created during war, and thus a defiant garden. The violence isn’t only in Iraq; it’s right down the street at Bill King’s store. It’s inside us. Turning the compost pile with Adela and Taisuke, transplanting a bed of sweet potatoes with Joe and Anthony from Volunteers for Youth — these are small acts of protest not only against the Great Northern Feedlot, but against the violence within our souls.

“The way we eat,” says Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” For Christians, the way we eat also represents — through the sharing of Christ’s body and blood in the eucharist — our most profound engagement with each other. Anathoth Community Garden, as an extension of the church, is a place where those who still hunger and thirst for sacramental life can be fed. In that way, it is a school for reverence. The garden teaches us that the way we eat, what we eat, and who we eat it with matters.

Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, recently visited Anathoth Community Garden and afterward preached at Cedar Grove UMC. In his sermon he said of Anathoth: “A community garden — what a useless gesture.” I took that as a compliment of our work, or at least an honest appraisal. On its own, gardening will by no means change the world. It won’t feed the millions who are hungry. How silly to waste one’s time growing food when a supermarket is filled to the brim just down the road. Yet, as Hauerwas went on to explain, it’s exactly the uselessness of the gesture, the smallness of it, the discomfort of doing work that is physically demanding, in which the garden finds its strength. Gardening is a “complete action,” Wendell Berry says, because it’s an act that is more than symbolic. Gardening is protest, but it goes beyond protest and proposes an answer.

The lights leading us forward won’t be found in the marble halls of commerce, the government, the university, or any institution, though each of those institutions may contribute. So long as Christianity mirrors such institutions, the lights won’t be found there either. Where I do stake my claim is in the small communities who opt out by doing something as simple as growing and sharing food together.

Agriculture offers a way for churches to seek the salvation, the shalom, the welfare of the place to which they’ve been sent, which is what I think the gospel writers were describing when they spoke of the Kingdom of God. Live locally, eat locally, serve God by serving your neighbor. This is no Earth-shattering revelation about how to Achieve World Peace or End Poverty; rather, it’s a small act of witness, a way of living in place that, if practiced, might begin to repair some of the damage we have inflicted upon our neighbors, the fertile soil, and ourselves.

ONE DAY I CALLED UP A LOCAL CHICKEN FARMER, whom I’ll call Vic, to see if I could buy chicken manure to spread on our garden. I had never met Vic, but knew that he was a former member of Cedar Grove UMC. He told me they used all their manure on their tobacco fields. I thanked him anyway and was about to hang up when he said, “But even if I did have some, I wouldn’t sell you any.” I was blindsided by what followed. Vic proceeded to berate me for coming into his community “where my family has been since 1783” and “messing everything up.” He said he thought the community garden was a bad idea, that “outsiders” had taken over Cedar Grove UMC, and that as long as “you outsiders” were doing things like starting community gardens, he’d never set foot in that church. I asked if we could talk about this in person, telling him that I wanted to know why he thought the community garden was such a bad idea. He laughed bitterly, then hung up the phone.

I was tempted to laugh myself, and would have if Vic hadn’t been so incensed. Against the idea of a community garden? That’s like being against school lunch programs or improved health care. I had the same flummoxed reaction as when George and the other naysayers had argued that we shouldn’t build a garden Down There. But then I began to wonder if Vic’s vitriol over what seems like a fairly innocuous thing means that maybe it’s not so innocuous after all. Maybe a community garden is actually a threat to life as we know it. To acknowledge that there are people who go hungry in this community is to put some hard questions before those of us who possess the land and the means to address that hunger.

Of course, what Vic and others like him don’t know yet (it’s with hope that I add the word yet) is that the result of this barrier-breaking isn’t anarchy or bedlam. When strangers grow and share food together, the Other ceases to be so threatening. The ones who were once an abstract category — the Poor Folks, the Rich Folks, the Black Folks, the White Folks, the Illegal Aliens — cease to be categories and become instead the people they’ve always been: Larry, James, Adela, Cynthia, Vic.

 Fred Bahnson is the author of the book Soil and Sacrament. His essays and journalism have appeared in Harper’sOxford AmericanOrionNotre Dame MagazineEmergenceImageThe Sun, and the Best American Spiritual Writing series. His essay “On the Road with Thomas Merton” won a 2020 Wilbur Award for Best Magazine Article from the Religion Communicators Council and was selected by Robert MacFarlane for Best American Travel Writing 2020. He has given keynotes at Yale, Duke, Georgetown, TEDx Manhattan’s “Changing the Way We Eat,” and most recently at the 2019 Halki Summit in Istanbul, where he spoke about religious responses to climate change before an international gathering of faith leaders convened by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He lives with his wife and sons in southwest Montana.