It is a mid-November morning, one of the coldest days yet this year in northern Orange County. Here on two acres of raised, bio-intensive garden beds, I'm bundled up alongside two 17-year-olds who are working off community service hours for various public mistakes and misdemeanors. We are cutting back asparagus stalks to mulch them with vegan compost and chopped leaves to put them to bed for the winter.
Down the hill of this garden, two friends, mothers of college students, work in the passive solar-powered greenhouse, replanting lettuces and spinach that have been harvested by garden members and volunteers. They chat, heads bent, working the seedlings out of plugs in the dark, loamy soil, enjoying their weekly standing date at the garden.
Anathoth Community Garden, a biblical reference to Jeremiah's exhortation to the Israelites to "plant gardens and seek their shalom," is an experiment in Methodist church-supported organic agriculture and a symbol of peace-building among the diverse populations who live in Cedar Grove, N.C., where the garden is located. The garden is an effort to address, through community members working the land side by side and eating the fruits of their labor together, "the economic injustices that lay behind racial tensions," says Cedar Grove United Methodist Church Pastor Grace Hackney. The longtime farming community of Cedar Grove is populated by middle-class blacks, whites and Latinos, and the poor of all descriptions.
"We have the land," says Hackney, "yet [around us] the poor are hungry ... why not share the produce of a garden with those who need it?"
Along with other garden members, Hackney weekly delivers bounty within the community to those who do not have enough to eat and to elderly members who cannot get out and about—some without indoor plumbing or electricity.
The garden started after the 2004 murder of Bill King, a white man who, with his African-American wife, Emma, ran a small bait-and-tackle general store on the corner of Mill Creek and Carr Store Road, less than half a mile from where the garden now stands.
As garden manager Fred Bahnson has written elsewhere, the store used to be a meet-up spot for local crack dealers, who were asked to leave as soon as King and his wife took over. Soon the store became a neighborhood spot where families would go for ice cream and to pick up a few groceries, and kids would rendezvous on bikes. Late on a hot June day, King was closing up shop when someone walked in and shot him dead. Shock and anger swept through the community, and to make a long story very short, following a prayer-for-peace vigil led by Hackney in response to the collective grief, local resident Scenobia Taylor donated the five acres where Anathoth flourishes today.
Anathoth is a serious endeavor with a vision for the future. Overseen by Bahnson, it is kept impressively cultivated and productive by a host of members (averaging 30 folks on summer Saturdays) who pay a small membership fee and volunteer two hours a week, in addition to young people with community service hours to fulfill. With the rising awareness and importance of our food's origins and how close to home it is grown, garden organizers seek to have a voice in encouraging responsible foodways, as well as building bridges between race and class. The Methodist church and Anathoth even hosted a tomato canning class in the church kitchen last summer. The food is grown without chemicals or fossil fuels to speak of, boasting a solar-powered well and electric fence to discourage deer. The work is done with hand tools by a collection of people lending elbow grease—and getting lots of benefits in return.
Lively, witty Doris Long, the only African-American member of Cedar Grove Methodist, has traded her fried food habits for a diet of the Anathoth vegetables she helps plant and harvest. She has lost more than 75 pounds, with plans to lose another 100, as a result of the change.
Jose and Villa Rangel and their children moved to North Carolina from California three years ago looking for a better, "more affordable life." They became garden members to make friends, access fresh produce, improve their English and enjoy working the land. Son Joseph, a 10th-grader, says his favorite part is watermelon each summer; younger brother Rafael likes eating at the potlucks two days a week March through November.
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I sit with Hackney at the potluck lunch following the morning's work. Tables are moved into the sun to offset the mid-30s frostiness. Hackney assures me she could tell stories all day about the healing in this one-stoplight town, and the garden as a gathering place and setting for it. She talks about the role people of faith should be playing in protecting our local food economy and national food security (see italicized text below for details).
The following evening, as part of the same community outreach effort that birthed the garden, Cedar Grove's African-American Baptist congregation worships with its Methodists and Presbyterians, and everyone sits down to a local pulled-pork and turkey dinner afterward.
We sing classic British and American hymns alternately with call-and-response choral spirituals clearly reflective of jazz. It is a good way to ring in the season of peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
Find more about food for the hungry and community gardens at www.cometothetablenc.org; there's a link to Piedmont Interfaith Network of Gardens. For general info, visit the American Community Gardening Association's site at communitygarden.org.