By Kaitlyn Brodar, PHW Intern
As the health lead for Concord UMC in Graham, NC, Donna Poe spends most of her time in the garden. Even as we were talking, she was hard at work picking caterpillars off the collard greens. “You know, it’s amazing what you can get accomplished while you’re kneeling over a bed just talking to someone else—whether it’s the first time meeting, or if they’re best friends, or if it’s families coming out. It’s very special.” Concord UMC started their community garden eight years ago, and it’s grown larger with each new year. The idea of the garden sprouted in church conversations when Donna was a new member. The pastor wasn’t able to attend a community garden interest meeting at Anathoth Garden, so she jumped in and offered to go as a note-taker. While there, she became so excited and passionate about the project that she took the lead on breaking ground for the Garden of Concord.
In its infancy, the garden had around ten volunteers and only a few beds. Today, over 70 families share the work. They have over half an acre planted—around 80 beds. “It’s a community effort. We all work together. There are always different tasks for different people with different skill levels, because the thing is, you don’t have to have any experience. I didn’t have any experience when I started, so I just tell people to come on out and learn about growing good food and sharing it and making good friends and all of that.” While she may not have started with much experience, Donna completed a two-year degree in sustainable agriculture and obtained a Master Gardener certification because of her passion for the garden.
The Garden of Concord is always busy. They donate a portion of their harvest to S.A.F.E (Southern Alamance Family Empowerment), a food pantry that feeds many families in the area. While food pantries are often limited to processed and canned foods, S.A.F.E is able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables that come directly from the garden. The garden has also recently started a CSA (community supported agriculture) program called Box of Blessings. Families can purchase a share and they can also sponsor a share, which allows families who cannot afford the CSA to receive a weekly box of free vegetables. “People come only once a month to the food pantry, and what we donate is in bulk so we never see the people that get the food. With the CSAs, the families come to us every week during garden hours to pick up their box, and they’re always invited to grow with us and to come to anything that we’re doing in the garden.”
The garden also hosts various workshops on topics like nutrition, cooking, and canning. Recently, they hosted a dermatologist who gave a presentation on the harmful effects of sun exposure and proper skin care techniques, and also provided free screenings for the community. Each week, the garden hosts “Kidz Thyme,” an hour for children to come to the garden and participate in garden-related activities. “I don’t know how many parents have said how long they’ve tried to get their kids to eat vegetables, and they come to the garden and they’re so excited, they’ll just pull a carrot out of the ground and start munching on it. They’re just so excited to be part of the process of planting their own food.”
Donna views her work in the garden as an extension of her faith—a response to our call to care for creation. “I don’t have a Duke Divinity degree—I’m not out here preaching to people—but I’d like to think that I’m witnessing my faith to others just because of my love and care of the church and of this garden. I would say about 50% of the people in the garden are unchurched folks. And then there’s a good percentage of folks that go to church, but not our church, and they are just working out their stewardship by working in the garden. It’s wonderful when I hear from people how thankful they are for the garden—that there’s something really special going on and they’re not exactly sure what it is. It’s just so great to actually see the seeds that are being planted in the hearts of so many, that they’re definitely feeling something. Whether they’ll start coming to our church has never been a goal of mine; it’s just about nurturing the hearts of those in our community.”
The fruit of Donna’s labor is helping others enjoy the garden. “The heart of our garden is our membership. I’m just so thankful for the 70 families that are involved. We definitely could not do it without them. And we’re very mindful about how we’re growing—we’re trying not to grow too fast, just grow according to God’s will for the garden. I would say my favorite thing is just the relationship that we’ve established with families in the community. They feel so welcome to come here. A lot of times it’s hard for people—they just don’t want to go to a church—it’s a little easier for them to come to a garden, a community garden.”
Sharing the garden with others is really important to Donna. She regularly travels to other churches and organizations to speak about care for creation and to help them to start their own garden. “I usually just start with our beginning—like, I had no experience. I try to just encourage folks—just build upon that passion that’s placed in your heart by God. You don’t have to have any kind of major degree or anything to do it. It’s just about gathering folks together with a common interest and a desire to work together. It could be as simple as a small flower garden or just anything to get a group of people together in caring for something together.”
If your congregation would like to put your faith into action by prioritizing the health of your members, please visit the PHW website at www.healthandwholeness.org.