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‘Gardening for God’ reaps unexpected blessings

Members of Leachville (Ark.) United Methodist Church grew corn on about three acres along the town’s main highway. They gave their harvest to elderly
residents and families. A UMNS photo by Angela Criss.

By Heather Hahn*
Oct. 1, 2009 | LEACHVILLE, Ark. (UMNS)

When members of a small United Methodist church followed Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, they reaped a lot more than they sowed.

This spring, Leachville United Methodist Church grew corn on about three acres along the main highway in this northeastern Arkansas farming town. Church members harvested the ears by hand, then delivered bags of about a dozen each to elderly residents and families in Leachville and the neighboring towns of Monette and Manila.

Each sack the congregants delivered had a flier with the name and worship time of the church.

“To see the delight some of the people had, you’d have thought we were handing out Walmart bags full of $20 bills,” Tim Bandy, one of the church volunteers, said. “It was such a blessing to be involved.”

Some of the recipients asked to pick their own corn, he said. Soon, they and others joined parishioners in plucking each stalk clean. Altogether, the church, which has a regular attendance of about 50 people, gave away more than 2,500 ears through its inaugural “Gardening for God” project.

Longtime member Ronnie Kennett said he couldn’t believe how many cars he saw lined up each day next to the cornfield as people came to glean the excess.

“Some may have been there to get corn to sell,” he said. “But I think most were there because they really needed it.”

An idea takes root

The idea for the project began early this year, when congregants drew up a vision statement for the church and discussed how they could do more for their Delta town.

The Rev. Bev Watkins, who was Leachville United Methodist Church’s pastor at the time, said the members discussed growing extra vegetables in their gardens to help feed the hungry.

“From that —pardon the pun — it grew,” Watkins said. “People asked, ‘Why don’t we have a community garden? What can we plant?’”

Soon the plan for a community garden became a community endeavor. Watkins mentioned the congregation’s idea to her neighbor, Scott Adams, whose grandfather owns Adams Land Co., the region’s main land-holding company.

Adams got excited about the opportunity to feed those in need and arranged for his family’s company to donate the plot. He said he had wanted to do something similar for more than a year.

Cole Hawkins, who farms the land where the plot was located, volunteered to plant the seeds and water the crop. Hawkins said the work didn’t require much extra effort, and he was delighted to provide people with fresh corn.

“It’s just the way things need to happen,” Hawkins said. “It’s the way things need to be done.”

Surprising gratitude

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When time came for harvesting in June, the congregation worked with the three housing authorities in Leachville, Manila and Monette to identify people who could use the extra produce.

Like a mini-version of Publishers Clearinghouse’s Prize Patrol, church members knocked on doors unannounced, surprising recipients with a yummy treat.

Paul Wildy, a church member and recently retired Farm Bureau insurance agent, said he was unprepared for the degree of gratitude people showed.

“There was not one negative comment,” he said. “It was all smiles and ‘Thank you very much.’ One said, ‘I’ve got four kids here who are hungry and will really enjoy this.’”

Word of the congregation’s agricultural efforts spread quickly beyond Leachville. In July, potato farmers invited the congregation to glean what was left over from a shipment to the Frito-Lay plant in Jonesboro.

“We expected we were going to go out there and have to dig them up ourselves with a shovel,” Wildy said. “But when they brought in their commercial equipment to dig those potatoes, they dug us a trailer load.”

The church members bagged thousands of pounds of tubers and again distributed them through the three housing authorities.

Betty Eldried, executive director of Leachville Housing Authority, said her residents, who are mostly elderly and disabled, were deeply appreciative that the church even thought of them.

“For some of them, that big old bag of potatoes fed them for several meals,” she said.

A biblical inspiration

In September, another farm near the Missouri border offered the church about 1,300 pounds of potatoes already washed clean and bagged. Church members delivered that batch to Mississippi County Union Mission, a homeless shelter in Blytheville.

The Rev. Doug Criss, the church’s new pastor, came to Leachville in June in time to help with the corn harvest. He pointed out that the congregation and its community supporters were following a biblical tradition that goes back to the Old Testament.

In Leviticus 19:9-10, God instructs the Israelites not to harvest the fields and vineyards in their entirety but to leave the gleaning “for the poor and the sojourner.”

Criss hopes the Leachville effort will inspire other rural communities in the state.

“Most farmers farm about 2,000 acres of ground, and it’s nothing to take five acres and make a ministry out of it,” he said. “It’s something we should be doing anyway.”

*Hahn is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist for the Arkansas Annual (regional) Conference.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

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