By Julia Sendor, for the Duke Center for Reconciliation January 2018 Newsletter
Find the newsletter, including a reflection from Anathoth neighbor and co-founder Valee Tayler, here.
Every week for two years, my colleague or I dropped a box of fresh vegetables, harvested from Anathoth Community Garden & Farm, at a concrete- block house stuck in a corner of a farm field in Cedar Grove, rural Orange County. In all that time, the front window has stayed broken and never repaired. A spigot out back supplies the only water for the house.
The vegetables are for a farmworker who lives there. He is black. He works for the white farmer who owns that field and the little house.
A black family, the Taylors, donated the original land for Anathoth’s garden, and told me about this farmworker’s need for fresh produce, in the first place. They would tell me about this farmworker’s fear of anyone speaking up about the housing – afraid he would lose his job. I couldn’t help but wonder about that white farm owner, who owned the field and the house. As a farmer myself, I know how cutting labor costs, including housing, can seem like the “easiest” way to meet tight margins. But how could he really justify to himself this substandard house, this broken window? How could he justify treating another human with such inhumanity? Then last fall, we heard the news: the white farm owner had just committed suicide.
In another part of rural Orange County, a family from Mexico lives in a rented trailer. Their roof leaks. Part of the floor is rotting from rainwater. The parents work at a white-owned farm. The mother carries home “reject” flower seedlings to plant a rainbow of a garden that glows in front of her home. She dreams of owning her own home and land, to raise vegetables to share with the community, just like Anathoth. But with her income from tending other people’s plants, she still can’t afford to buy a home.
She and her husband were drawn here by the promise of agricultural jobs that Americans didn’t want. But now that she’s here, she says she realizes many Americans don’t really want the immigrants who do the jobs, either.
These realities make plain to me that, as a white farmer, I must honestly and humbly enter the work of reconciliation. They show me the enormity of brokenness we have inherited: brokenness between ourselves and the land, and brokenness among each other — and how the histories of exploiting land and exploiting people are intertwined.
Anathoth Community Garden & Farm, where I work, seeks to reckon with this brokenness. The garden was started to seek peace in the wake of an unsolved murder. Twelve years ago, a beloved Cedar Grove storeowner named Bill King was shot and killed. Bill, a white man married to a black woman, represented community and intersection in many ways.
In a community full of divisions, people who didn’t share much shared in mourning Bill’s death. To respond to the murder, Valee Taylor, a local black community leader and farmer, joined forces with Grace Hackney, a Duke Divinity graduate and the white pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church. They hosted a prayer vigil at the store.
At that vigil, Valee’s mother, Scnobia Taylor, caught a vision. A descendant of sharecroppers and daughter of one of the largest landowners in Orange County, Scnobia envisioned creating a place where people could continue to gather across divides. She gifted five acres to the mostly- white Methodist church to become a community garden called Anathoth. The name comes from a Biblical passage where the prophet Jeremiah summons the Israelites to “plant gardens” and “seek the peace of the city” in response to violence (Jeremiah 29).
The garden project, now its own non-profit, has grown to include a farm. Crews of interns, including Duke Divinity students fulfilling Field Education, and 200 families now share in the work and food. We distribute the harvest throughout the community each week through a sliding-scale CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project. I love Anathoth and the community slowly forming around the work of tending land. But whenever I drop off vegetables outside the concrete house, or under the leaky trailer roof, the hopeful act seems dwarfed by injustice. Where does Anathoth fit into the long-standing relationship between land and oppression?
Here’s a starting point: White Americans created race to assert power, gain wealth, and exploit others – all in an effort to run away from the humbleness of being humans on earth. Colonial Virginia’s lawmakers concocted complicated legal definitions of “black” and “white.” This invention enabled whites to cherry-pick their favorite parts of being human. They could amass status and wealth from owning land without having to work the land – while still being allowed to tout values of equality and justice. Those who endured the injustice simply didn’t count, in the white rationale. Whites’ comfort, power, and even sense of virtue could continue unscathed.
White institutions have continued using race to strip people from the land. Between 1920 and 1993, African-American land ownership dropped 96 percent. The networks of ”good old boys” in the USDA and Farmers Home Administration discriminated against black farmers by delaying and refusing their loans. Blocked from legal access to writing wills, many black farmers also couldn’t will their land to one heir. Land continued to be a burden, rather than a blessing.
The more I learn this history, the more I realize the miracle of Scnobia Taylor’s gift. A black woman, a rare landowner, she chose to give her land to the community – via a white church. It’s a gift of biblical proportions. It turns every convention of ownership and dominance upside down. Her gift took visionary love and placed it on five earthly acres.
Now committed to tend this land, how can we honor her gift? What kind of visionary love will help us continue to see, mourn, and heal the brokenness still shaping our present day?
Agrarian theology, a field dominated by white folks, may seem an unlikely place to look for answers. But by calling us to embrace our humble place as humans on earth, agrarian theology calls us to reckon with reality. We are called to see this honest reckoning as a sacrament. Re-tune the body and soul to each other and to the tasks of earthly life. Listen to the soil. Delight in the holy sugar of the sun-kissed blueberry. In order to begin healing our relationship with the land, we must be willing to be transformed, physically, spiritually, and as a community, by real human work.
But what if we extend that agrarian vision? Faithful farmers attune their work to respond to the land. They commit to staying with the work, rather than running away from the parts that are less comfortable and convenient. But what if we also attuned our work to respond not only to the land, but to our painful and racist history with the land? For those of us who are white, what if we also commit to this work, rather than running away from what seems uncomfortable and inconvenient? How can those of us whose race has allowed us to cherry-pick choice parts of being human support the visions and work of those who have carried the heaviest burdens? What if we see this honest reckoning as a sacrament? How might we be transformed?
At Anathoth, we’re still learning how to respond to this history. We’re still learning to see how it shapes our present: the concrete house with the broken window, the immigrant farmworker who can’t fulfill her dream of tending her own land, even the desperate white farmer. We’re still learning how to be transformed by these truths. We can educate ourselves. We can ensure that Scnobia’s gift of land keeps nourishing her community with good food. We can seek ways to remake broken patterns of who makes the decisions, who gets the good jobs, who is protected and who is targeted by laws – and who owns the land. As a white farmer, I can confront the broken parts of myself that still enjoy the benefits of these unjust patterns. We can get to know and love our neighbors – and follow that love into organizing for just policies and just economies. We can follow that love into creating life-giving communities based on connection and collaboration.
Like faithful farmers, we are called to look honestly, listen humbly — and to get to work.