The first time Francis Alford heard about a community garden project was on a Sunday morning. The words came from the pulpit.
Alford said his pastor, the Rev. Scott Johnson, mentioned the idea to the Union United Methodist Church congregation at the end of a sermon a few months ago. As Johnson pitched the project, he also asks for volunteers to put some action behind the vision.
At first, Alford didn’t do too much about it. But after a week or two, the owner of Alford Motor Company called his pastor and asked if he gotten much response. Alford knew he could help in some way and had experience in gardening.
Johnson told him some people had offered up their time, but no one had stepped up to lead the thing. All of sudden, the man who kept a good garden at home was in charge of the venture.
“One thing led to another and I’ve ended up planting and tending this garden,” Alford said. “When I called [Johnson] and kinda volunteered, he kinda finished drafting me.”
The first fruits of the community garden at 4491 U.S. 701 South in Conway have begun to come in and the church expects to give away its initial batch of vegetables Saturday morning.
The squash and the zucchini are the most plentiful so far, with red potatoes, white potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, watermelons and other fresh produce soon to catch up.
All anyone has to do is just show up and receive. There’s no cost, no tricks, no expectations. The produce will already be gathered and bagged.
“We’ll pick it and just give it to ‘em,” Alford says.
Union UMCs Garden-signThe freely given gift is intentional as part of the church’s mission to greater connect to the community it serves.
“We don’t want anything from them at all,” Johnson says of the potential garden recipients.
Alford said the church members will pick produce during the week and then give out the week’s bounty on Saturday mornings for as long as the season permits.
This two-fold approach of serving the community and gathering together in some place other than the church sanctuary has worked out well.
“That’s good for the membership of the church, too,” Alford said. “It’s all about direct and indirect missions.”
Union is no stranger to mission work.
This past March, the church gave $7,100 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to pay for the digging of two water wells in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is in addition to the three wells the church has already financed through its Union With The Congo campaign.
That effort began in 2008 with a fundraising campaign where proceeds were split evenly down the middle with 50 percent going to build wells in Africa and 50 percent going to the church’s building fund.
The community garden project is an effort to meet and reach people closer to home.
“We’re wanting something for people in the community to come see us and come to church,” Alford said.
Johnson says the garden is a way “to connect the resources of heaven with the needs of the earth.”
He says the people of Union are “reaching into their lunch boxes” and using the gifts God gave them. Saying just like the young boy who presented his lunch to Jesus to help feed the five thousand, Union folks are also offering what they have.
And that, in part, is the community garden.
“We didn’t decide to build a skyscraper,” Johnson said. “[The garden] is just what seemed to come natural.”
To get some seeds in the ground to start the project, Johnson visited Conway Feed and Garden. He got a lot more than he expected when he talked to Walt Smith.
“He just jumped at the idea. He fronted us the potatoes and onions on the spot,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that I asked for anything honestly. It was more him just responding to the idea.”
Smith continued to respond to the idea and has given away all of the additional seeds and plants the church has gotten from Conway Feed and Garden.
“I just felt like in my heart that was the right thing to do,” Smith said. “I just thought that was a great cause.”
Smith says he was glad to donate to get the garden growing. He thinks it could change some lives by feeding hungry people and possibly, in the future, leading them to Christ.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, and you’ve got to open that door,” he said. “This could be that thing that opens that door.”
Johnson says some have suggested that people will take advantage of the church’s generosity and abuse the garden. That doesn’t worry him at all.
“We all abuse God’s grace,” he said.
He does admit there are a lot of unknowns, like how much produce will be coming in and how fast it will go.
“That’s the thing about a garden,” Johnson said. “We’re gonna give out what we have.”
Johnson says the garden has been a tremendous experience for him because he’s not a great gardener and the church is new at this undertaking.
“We’re just jumping out in faith,” he said.
Alford said the garden has already turned out to be a great community effort, with members pitching in to help and the donations being made. He gives credit to the talented people he worships with at Union.
“That’s what makes up a church,” he said. “It’s not a building. It’s people.”