At Eden’s Community Garden, a project of Second Baptist Church in Southside, growing food for the community helps nourish the soul.
“My happiness is making other people happy. Seeing a smile on someone’s face that you gave to them… nothing tops that. And that is why I do what I do.”
That is what Mr. Merrick said to me on my first day volunteering at Eden’s Community Garden, located at Second Baptist Church in Richmond’s Southside. His words resonated with me, and play over and over in my head each day. There is no feeling in the world like knowing you brought happiness into someone’s life, and you’re the reason they have a smile on their face.
Merrick Jones, or Mr. Merrick, as he prefers to be called, has been gardening and planting since he was a little boy. He grew up in Richmond and lived on a farm with his family. At a young age, he learned how to garden and grow his own food. Ever since then, he has only eaten the food he grows in his garden. He once said to me that it’s been over twenty years since he’s eaten out at a restaurant or fast food place. For years he has attended Second Baptist Church, where he spends his mornings and most of his days at Eden’s Community Garden.
Eden’s Community Garden, which sits on top of a water filtration system to reduce the impact of stormwater runoff on the Chesapeake Bay, serves low-income communities and is open to the community for volunteering. Their slogan is “Feeding the Mind, Body, and Spirit.” On Second Baptist Church’s website, they state that their mission is “to address and strengthen our communities’ food system in a GODLY, comprehensive, community-wide, and holistic manner. Develop education, policy recommendations, and implementation strategies to improve the availability and accessibility of healthy, nutritious food for the community.”
Over this past summer I found myself wanting to make a difference. I wanted to feel useful in the community, so I went onto handsonrva.org and started browsing volunteer opportunities. I don’t know why a post headlined “Urban Gardening” stood out to me, but I am so grateful that it did.
The hours were seven o’clock to ten o’clock in the morning. When I noticed that, I hesitated. “Do I really want to exchange days where I could be sleeping in during the summer with days that I have to be up well before seven in the morning to volunteer?” I thought to myself. I reminded myself that I’m doing this for a good cause; I could be lazy and spend my summer “sleeping in,” but waking up early three days a week and doing something useful with my life would help both myself and the community.
When I began volunteering, Mr. Merrick welcomed me immediately. That summer, he acted as my mentor, as did a woman named Ms. Francine, who also spent most of her days in the garden. On that first day, I was the only volunteer that showed up. At the end of the day when I was heading out to leave, Mr. Merrick said something to me that I will never forget. “You know what Simi? God sent you,” he said. I looked at him in confusion, but he continued, “I was praying and hoping for someone to come in this morning and volunteer, and my prayer was answered, because that someone is you. And I appreciate you for that.”
Throughout the entire summer, I formed a bond with Mr. Merrick and Ms. Francine. They taught me how to plant all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and I got to try some of the food I planted, too. I learned how to grow wild grapes, watermelon, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes. I learned how to pick okra and all kinds of peppers, how to tell when a vegetable is ready to be picked, and when to wait a little longer to pick it. Ms. Francine and Mr. Merrick never ever made me feel less than them when I didn’t know how to do something.
But the work we did for Eden’s Community Garden wasn’t just for personal enrichment. Second Baptist Church is perennially in need of funds to purchase gardening tools and supplies as well as community educational materials for seminars and events. In order for the church to make money to do these things, they created their very own farmers market. Once Saturday came, all of the crops we prepared during the week were prepped to be sold at the market, which took place every Sunday after the church service, throughout the summer.
In order to accommodate low-income families, these fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at a low price; debit cards provided by the social services are also accepted. Free fresh produce is also given to families who have no means of acquiring food. The proceeds from the sales are then donated to the church, and while half of it goes to provide for Second Baptist Church’s day-to-day needs, the other half is donated to homeless shelters in the Richmond area.
My last day volunteering, I actually felt emotional. I had been volunteering at Eden’s Community Garden throughout the summer, and I did not want Mr. Merrick and Ms. Francine to forget about me — I most certainly was not going to forget about them. Mr. Merrick and Ms. Francine are probably old enough to be my grandparents, but they never acted authoritative or “bossy;” they treated me as if I was their friend. That’s what made the experience so special — that and the feeling of knowing I was one of the reasons people left church on Sundays with fresh produce and a smile on their face.
Top Photo via Second Baptist Church