“Not To Be Helpful, but To Be Useful”

On a Sunday morning in late September, I walked up to a nearly-vacant corner lot at the intersection of Watts & Green in West Durham. The sun was still low enough to cast long streams of light through the tree branches, and dew was still glinting on the grass. Beside a toolshed, a few people were standing and talking, waiting to begin Sunday morning worship. Behind them, steam rose off of a compost pile in the cool of the morning.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many churches have transitioned to meeting outdoors for worship (Butler, 2020). But for Durham’s Farm Church, this was nothing new: they have been meeting outside to worship, fellowship, and work since their founding in 2016. I joined the gathered few and worship began. In a strip of grass between the toolshed and the tenth-acre lot, we stood and listened while Pastor Allen Brimer read from, and taught about, scripture. He closed his teaching with a prompt for reflection, and we moved into working: stirrup hoes were extracted from the toolshed, and we began working among rows of newly-planted cool-weather crops to subdue a burgeoning cohort of new weeds. As we worked, we talked, and learned more about the Farm Church and its history, members, and work.

Sunday Morning at Watts & Green. Photo by Sophia Bryson.

The Farm Church is, quite simply, what its name suggests: a farm and a church. Six years ago, Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase awoke in the middle of the night from a dream where he was called by God to serve a new church (Weston, 2019). Like any dream, it was a little wacky, because in this dream the church he saw was not so much a church as it was…a farm. Slowly awakening from his slumber, Ben went online and purchased farmchurch.org, just in case he — or perhaps, God — was on to something. The next morning, Ben called his friend, fellow pastor and former farmer, to tell him about his dream and to see if he wanted to start a farm church together. Allen, whose environmental ethic was rooted in the landmark texts of Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring, couldn’t have been more excited about the chance to combine his passion for farming and his vocational calling as a pastor (Leopold, 1987, Carson, 2002). Soon after, the two resigned from their pastorships and began to plan what would become Farm Church. Ben and Allen moved their families to Durham and quickly found roots through partnerships with local churches and nonprofits like SEEDS. They received support locally and all across the country, with friends and strangers alike offering donations of money and land to help them in the formation of the new church and farm. The process was not easy by any means, but through side jobs and generous donations, Ben and Allen have only failed to pay themselves one time over nearly five years. Since a cancer diagnosis a few years ago, Ben has taken a step back from his pastoral role with the Farm Church, and Allen has taken the lead as a pastor, farmer, secretary, and administrator of the small, but growing, congregation. Our group spoke with Allen to understand better the past, present, and future of the Farm Church.

As both a farm and a church, the mission of Farm Church is two-fold: to make a measurable impact on food insecurity in Durham, and to provide a space for people to both worship and participate in God’s love made visible in creation. While others have questioned the coincidence of these two components, to Allen, it’s just common sense.

Among the land offered to the newly formed Farm Church were lots of 40 or 50 acres. Yet, for a small and young organization, that scale was beyond their ability to manage well. Instead, a quarter-acre lot on the corner of Watts and Green was accepted. A plot a tenth of an acre in size was prepared, and has been in rotating cultivation ever since. This year alone, it has already produced 2700 pounds of food, and, planted with cold-season greens and crucifers, it is growing even more. The food grown by the Farm Church is central to their mission: all of it is given away, seeking to fight food insecurity here in Durham. The produce is given to many of the 86 local pantries, leveraging their established networks and processes to get fresh food to those who need it most. Members of the Farm Church community gather on Sunday mornings to garden and work at SEEDS, and on Wednesday evenings to work in the garden at Watts & Green. This all looks a bit different at the moment amidst the pandemic, but the premise of work and worship remains the same.

Members of Farm Church at work. Photo by Sophia Bryson.

The community of people, more than any building or space, comprises the Farm Church. Allen described the Farm Church as appealing to the “spiritually hungry and institutionally suspicious” (Brimer, 2020). While remaining faithful to their Christian identity, Farm Church has eschewed some of the trappings and decorum of institutional religion. Gathering out-of-doors, there was no organ or band or piano, but music came from the chirps, songs, and calls of birds and insects.

The only creed recited during worship is the church’s mission statement, which is “to gather a Christ-centered community around elements of soil and food, to break bread together, and to leverage all the resources of a farm to address food insecurity in our community” (“About Farm Church,” n.d.) The liturgy was sparse, but intentional, moving from Word to work to prayer, and punctuated with litanies of waved and shouted greetings to neighbors running, biking, and walking by. The structure looks different than usual right now, because of the pandemic. “For a group of people who like hugging and sharing food as much as we do, this has been hard,” one of the others there told me. Different aspects of this life together attract different individuals, ranging in age from recent graduates to retirees, with families and single individuals alike. Some come for love of church and worship, and the way that is enacted at Farm Church. Some come for love of the missional farming work. And some come for love of the people. Farm Church seeks to be a place of belonging and welcome for people regardless of where they are in their experience of faith: “If you consider yourself a member, you are,” Pastor Allen told us (Brimer, 2020). At the moment, about 80 people are regularly involved with Farm Church in some capacity or another.

Back on the growing plot, when we’d finished hoeing, and the soil between rows of beets, spinach, and cabbage was once more dark and bare, we regathered by the toolshed. We cleaned the mud from the tools, and hung them back in their places. Pastor Allen followed up on his earlier prompt for reflection. We shared matters of celebration and concern, and prayed together, and commended one another on work well done before departing.

A beautiful stroke on the farmland. Photo by Sophia Bryson.

In light of the pandemic, Allen identified resilience as the next challenge ahead of the Farm Church: resilience in their own operations and interactions within their community and with regional partners, and resilience of the food system that they work to supplement and support. They are also grappling with the manner in which they work to achieve and provide food security in Durham, and to be present in and a part of the community. Allen admits that, on the whole, Farm Church is “very white.” He recognizes that, while they meet at SEEDS, none of the regulars live in the neighborhood where their physical building is located. They are seeking avenues to better be a part of, and partners with, the neighborhoods in which they operate. Allen articulates that he doesn’t want “to help,” he wants “ to be useful.” Beyond just providing a service or charity work, Farm Church wants to meaningfully engage with, equip, and change the community in which it works to not only alleviate the symptoms of, but also address the causes of, food insecurity. During the pandemic, and in light of the changes it forced and inspired, “Farm Church has turned a corner” (Brimer, 2020). Allen cited changes in organization, behavior, and perspective, and is seeking to use this moment to create meaningful change in the operation and life of Farm Church and incorporate the church deeper into the community.

As both pastors who founded Farm Church came into the community of Durham as outsiders, the primary tools they used for starting the church and bringing people into the fold were social networks and the social capital that came along with those networks. They made an agreement with one another that they would follow any connection that they made as far as it would go (Brimer & Johnston-Krause, 2016). They walked the neighborhoods in their area to meet people, had countless conversations over coffee, and sent letters and e-mails to anyone whose contact information they were able to get ahold of. To tap into people’s social networks, they would end every conversation by asking, “Who are three people you know that we should talk to?” They followed every lead. This approach helped integrate Farm Church within the community, and also helped them build up social capital. Plugging themselves and Farm Church into the web of connections amongst organizations and individuals within the Durham community has enabled Farm Church to act on its vision (Greenberg et al, 2017).

Pastor Allen Brimer is working on the farm. Photo by Sophia Bryson.

Beyond tapping into social networks to establish Farm Church, the founding pastors also had to get to know the community in order to invite them to be a part of their mission and vision. Farm Church began hosting “meet-up groups,” in bars, coffee shops, and farmer’s markets. In this way, they were meeting people in the community instead of hoping the community would come to them. Allen said that setting up booths at farmer’s markets was a particularly effective way of finding people in the community who would be drawn to something like Farm Church. This approach of embedding themselves within the community resulted in Farm Church having about 80 or so regulars, and their weekly meetings saw an attendance of somewhere between 40 and 50 people. While many groups might be content with Farm Church’s current connection to the community, Pastor Allen sees plenty of room for growth.

Since the church gives away all of the food it grows, we asked if there are any members of the church who are food insecure or otherwise might benefit from the food grown by the church. Allen’s thoughtful response highlighted a challenge faced by many churches – they were socio-economically homogeneous, and for Farm Church this means most people who worship

and work there are middle-class and upper-middle class. This has the risk of isolating the church from the first-hand experience of the issue it’s seeking to address. According to Allen, since the members of Farm Church are not themselves food-insecure, he wants to make sure that they do not fall into the trap of so many NGOs, who “want to help” and think they have the answers, while failing to learn from those inside the community. This concern speaks to the problems of equity that must be considered when engaging in community-based environmental management (Lane & McDonald 2005). To avoid this problem, Allen returns to the importance of social capital. He says the Farm Church is seeking to be incorporated into the community, rather than helpers who stand outside of the community: “How do we build enough street cred not just to help, but to be useful?”

To be “useful,” Farm Church adopted some asset-based community management methods to rebuild local relationships to offer successful routes to development (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). They draw connections with those they are serving so that community members can invest in themselves and generate their own resources more effectively. By doing so, the development path is a “capacity-based” one rather than a “need-driven” one (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). “The community [members] know themselves better than anybody” Allen said, “and they know what [the community’s] challenges are, [and] also what the solutions to those challenges are.” Thus, the neighborhood should claim the power and authority to fully use the assets for development. From Allen’s perspective, all the Farm Church needs to do is to apply the solutions that the community knows into practice, rather than impose preconceived notions of what the community needs without ever learning the community’s context.

Another inspiring lesson for community-based environmental management workers is “keep showing up, but keep our mouth shut and listen.” At first glance, it sounds easy, yet in the real-world setting it is pretty hard to remember this if we always want to “help,” but are not willing to put in the time, effort, and humility required to be truly “useful.” Being helpers indicates that one stands outside of the community and gives. Being useful requires being incorporated into the community, and entering into a reciprocal relationship of both giving and receiving; teaching and learning. Then, one can keep showing up with grace and humility, and genuinely offering their talents, resources, and visions, without pretension, and finally be useful to the community.

Farm Church is in a time of definition and transition: though they have undoubtedly created a strong community that is built on collective welfare and compassion, their aim of tackling food security is difficult because of the limited layers of social and economic strata they have been able to penetrate. Farm Church has attended to and improved the lives of its members through the creation of “community” and meaningful shared experiences, yet has remained largely distinct from the communities they intend to benefit. As they seek to “leverage all the resources of the Farm Church” to tackle food insecurity, the Farm Church will need to holistically consider what resources not only it, but also its surrounding community, can bring to the table, and how to truly unite and leverage both its member and target communities to become, unquestionably and persistently, “useful” to Durham.

Vegetables growing on the farmland. Photo by Sophia Bryson.


Works Referenced