Something new is growing at Open Door Mennonite Church in Jackson, Miss.
Seeking ways to engage residents in the city of 180,000 people, the small congregation teamed up with Hugh Hollowell, formerly of Raleigh, N.C., to respond to unmet needs. Their answer ended up being a community garden project aiming to feed bodies and souls.
After moving back last summer to the state he grew up in, Hollowell set to work identifying gaps in area services. He had worked in nonprofit circles with hunger and homelessness for 12 years while connected with Raleigh Mennonite Church, and kept returning to issues of food security in Jackson.
“In 2017 Jackson was named the fattest city in America, and that same year we were named the top state for food insecurity,” he said. “We grow billions in dollars of food in Mississippi, but it’s almost all industrial — field corn, soybeans, cotton — not food.”
Dubbed Open Door’s community pastor, Hollowell sometimes preaches but is focused mainly outside the building’s walls. Since no one at the church receives a wage, he worked with some donors back in North Carolina to cover his salary for three years as he develops the new ministry.
“Jackson’s a mess food-wise. There’s like four grocery stores to speak of, but something like 150 gas stations and 100 fast-food restaurants,” he said. “So it’s much easier to get crappy food than good food.”
Proving it can be done
What the city lacks in healthy food options, it makes up for in empty land. Although many people moved to Jackson and bought houses after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Hollowell said the 2008 recession left them without ways to pay for those homes and no local safety net connections. Many properties were abandoned.
Open Door’s solution uses empty land and a lengthy growing season under the name Jackson City Farm. Tweaking the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model of paying a regular amount for monthly or weekly deliveries of locally grown food, Open Door envisions getting fresh fruits and vegetables — and the knowledge to prepare them — into the hands of the people who need them the most.
“If we can feed 100 families on two acres of land, which I believe we ought to be able to do, then if nothing else, it helps with the problem but also demonstrates it can be done,” Hollowell said. “I don’t need to till all the land, I just need to demonstrate it can be done and provide a model, so other people can till some land.”
In addition to a plot of land on the grounds where Open Door meets, Hollowell has secured a fallow garden another church hasn’t used for a couple of years, and a few more acres of land elsewhere.
Open Door Pastor Horace McMillon said the congregation is excited about the project.
“Having a Service Adventure unit as part of the church has been extremely meaningful,” he said. “There’s not a family in the congregation that’s not been a part of supporting that, and I think this will be a similar thing. I think there are additional people in the community who will be interested in this and will become more involved in the church itself.”
McMillon believes Hollowell’s Mississippi homecoming was a response to prayer. After several congregations departed Gulf States Mennonite Conference, he wondered if he had overstayed his call at Open Door. Soon after the leadership team began praying about a direction, the church was selected to host a service unit, and then Hollowell contacted the church.
“We’ve been praying for people and resources, and all of a sudden people and resources show up,” he said.
Before Open Door was a church, it was itself a service unit, so meeting the needs of the community is in its DNA.
Sharing meals like Jesus
Hollowell sees this ministry fitting snugly within Christ’s evangelical spirit. Feeding people was central to how Jesus interacted with others. The apostles didn’t know him in the Emmaus story until they shared a meal with him.
“One of the oldest traditions in Christianity centers around a meal,” Hollowell said. “If Jesus is known for anything, it’s his engagement with food. We pray the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus says it’s God’s dream for on earth as it is in heaven. I’ll bet those people aren’t hungry.”
Young tomato plants started from seeds are taking over his office, awaiting a chance to spread their roots. A group of students from Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona will spend spring break helping establish the gardens.
The future looks bright, and tasty.
“On one hand we’re talking about growing a bunch of food, but what we’re really talking about is improving health and giving people agency over their lives,” Hollowell said. “Hopefully we’ll make Jackson better.”