Growing Change in an Urban Garden

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BY LYDIAN BERNHARDT AVERITT |

When a professor at a Greensboro college set out in 2013 to help a struggling northeast Greensboro community improve its food choices, he planned to build an urban farm – the city’s first – as part of the project.

In doing so, he built a bridge.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

The neighborhood had lost its only full-service grocery store in the 1990s, in addition to other areas of decline, and was drifting into being a food desert. Neighbors formed a group, Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, and approached the professor, who works in the Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He agreed to share his expertise.

“Communities are naturally suspicious of university professors, because they know that we’re going to come in, do our project, collect our data and get our results, then write our papers and leave,” he said. “They are right; projects do end. They have to take it over. So, when I do this development work, I have to make them recognize that they are responsible for their own development.”

But the professor managed to not only help feed a hungry community, but coach its residents to adopt lifestyle changes and take responsibility for their own development. And, while the project itself is in no way religious, it does call to mind Biblical injunctions for feeding the poor and caring for others, and is a powerful reminder about each person’s call to use their skills to help another.

“Do not forget to do good and share with others, for with such sacrifices, God is pleased,” says Hebrews 13:16.

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ,” reminds Galatians 6:2.

His ambitious project included surveying neighborhood residents about their eating habits, training them in healthy shopping practices, working with community groups on the urban farm, identifying liaisons in the community to encourage members’ participation, and interacting with the members themselves.

The project seeks to address not just the problem of fresh food availability, but to understand the eating habits that drive people’s food choices and affect their overall health. These habits are based on values so ingrained that they are often not even recognized by the people who hold them.

“Values influence behavior, but it’s all implicit based on their experience,” he said. “We had to make it explicit so they could see clearly how their decisions were based, point out the disadvantages of acting that way, and attach fresh values to the new behavior.  Then, it’s easier to train people to make a different food choice.”

Photo by Lou Liebau on Unsplash

Through his efforts, the project has sunk deep roots into the neighborhood. A co-op grocery is selling the farm’s produce. The White Street area has fresh produce at an affordable price, through the community farm, and the community members have acquired the knowledge to make healthier dietary choices. They have also learned the skills to make healthy meals.

“Give, and it will be given to you,” says Luke 6:38. In supporting a needy community, the givers received a psychological reward themselves.

“It’s easy to put structures up,” the professor says, “It’s harder to marshal the human element. Reinforcement has to be continuous. When members of the community ask if I’m going to stay involved in it, I tell them yes. As long as I am here, I’ll be involved in it.”


Photo via Lydian Averitt

Lydian Bernhardt Averitt is a freelance writer and editor, an amateur musician and a lifelong Moravian who attends First Moravian Church in Greensboro, NC. Contact her at Lydian@triad.rr.com.


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Higher Power: the Grand Organizing Designer

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BY LYDIAN AVERITT |

Photo by Grant Ritchie via Unsplash.com

Photo by Grant Ritchie via Unsplash.com

 
“Nothing too religious,” the mom cautioned our Facebook group. “We’re not looking for anything too heavy. More inspirational, or spiritual.”

The mom, whom I knew only slightly, needed a clergy member. Since she didn’t know any, she had asked our group if we had a name to share, but with this caveat.  

A reasonable request, maybe – except that the request was being made on the behalf of her son, and the occasion was his wedding.

At the risk of seeming judgmental, I indulged in a little disbelief. To Protestant Christians, marriage is a sacred promise; in the Bible, Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding, turning water into wine at Cana. To have a merely inspirational ceremony seemed, to me, to miss the gravity of the commitment. At this most powerful moment, the young man’s family was choosing to send him off into the next phase of life strengthened by …what?

The family in question isn’t alone. According to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan group of experts that provides social science-driven information to the public, slightly more than a quarter of Americans do not necessarily practice a religion, but think of themselves as spiritual. They say that, while religious people follow the dogma of a certain faith, spiritual people are more free to follow their own faith path, believing in inter-connectedness and a vaguely defined higher power, greater than they but without rules or form.1

Pivotal life events aside, just on a daily basis, is feeling that there is a power greater than you – but stopping short of calling that power “God” – ok? In going through life’s trials and adversities, is mere spirituality, with its abstract connection to a “higher power,” enough?

Yes, says Mike Connors, without hesitation. Connors is the director and clinical supervisor for Greensboro, N.C.’s chapter of The Insight Program, an enthusiastic sobriety program loosely based on the venerable Alcoholics Anonymous, and he spoke to a parents’ group I attended recently. ‘Enthusiastic sobriety,’ I found out, means abstaining from drugs and alcohol – with partying. The 13-25 year olds in the program joke around, smoke and act as rebellious, loud and obnoxious as teenagers can, only with a purpose: to replace the false security and confidence many find in addictive substances with the real thing. Since its founding in 1987, the program has helped tens of thousands of teens and young adults beat drug and alcohol addiction. A key component of the recovery process is the belief in a “higher power.”  

Photo of Mike Connors

Mike Connors, Director and Clinical Supervisor, The Insight Program | Photo by Lydian Averitt

“When these kids come into the program, they’re all over the place,” Connors says. “Some have been in active addiction for years. Some are very willing to admit that their life has become unmanageable, others are resistant to the idea. The thing they all have in common is powerlessness in the face of their addiction. So, the solution must be seeking a power that is greater than the individual alone.”

To explain the program’s “higher power” concept, Insight founder Bob Meehan points in his own writing to C.S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. The book’s first chapter – the first step of Lewis’s larger plan to demonstrate that Christianity is truth – never mentions a Christian God;  instead, Lewis first establishes that there is power in the universe greater than humans’, and that the power is good.

As a first step in rehabilitating young lives, that belief is all you need, Connors says.

“When a person enters the program, that higher power is the love for the person that is expressed by the group. Many of the youth feel disenfranchised from school, friends, family, and religion, even those who grew up in a faith tradition. The group becomes their social and psychological support.

“We say, ‘Love within, love without, love in between,’ ‘’ Connors says.

There’s the supportive love the group members express for each other. The accepting love of self the program teaches, in order to combat the destructive self-talk to which many of them have succumbed. The outward-turning love for others that allows them to grow.

“The support of the group is love, which is what God is all about, right?” Connors says. “There are lots of parallels to organized religion, but we don’t teach a certain belief system or put a name on it – why would we? The point is the seeking.”

Even if “the greatest of these is love,” seeking the Lord while he may be found gets trickier. Although the group chooses to call the higher power “God,” the individual participants don’t necessarily mean the God they may have grown up with.

“When they first come in, they’re at their worst, and so it often stands for “get over death.’ That’s as much as they’ll allow “g.o.d.’ to be,” Connors says.

“As time goes by, recovery begins and the support of the group kicks in, and it becomes “group of drunks’ or “group of dope fiends.’  Then, more time goes by, and it becomes “good orderly direction:” are you moving forward in life? Are you turning outward to help people instead of dwelling on yourself? Do you have a goal and a purpose? Are you a good, moral, loving person?”

Finally, Connors says, it becomes an acronym for “grand organizing designer.’

“It’s a process,” he says. “As they recover, an almost existential search takes place. They start to say, ‘ok, I know there’s a power greater than me, expressed by the group’s love for me, but I know there’s something still more.‘ It opens them up to the idea of God. It gets the ball rolling.”

Just as “group of drunks” becomes “grand organizing designer,”  so does the participants’ disenfranchisement yield to belief in a power greater than they, and a very Moravian response starts to take place: faith, that their higher power won’t let them down; hope, that they can begin anew; and love for their fellow members and friends.

The saying on Connors's sweatshirt, "Big Enough," answers the question posed by the program, "Is your God big enough?' | Photo by Lydian B. Averitt

The saying on Connors’s sweatshirt, “Big Enough,” answers the question posed by the program, “Is your God big enough?’ | Photo by Lydian Averitt

“I refuse to give God a name, sex or creed,” Bob Meehan writes. “I do insist that they put a period after God, not a question mark.” 2

Is spirituality enough? Maybe so, as a foundation upon which a higher power can build. Whether named or implied, God’s presence is palpable. As their walk together unfolds, maybe God’s plan for some lives can be more fully told.


 

 

  • What Does it Mean to be Spiritual? Consciousbridge.com. April 9, 2013.
  • Meehan, Bob. Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. Meek Publishing, 2000.

 

 


Photo via Lydian Averitt

Lydian Bernhardt Averitt is a freelance writer and editor, and is the coordinator of the family financial planning certificate program at North Carolina A&T State University. She is an amateur musician and a lifelong Moravian who attends First Moravian Church in Greensboro, NC. Contact her at Lydian@triad.rr.com.


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Sacred Music: Sing On

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BY LYDIAN AVERITT |

Painting of George Fredick Handel

Thomas Hudson (English, 1701-1749). “Georg Friedrich Händel,” 1741. Oil painting. | Public domain image

It’s the most performed piece of classical music in the world: George Frederick Handel’s famous oratorio Messiah. Almost a Cliff’s Notes of the Bible, the piece tells the story, in orchestral and vocal form, of Jesus Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. Composed in 1741 and almost immediately a hit, the piece has never gone out of style: in 2010, according to the web site Classical Net, there were enough productions of Messiah worldwide to hold two a day, nearly every day of the year.  That’s more than twice as many as the next-closest competitor, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Although Handel didn’t envision Messiah as a Christmas work–he actually wrote it for Easter–most of these performances will be compressed into this very season: the weeks between the November 1 and December 25.

I sang the piece recently in the Mozart Club’s community chorus in Winston-Salem, NC at the urging of my mother, a 30-year veteran of the chorus. “I’m telling you,” she said, matter-of-factly. “It’s glorious.”

The chorus from the Mozart Club’s 2010 presentation of the Messiah in Winston-Salem | Photo by Phil Averitt

As mothers often are, mine was right: the experience was transformative. The beauty of the music. The power of the orchestra.  The sheer emotion of being in the center of a swirling vortex of sound, retelling, as conductor James Allbritten described it, “the greatest story ever told.”    

Naturally, I recruited my own then-19-year-old daughter to join us the next year, and the piece hooked her as well. So much so that, when I asked for her thoughts, she replied with the exaggerated patience that only a teenage girl can muster: “Mom. You have no idea how much I love to do this.”

And she wasn’t alone; the members of the chorus were as diverse as a group could be, with black people, white people, men and women, students, parents, grandparents. All could agree on the joy of being a part of the stirring performance–the club’s 80th, no less.

At this time of year, as musicians everywhere start their seasonal rehearsals, the question arises: What is it about the Messiah, or about spiritual music in general, that has such power to move us and draw us back, a cross-section of humanity, again and again? Is it its familiarity? Is it the tradition?

The First Moravian, Greensboro flute trio, playing Christmas carols at the church’s Candle Tea. The author, Lydian, is in the middle; her daughter Caroline is on the right; the flute player on left is Cleo Dimmick | Photo by Phil Averitt

According to the Rev. Will Eads, a clinician with CareNet Counseling, a community-based care organization affiliated with Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, it’s a matter of a term called “hymnody.”

Literally meaning “the collective hymns of a specific religion, place or period,” hymnody more broadly refers to the shared musical experiences of a community of people, singing commonly known, ecclesiastically-based music.  Amazing Grace. Be Thou My Vision. Silent Night. Even the Messiah’s famous Hallelujah chorus.

“Sacred music is transcendent as far as time. It resonates with us, and it’s relevant to us today,” Eads says. “Many people can relate, and have related, to this music in the same way, and have done so for a long time. That’s what makes the difference.”

Sacred music is not the only music that can draw people together as a community. Rock, jazz, pop, and country songs can all do it. The difference, according to Eads, is that rock or jazz or country songs are usually based on emotion, and they speak to one individual, or to a group of people that can identify with the emotion that the songwriter is conveying.

“The composer has said, ‘How do I personally feel today?’ and whatever one group of people may be going through enables them to relate to the song equally emotionally,” Eads says.

For a piece to have hymnody, it has to affect us in, literally, more ways than one.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

“There’s a collective consciousness that sets hymns and pieces of sacred music apart. They are based on group knowledge; they are emotionally transcendent. They have an ecclesiastical embodiment. And they are able to reach most of us psychologically, wherever we are. They are bio-psycho-socio-spiritual. They speak to us on all four levels.

“Sacred music is almost sacramental. It’s is a tangible, physical way to connect to the divine.”

Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf got it. The composer of more than 2,000 hymns, the Moravian church leader revived and extended the hymnody tradition in his assembly of the first provincial Moravian hymnal, published in German in 1735.1 His philosophy in organizing that hymnal is still stated in the first pages of the current one: “The hymnal is a kind of response to the Bible, an echo and an extension thereof. In the Bible, one perceives how the Lord communicates with people; in the hymnal, how people communicate with the Lord.”

And, George Frederick Handel got it. According to legend, he wrote the music for the slightly more-than 3-hour Messiah in just 24 days, working steadily under divine inspiration. “I did think I did see the whole heaven before me, and the great God himself,” Handel is said to have marveled, at the end of his writing marathon. “Whether I was in my body, or out of my body, I know not. God knows.”2

As instruments tune, choirs assemble and the season to sing out gets under way, people everywhere can know again the power of a shared, sacred musical experience, whether or not they are Moravian–“The singin’-est people I’ve ever met,” declared a friend after attending a lovefeast for the first time.

“Hymnody is the rock in the river,” Eads says. “As we feel lost and adrift, we can reach out and grab it and feel connected to something larger than we are. “

For that, we can all sing, “Hallelujah!”


 

  1. Farrell, Michael. Blake and the Moravians. Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.
  2. Schonberg, Harold. The Lives of the Great Composers. W.W. Norton and Company, 1997.

 


Photo via Lydian Averitt

Lydian Bernhardt Averitt is a freelance writer and editor, and is the coordinator of the family financial planning certificate program at North Carolina A&T State University. She is an amateur musician and a lifelong Moravian who attends First Moravian Church in Greensboro, NC. Contact her at Lydian@triad.rr.com.


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