When harvests are reaped, they’re given away

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

When a group of 12 retirees volunteered to help along the Gulf Coast, lending their talents in any way they could following the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, they had no idea it would lead to years of extraordinary work back in their Shoals hometowns.

Sometime before the record-setting storm had made landfall in Louisiana, Lafayette Hill, a retired worker from TVA, had joined a “Prayer and Share” group in Florence.

“We were meeting at St. James (United Methodist Church) on Cox Creek, and one of the men said they were going to New Orleans after Katrina. I asked if I could go with them,” Hill said. “They said, ‘Yes, come on, we’re going off to help somebody.’ The second day we were there, someone in their church family had passed. We had to come back.”

Having seen the wreckage himself, Hill called on a few former TVA co-workers who had become close friends.

Willie Buchanan and Cardell Gay rounded up a few more friends and retirees, including Norris Ricks, Earl Bailey, Bernard Blair, Dulian Fanning, Fred Freeman, Oscar Meredith, Freddie Hogan, Willie Madden and Cleveland Watkins.

Together the group of men would eventually form the Northwest Alabama Christian Ministry.

“We represented five to seven different churches, but we all came together,” Buchanan said. “Usually, the local diocese would organize it all, and we’d have different groups going down at different times to do certain work. So, we might go down and put sheetrock up in a house, and the next group coming down would be doing some painting, and things like that.”

Buchanan and Hill said the men made five trips to the Gulf Coast, including stops in New Orleans, Biloxi and Moss Point, Mississippi, and some rural towns in Baldwin County, Alabama, which had all been hit by Katrina or the tropical storm’s outer bands.

The Category 5 hurricane and its aftermath, which claimed more than 1,800 lives, has been ranked as the costliest natural disaster to hit the United Sates.

“When we were in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, they would show us inside some of the houses where the water had reached the ceiling,” Gay said. “We’d seen what they’d gone through down there. They were living in trailers about the size of a bedroom. You had to have compassion for them.”

Buchanan agreed, adding that he hadn’t considered the way a small, seemingly insignificant act could leave a lasting impact.

“When we went back to D’Iberville (Mississippi), I had wanted us to work on some people’s house, but they assigned us to work on a playground,” he said. “The next year, we went down to see the playground we had built, and those kids were so proud to have a place to play. It was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever experienced.”

Afterwards, the men decided to put their talents to use in their local communities, so the Northwest Alabama Christian Ministry began volunteering to build ramps for homebound residents and till gardens for elderly neighbors.

In 2006, the ministry partnered with a local co-op and started a gardening project at Leighton Elementary School to give the students some hands-on learning experience that would also benefit children in need in the area.

The following year, the men did some painting on campus at Colbert Heights High to help fill project and funding gaps at the school.

Hill said each member of the group volunteered for the projects without being asked by another organization or church.

“Some of these men are younger than I am — I’m almost grown,” Hill said with a laugh. “They didn’t really understand, and I still want the children to know, that all of this is because of our Creator. Not because some governor or some organization said do this or do that. It’s because of the love that we had and still have for humanity.”

From 2006 to 2009 the ministry had tilled dozens of gardens throughout Lauderdale and Colbert counties. Quickly realizing they were often repeating work at homes where residents weren’t physically able to keep the ground broken, the members decided to shift their approach.

Hill, Buchanan and Earl Bailey each offered land so the group could begin raising crops.

That first year, they donated hundreds of melons and 224 pounds of fresh pears, okra and tomatoes to Trinity Episcopal Church, the Salvation Army, Mt. Moriah P.B. Church, and to the Help Center food pantry in Florence.

Since then the ministry has donated bushels of beans, beets, cabbages, carrots, collard and turnip greens, corn, peas, peppers, squash and other produce to more than 15 churches, senior centers and charitable organizations all over the Tennessee Valley.

Hill said the ministry would often set up outside of First Missionary Baptist Church in Tuscumbia, or Mt. Moriah in Florence, and allow individuals to pick produce from their trailer, no questions asked.

“I’ve been asked several times, ‘How much do y’all get for this?’” Hill said. “We have never charged anybody for anything.”

He said the group has hosted dinners at different churches and as long as food was available, anyone could come and eat for free.

“It’s a good feeling to give,” ministry member Norris Ricks said. “The Bible said it’s better to give than receive. We feel the truth of that when we’re giving people greens and vegetables and stuff.”

While some years yield more produce than others, Ricks and Hill said they feel they’ve been blessed in return for their efforts.

“One year, we grew so many watermelons, I think everybody picked up 40 or 50,” Ricks said, adding that after the men met with their hauls, Hill sent up a prayer of gratitude for the bounty.

“When Mr. Hill finished praying, I went to pray: ‘Lord, yes, thank you for the watermelons, but next year, let’s not grow so many.’”

Bernard Blair, another of the group’s youngest members, said he’s learned a lot from his fellow gardeners led by Hill, Buchanan and Gay.

“Mr. Hill has a lot of sayings that stick with us,” he said with a laugh. “If we’ve had days of rain and then the sun comes out, Mr. Hill will call us, ‘The Lord turned the light on again. We’ve got to get up and do something. Let’s start moving.’”

The group has lost members over time — a couple have passed away and a few have moved out of town. Those that remain still show up whenever there are seeds to plant, or produce to pick. The men still give away all that they reap.

“We’re just individuals doing what Christians are supposed to do,” Bailey said.