Cornelius church helps feed South Africans

Grace Covenant Church on Statesville Road is helping the people of South Africa, hundreds of plants at a time.

Volunteers from the church have established 18 "shade gardens" in that country, where one in four people have HIV/AIDS and 80percent are unemployed in many communities.

Also called "veggitunnels," the nylon-covered gardens provide jobs and nutritious food such as spinach, peppers and tomatoes. Twelve of the gardens are in Johannesburg; the others are in Cape Town.

Church volunteers started the gardens on mission trips in recent years. Three more gardens are in the works, and the church hopes ultimately to plant 500 gardens in Africa, said Michelle Hoverson, associate pastor of missions and outreach.

The church has formed a nonprofit organization, Harvests of Hope International, that will make it easier to expand into other countries on the continent, Hoverson said.

Hoverson and lead pastor Farrell Lemings came up with the garden idea after asking each other how the church could help people who have HIV/AIDS.

Each vegitunnel has 900 plants, which produce enough food for 40 people a week during South Africa's two 16-week growing seasons.

Charlotte-based technology consultant C5 Insight became the effort's first corporate sponsor when it donated money for a full garden, to honor employee Amber Butler's five-year anniversary with the firm.

"We just thought, 'What better way to serve our team and the global community than reaching out to those in need?' In this case (it's) Africa," said Geoff Ables, a C5 Insight managing partner.

South African pastor Glen Denyssen said the effect of the gardens is immense. People infected with HIV live years longer by eating nutritious vegetables, he said.

Denyssen visited Grace Covenant for 10 days recently to thank the congregation for helping "the poorest of the poor" in his native country.

I met Denyssen Monday outside the front of the church, where volunteers built a temporary shade garden so other members of the congregation could see one up close during his stay. His visit ended Wednesday.

Denyssen, 50, has ministered in his native country since he was 30. With his wife's blessing, the father of two left a corporate job to minister full time.

The gardens are important to his ministry, he said, because "you can't share the gospel with someone who's hungry. But once you feed them, you can share the gospel."

As Hoverson and Lemings tell people, the gardens plant hope.