Everyone reaps what church has sown

Every Sunday, members of Assurance United Methodist Church in Huntersville wheel a big cart into the church garden, fill it with vegetables and park it in front of the sanctuary.

The food is free. Anyone can take what they need for themselves or to give away.

The weekly piles of vegetables are some of the abundance that has come from the church's first sharing garden, planted on church property on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road.

Church member Lyle Ross came up with the idea for a garden several years ago. He thought the youth group could cultivate it and sell the produce to raise money.

But the idea didn't materialize until earlier this year, when Ross met a man who said he would prepare the land for a church garden.

The Assurance Sharing Garden was born, overseen by three men who really hadn't planted a garden before. Ross has taken the lead; he found someone who delivers mulch for free, which he said has been the secret ingredient in the garden's success.

Many plants were donated, and after the church received a $250 donation for the garden one Sunday, Ross said, he immediately went shopping for more. All the plants have thrived.

"The corn is 8-foot tall, and we've got 125 tomato plants and 100 pepper plants," Ross said. "Everybody says it looks like a professional garden."

The garden is divided into plots, and anyone who gardens there does so with the understanding they will donate some of their produce to others. Anyone, regardless of whether they are church members, can work a plot.

Much of the garden remains communal, where everything grown is donated. Ross estimates the church has given away more than 500 pounds of food.

Some of it has been given to area soup kitchens and food pantries. Sometimes people from the church take produce to people they know are having trouble affording groceries.

"It's brought this really unique group of folks together who weren't really connected," said Chris Westmoreland, pastor of Assurance church. "I think it's been a really wonderful surprise."

The church recently hosted a cookout with 200 in attendance. On the menu was produce from the garden, including fresh tomatoes, watermelon and corn on the cob.

Westmoreland said the sharing garden is a "perfect storm."

"It uses land we already had. It brings people together in community and fellowship. It reaches beyond our immediate congregation involving some of our neighbors. And it shares healthy food with our congregation and community," he said.

"In the Bible, church comes together to eat around 'table' a lot. In this ministry, church is actually working together to figure out what should go on the table. I think that makes the garden 'holy ground.'"

Ross' big plans for the garden include adding a pumpkin patch and apple trees, and planting fall vegetables.

"It's very humbling to know that you're part of something like this," Ross said. "It's just kind of breathtaking, when you look at it, to realize that the year before, there were weeds in there three feet tall."