For ten months, Brian Boyles knocked on the front doors of dozens upon dozens of houses in the Hidden Valley community; not many opened.
It wasn’t until the 11th month – when he started carrying a few cucumbers and zucchinis fresh from his church’s garden – that he began to see some of the faces inside.
“It opened up doors faster,” said Boyles, senior pastor at Northside Baptist Church. “(Before that) we probably got a third of them to open their doors.”
For the past year, members of Northside Baptist Church have toiled at ways to be relevant to the Hidden Valley community. They’re neighbors, separated by Interstate 85 but connected through West Sugar Creek Road.
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As a mostly Caucasian congregation reaching out to a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood, the church has struggled to make a difference among people who may view the church as too different.
Now, church leaders think they’ve found a way. It has to do with the carrots, squash, and peppers growing inside the greenhouses behind their sanctuary.
“We have all of these resources. So what can we do to use them to matter, so that the community is glad that we’re here?” said Boyles. “The bigger hope to us is not to grow the church. The bigger hope is to matter to the community.”
What started as a door-to-door vegetable drop-off has escalated into a new farmers market for the community.
Every Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m., church members set up tables and lay down a bounty picked fresh each week from the greenhouses. A shiny silver scale measures bunches of small carrots, jalapeño peppers and whatever else is in season, all at an affordable $1 a pound.
Hidden Valley, once a middle-class neighborhood, now suffers the after-effects of the crime brought in during the late 1980s by the Hidden Valley Kings, a violent gang notorious for drug and prostitution rings.
Boyles, 37, remembers what the neighborhood was like before the gang moved in. Growing up, he spent plenty of afternoons playing at his grandparents’ home in Hidden Valley.
“My grandparents lived and died in Hidden Valley. My dad grew up in Hidden Valley,” he said. “It was fine. We ran around the streets and had a good time. This was the early ’80s. Then it went downhill fast.”
Police have cracked down on much of the gang’s influence, but some remains. That makes many residents hesitant to open their doors to strangers.
“They know we’re not from around here,” said Tod Skinner, an outreach pastor who has spent months forging through the community, asking residents how the church can help them.
One side of Skinner’s church office is decorated with an enormous 5- by 5-foot poster diagramming the streets they’ve visited and what the church has learned from their conversations. From those conversations, said Skinner, it’s evident that a fight to reclaim the neighborhood still lives in the hearts of most residents.
“You can say that gangs are here, prostitutes are here and drugs are here, but people love their community here,” he said.
He hopes they’ll also come to see that the church and the community really aren’t that different.
“People are people. They have nutritional needs. They have spiritual needs. They have community needs,” he said. “If we can help the community, they will embrace us.”