Farm Church Cultivates Both Food and Fellowship

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Nico Johnson at Farm Church
Nico Johnson works in the garden with his children, Caleb, 7, and Joshua, 5.

By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by Beth Mann

Church should be like ‘Cheers,’” Rev. Allen Brimer says. “It should be a place where you feel known, loved and cared for in all seasons of life.” This is one of the principles that guides Allen and his fellow pastors, Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase and Rev. Brandon Wert, in their service with Farm Church.

“It is exactly what it sounds like: a church that meets on a farm,” Allen says. “But it’s also so much more. It represents a dream and a mission that have been a long time in the making.”

Allen’s first career was in farming, but he left to attend McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. While at school, it quickly became clear that he didn’t want to go into traditional congregational ministry. “For years, I kept trying to figure out how to combine farming with service to build an intentional, mission-driven community,” Allen says.

Allen did work in traditional churches for 15 years, first in Indiana and then in Kentucky. Then, in 2014, he, Ben and Brandon got together with their families for a vacation. The three had attended seminary together and stayed in touch over the years. “We started talking about what it would be like to move to the same place and have our children grow up together.”

Rob Womack with Farm Church
Rob Womack, center, turns over soil in preparation for a new crop.

Two weeks later, Ben had a dream that he took a job at a new church, sight unseen. Ben called Allen the next morning with an outpouring of ideas for feeding people – both literally and spiritually – through an alternate kind of worship. “He said [that, in his dream,] he got there, and there was no building, just a farm,” Allen recalls. “He was talking about Sunday school in a chicken coop, having the kids collect eggs.”

Allen was sold, but knew it would be hard to find a role for three Presbyterian pastors at the same time and place. With Ben’s dream as the inspiration, the three friends decided to build their own church instead, and turned their focus to finding the ideal location.

“Durham was sort of a dark horse candidate,” Allen says. “We didn’t know anyone here or have any network at all.” But, Durham floated to the surface for a number of reasons: “We wanted an urban center, but one near open land, which we have north and east of here almost immediately.”

The polarity of the food culture here also stood out. “When we visited on a Saturday, the Durham Farmers Market was booming,” Allen says. “Then we found out Durham has a [nearly] 18% food insecurity rate. That was something we thought we could plug into and help address.”

Pastor Brandon Wert greets fellow churchgoers
Pastor Brandon Wert greets fellow churchgoers at the start of the service.

Allen, Ben and their families moved here in August 2015. After months of networking and creating a partnership with SEEDS, a nonprofit garden school, Farm Church opened May 1, 2016.

“SEEDS has given us free space to meet, and we have done a lot of work for them on their grounds and to help promote them and their mission,” Allen says, adding that they are working on expanding their partnership. “We also have gardens around the city where we have small plots of vegetables.”

Farm Church’s congregation has grown to about 100 in its first three years, with regular attendance ranging from 50 to 70 on Sundays. “Our first hour of worship begins with our hands in the soil,” Allen says. “No matter what the message of the day is, that’s how we begin.”

The church gives away all of its produce. “We really strive to get it into the hands of those who would not have access to it otherwise,” Allen says. “We are especially bridging the gap for those who can afford some groceries, but can’t justify spending their limited budget on low-calorie items like fresh vegetables.”

By harvesting on Sundays and Wednesdays, when other churches meet, they can immediately bring food to adjacent pantries. “Giving it directly to the clients means folks get it when it is the freshest, and therefore has the most nutrients,” Allen says. It also skips the need for refrigeration, which keeps costs down.

The second hour of Sunday worship is held inside the SEEDS building, and includes song, prayer and scripture. “Folks who come to Farm Church are largely people who have church backgrounds of some kind, or are spiritually hungry,” Allen says.

“After high school, I took a long hiatus from church attendance because I was hoping to find one that placed its top priority in serving people outside the group, and I feel that I finally found it in Farm Church,” says Fleming Talton, who has been a part of Farm Church since the beginning. “Newcomers frequently relate to us that they feel affirmatively welcomed and greeted without feeling overwhelmed or pressured.”

Mark McIntyre, who plays keyboard in the church band, has been attending for almost a year. “I was aware of the community and kept up from a distance before deciding to visit,” he says. “Once I did, I knew almost immediately that I’d found my place.”

Fleming, also a regular in the church band, says the best thing about it is the outward-facing focus: “We dedicate concentrated, dynamic energy to improving the land around us, grow truly nourishing food from it, and then find ways to get it to the people who need it the most. It’s a radically simple and energizing concept to me.”

Betsy Johnson with her son after Farm Church service
Betsy Johnson sings along with son Silas, 2, during the service.

By contrast, in his experience as a pastor in traditional churches, Allen felt the work was “a mile wide and an inch deep,” with disparate projects and funding that had little sustained effect. “This congregation does one thing: We address food insecurity in Durham, and with that focus, make a real measurable impact,” he says. “Folks literally go home with the dirt under their fingernails as evidence of their participation in something meaningful. And it’s feeding their soul at the same time.”

Sarah Connette, who has been a member of Farm Church since mid-2018, says, “caring for the Earth resounds as a theme throughout biblical narratives, bringing together relationships around food, community, hospitality, economy, poverty and more. To be in a place that is grounded in these relationships, and questioning how to better seek justice in all its many forms, continues to provide meaning in refreshing ways.”

What makes the community special, Mark says, is that it places meeting physical human needs on the same footing as meeting spiritual and emotional needs. “Christ wasn’t only known for his teaching,” he says. “He fed the hungry and healed the sick. I wanted a community that recognized the importance of this duality, and I found it in Farm Church.”

On its mission to provide fresh produce to those who need it, Farm Church works to engage with many different sides of Durham. Members have participated in the Pride Parade, taken part in Habitat for Humanity builds in their neighborhood and even started a tool-sharing library. Looking to the future, Allen says their goals include reinforcing their partnerships, finding new ways to measure their impact and expanding to other projects.

One such project is the Edible Bus Stop. Sarah is part of this team, which is working with SEEDS and sustainable landscaping company Bountiful Backyards to plan an edible landscape at the bus stop at Holloway and North Elizabeth streets. “The hope is that folks waiting for the bus might also enjoy picking and learning more about various flowers, herbs, fruits and veggies in this lush little spot of Earth,” she says. “A garden can offer so much – refuge, community, nourishment, knowledge, humility, strength, healing – and I’m excited to be a part of the story.”   

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Morgan Weston

Morgan Weston

Durham Magazine freelancer Morgan Weston is a North Carolina native who loves exploring the Triangle's diverse food, arts and craft beer offerings.

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