In urban Atlanta, farmer Rashid Nuri is re-planting a church’s vision.
Squash, green beans and lettuce grow together on the corner of Hilliard and Old Wheat streets, in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward in northeast Atlanta. Volunteers covered in dirt work amongst the beds of vegetables while a new class of students sits under a tent, listening to Rashid Nuri, an agriculture specialist, teach them about soil preparation. Across the street, members of Wheat Street Baptist Church are just getting out of their church meeting and heading over to see the garden’s progress, while people from all over the world visit the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, located on the opposite corner of the street. Welcome to Atlanta’s newest center for urban farming.
The New Wheat Street Gardens is not just a garden. It’s a four-acre organic urban farm that brings opportunities for education, recreation and service to the Atlanta community. Rashid Nuri, a Harvard-educated farmer, operates the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture and leases the land from the Wheat Street Charitable Foundation. With the support of the Atlanta community, Rashid is creating a large-scale farming project. He says, “There is a growing movement in the U.S. and around the world to grow organic foods where most people live, which is in cities. In an area of downtown Atlanta that is well known locally and around the world, the use of the Wheat Street Garden property is an innovative way to promote forward thinking and nourish the people of Atlanta.”
Rashid is an energetic ambassador for urban farming. He will pop in to the health ministry meeting at Ebenezer and invite older gardeners to join in the work, and host a garden dinner party for the singles group at the church. He will partner with restaurants and soup kitchens, city leaders and the church usher board. He gives tours to hundreds of school children, trains new farmers, and provides a positive outlet for juvenile offenders. For Rashid, this is the whole point: “Food is a foundation of community life. The better the quality of our food, the stronger our community will become.”
This corner lot, where the garden now flourishes, has a history of urban innovation. In the early 1960s, under the leadership of Rev. William Holmes Borders of Wheat Street, the corner was a pilot site for a housing assistance project known as Wheat Street Gardens. Fifty years later, the apartment buildings have been torn down to give way to the New Wheat Street Gardens.
According to his granddaughter, community activist Julie Borders, Rev. Borders’ vision focused on sustainability and self-reliance. He knew how important farming could be for his urban congregation, so he purchased land 20 miles outside of Atlanta and started a farming summer camp for children. The white farmers in the area, however, were not pleased. They burned down the barn, and eventually Rev. Borders had to sell the land. While his other urban ventures were extremely successful, he never achieved his dream of introducing city children to the joy of farming. Now, Julie Borders says that her grandfather would be overjoyed at the New Wheat Street Gardens: “This represents an opportunity for the legacy to be realized. My grandfather was about self-reliance, and at this point in time, in this economy, we need to go back to the basics and get our sovereignty back as a people. That’s how he viewed his ministry.”
Rashid puts it this way: “The historic Wheat Street Baptist Church is once again taking the lead in bringing growth and opportunity to the heart of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, an inner city community that has seen its share of glory and blight.” With the efforts of the community and Rashid’s experience, the New Wheat Street Garden is cultivating this church’s long-standing vision, one seed at a time.
Rev. Stacy Smith is the Manager of Faith Community Outreach at the Church Health Center and a Parish Associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn.