Minister’s move from six-figure fundraising position to community gardening was ‘tectonic’ shift
DENTON, N.C. — When Don Durham speaks of the “shift” in of his ministry, he’s talking more along the lines of a shift in tectonic plates that leads to an earthquake than of a routine change in jobs.
In June 2010, Durham, then 41, swapped white collars for a sunburned neck. He moved from a comfortable home in Atlanta to a farm near Denton, N.C, that doesn’t include a house. He let his hair grow long. His most reliable transportation became his Harley. Rather than working with those who donate and invest money, he found himself dealing with those who are struggling.
Durham walked away from a six-figure job as president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation to start growing food to give to the needy. He left a job in which he worked mostly with conventional churches and started ministering to people who sometimes feel that an organized church has no place for them.
Two years later, Durham says he’s convinced that he made the right move, even if he’s sometimes discouraged at the pace of progress at his community garden, Healing Springs Acres. After two growing seasons, he’s still tending crops on a little more than one acre, even though he has 20 acres ready for expansion. The crops, planted, tended, harvested and distributed with a lot of volunteer help, were primarily potatoes — more than 2,000 pounds of white, yellow and red varieties this year — and corn. He’d like more variety.
But his two seasons at Healing Springs Acres have provided a lot of food — an estimated 8,600 pounds in 2011 — for the hungry, much of it distributed through His Laboring Few, a biker ministry in nearby Thomasville, N.C.
“I think that’s well worth doing, and a tangible expression of Jesus’ statement of ‘for I was hungry and you fed me,’ ” Durham said.
Durham dates his ministerial “shift” to his “epiphany,” on a January night in Daytona, Fla., in 2008.
Until that moment, his life had been split in two. He’d grown up in a rural, often prejudiced, insular community. When he left to attend Mars Hill College, “I had to make a pretty clean break with huge chunks of the culture that had produced me. I felt that many of the values I had inherited from my culture were 180 degrees opposite from values I was internalizing as I figured out what it meant to follow Jesus and be a minister.”
After graduating from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Durham started the white-collar career raising and managing money for religious and educational institutions that culminated in his eight years with the CBF.
But that night in Daytona, mingling with people like those he’d left behind, he felt that his “worlds collided.”
“I began trying to remember and interact with pieces of myself that I hadn’t interacted with in a long time,” he said. “I eventually realized that no matter who I have become, where I’ve gone and what I’ve done, that culture I grew up in is always going to be home base. It took me a couple of weeks to realize that whatever had happened that night in Daytona was something that I needed to pay attention to and find a way to respond to.”
For the next year and a half, Durham worked on that response. His decision was made easier because he wanted to be closer to his two daughters, who live with their mother north of Charlotte. He could have continued his work with the CBF from a North Carolina base, but he felt the time was right to do something different.
He was inspired by the writings of church and society specialist Tex Sample about ministry to the down-and-out and by gardening ministries such as Fields of Hope at Mars Hill Baptist Church in North Carolina’s Madison County. He started the Healing Springs farm with the idea of collecting volunteers, then progressing to Bible study and a church. But he began to question the need for yet another congregation. And he began to think that growing food and giving it away was a worthwhile ministry in itself.
Durham served as interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Elkin, N.C., for several months. He enjoyed working with that church’s garden ministry, and church members have come to Healing Springs to help him. First Baptist Church in Denton sends many volunteers and has adopted Healing Springs as a mission project.
The CBF of North Carolina also has made Healing Springs Acres a ministry partner, accepting contributions on its behalf. And Durham sometimes works as a consultant helping CBF churches figure out ways to “be a relevant ministry for people in their community who aren’t already a part of us,” he said.
Durham has come to realize that to develop Healing Springs Acres to its full potential, he’ll have to raise money for the ministry. That may be a return of sorts to the job he thought he’d left behind — but things seem very different on the farm.
Linda Brinson ([email protected]) is a Religious Herald contributing writer, based in Madison, N.C.