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Urban farmers bless Flint

A solution to problem water in Flint has been found by going back to the soil.

Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area

Over the past two years United Methodists in Michigan, led by pastors and churches in the Crossroads District, have been responding to their neighbors’ needs in Flint.

The problems began in the spring of 2014 when the city changed its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The effects of lead contamination, the result of insufficient water treatment, plagued residents. An organized effort to alleviate suffering was launched by the Crossroads District in January 2015 with the help of a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. These early measures focused on water testing and filtering along with distribution of bottled water.

Today courts, legislators and contractors move toward resolution of water woes. Experts say the quality of the water has improved. Water lines are being replaced with a January 2020 deadline to finish the job. A long-term contract for water supply has yet to be signed. In the midst of the continued legal and political maneuverings, residents remain wary and weary.

Where can the people place their trust and hope for recovery? In enterprises like Asbury Farm, a growing ministry of Asbury United Methodist Church. Tommy McDoniel, Asbury’s pastor since 2010, explains: As we learned more about the importance of proper nutrition as a means to mitigate the negative effects of lead, Asbury’s response to the water situation began to move from crisis mode to a longer term perspective. We moved from community gardeners to farmers. We moved from teachers to health partners.”

The pastor points out that Asbury’s neighborhood was devastated before the water crisis ever happened. “The area was economically and spiritually ravaged when General Motors left taking over 80,000 jobs,” McDoniel reflects. “Vacant, blighted properties are found on every block of our neighborhood.”

Against that backdrop, outreach and nutrition became the heart of Asbury’s efforts. “At first we wanted to meet our neighbors,” McDoniel notes, “and encourage them to eat well.” Many were living below the poverty level and were in poor health. Children and youth were under-achieving.


Nutrition instructors from Michigan State University were invited to teach classes at the Asbury Family Center twice a year. “They came to Asbury each year to teach nutrition,” McDoniel reports, “but we saw little change in food choices.” The congregation believe that a solution for a problem with water could be found within the soil. The ground was tilled for gardens and instruction turned into experiential education. “People learn best by doing. Families that garden eat substantially more fresh produce. So we invited our community to learn to garden together,” the pastor added.

Then in 2016 things were taken to a new level as Asbury purchased and leased enough vacant property to construct a 96 x 30 structure for year-round growing of produce. Three orchards were planted and the first “hoop house,” a form of greenhouse was erected. Alongside the 40 fruit trees, vines and bush fruits (strawberries, blueberries, grapes, etc.) were added.

A Department of Labor grant to the State of Michigan provided training in urban farming. “We call our strategy,’ Farm to Table,’” McDoniel says. “We now sponsor a sustainable farm operation that employs local residents while providing fresh food choices with lead-mitigating nutrients.”

Those dollars also enabled Asbury to hire a full-time chef with a background in nutritional education. Asbury Café offers culinary classes featuring healthy alternatives that taste good. Thanks to United Way Americorps, Asbury Chef, Kevin Croom, now has an assistant who helps residents with food prep. During the summer Asbury offered breakfast and lunch to families with children five days a week.

Another grant from the Michigan Area UMC Bishop’s Appeal Fund purchased a bus that brings those without transportation to participate in these various programs at Asbury. This Neighborhood Connection Ministry not only carries people in, it takes things out, delivering food and water to thousands of home-bound persons unable to visit the drive-up Community Help Centers located at Bethel United Methodist Church, Greater Holy Temple and Asbury UMC. Serving as a Community Help Center is just one more facet of Asbury’s commitment to those affected by toxic water.

A special Church Conference was held a year ago to bless the formation of Asbury Community Development Corporation.

That action committed Asbury united Methodist Church to four strategic goals:

  1. To be a center for worship and spiritual formation;
  2. to function as a hub for connections between God, Neighbor, Ourselves, and Creation;
  3. to focus on health and wellness;
  4. to promote sustainability.

This year saw another expansion. Four more hoop houses are currently being built on a nearby city block on Jane Avenue, a burned-out site that had been derelict for years. This cooperative investment with residents is called, “Flint Garden City.” Owned and operated by Asbury’s residents, the project will “provide consistent access to fresh produce, improve health by changing lifestyle habits, teach employable skills, and create new businesses,” the pastor says.

What began as a response to a crisis has grown into a partnership that creates economic opportunity. Kettering University has become one of those partners thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation. Kettering’s students are teaching Asbury farmers and the neighborhood youth and adults to utilize solar energy.  “We wish to ensure that renewable energy powers our farm operations and our homes,” McDoniel explains. With Kettering’s help the irrigation for the hoop houses will be sun-powered.

Empowerment is a guiding principle of everything Asbury does. McDoniel states: “Since we feel called to be a center for connecting our community together, we engage our neighbors with the idea that they are each uniquely gifted to be part of God’s kingdom and a productive resident in building a vibrant community.”

The pastor goes on to share how that principle takes on flesh and blood in a man named Israel (Izzy) Unger, whom McDoniel describes as, “the inspirational spark plug for this initiative.” Izzy grew up in Holland, Michigan then moved to Europe where he completed a Master’s in Finance and Economics. There he felt a call to help struggling communities. Back home in the states, he visited Flint to learn more about the water crisis. “That,” McDoniel says, “turned into a moment of redirection for Israel Unger.”

In the 18 months since that visit, Izzy has become an active member of Flint: Asbury United Methodist Church. “Count me in,” was his response upon reading the strategic plan of the Asbury Community Development Corporation. He purchased land and with no prior agricultural experience other than fond memories of working in his grandfather’s garden, Israel produced a bumper crop. He now sells to grocery stores, the local farmer’s market, and restaurants but all donations to Asbury and his neighbors are free.

His green thumb proven, Izzy’s graduate degree and passion were put to work helping Pastor Tommy develop a business model for an expanded pilot project called the Flint Farming Initiative. The pair submitted an application to the Michigan Good Foods Foundation and were selected to participate in a three-day workshop along with five other entrepreneur teams last week. “All of us benefited greatly from the coaching and instruction for building a solid plan for success that potential funders will appreciate,” McDoniel says.

Many factors have attributed to this urban farm initiative, not the least of which is the connectional spirit of The United Methodist Church. Volunteer teams from as near as Birmingham and as far as California have spent time in Flint this summer helping weed and build raised beds on the new Jane Avenue location for Asbury Farm.

“We would not be able to do what we do,” Pastor Tommy asserts, “without God resourcing us through the efforts of so many faithful people with a passion for being the hands and feet of Christ.” Government grants and university partnerships are valued but “Jesus is at the center of everything we do as agents of transformation in our neighborhood,” McDoniel concludes. “We are making disciples of Jesus Christ through tangible witness.”

Last Updated on November 7, 2022

The Michigan Conference