Out with the dog on a hot muggy Alabama afternoon with temperatures skirting 100, I walked across the parking lot of the African-American church across from where I live. In the middle of the tarmac, someone – presumably church parishioners – had planted a flower-bed anchored with wood pallets. I always stopped to look at these flowers, a riotous explosion of color that starkly contrasted with the dreariness of the tarmac – a black, lifeless desert where you could see the heat oozing out of the tar. Today, I saw two women, one with long dreads working on the garden, the first time I had actually seen any human intervention in the plot.
The woman with the dreads looked up and said with a broad smile, “You want some free vegetables?”
She told me to pick what I wanted and gave me a plastic bag. They had green beans, egg plant, tomatoes, watermelon and okra, she said. To my great embarrassment, I answered, “What do they look like?” I’d never seen vegetables in the wild before, untethered from white plastic bags, Styrofoam and Saran Wrap. Smiling, she turned over leaves of what to me looked just to be weeds. But underneath the leaves of these weeds, tiny egg plants hugged stalks. Green beans, which I thought grew close to the ground, I discovered grew on large stalks like corn. Radiating infinite patience and still smiling, my guide showed me how to identify and properly pick them.
She told me it was a project some church goers had informally set up, to provide a community garden where anyone could pick what they needed. Unlike community gardens I had seen up north, there were no fences or gates to restrict access to a select group.
This church is an oasis for those who need help in the barren desert of Alabama social assistance, where basically everything which up north is provided by the state or NGOs has by default devolved to the churches. Because the area I live in is one of Huntsville’s poorest census tracts, the need is great. The church operates an outreach center a couple blocks down with a thrice-weekly food bank. The food bank is quite good; not the usual canned beans and boxes of generic macaroni and cheese. (I know, because neighbors in my building will drop off items they can’t use outside my front door). The outreach center also offers a free clinic, drug and alcohol counseling – there are no detox centers in Huntsville – mental health services and GED classes. At no time do church volunteers proselytize.
With the white churches the situation is quite different. These churches practice harsh regimens of sin and redemption before help is offered. Often I see the homeless at the nearby mission standing in a trash-strewn lot, holding hands in a circle, heads bowed, while a preacher intones over them. Only after a lengthily prayer session do they get the brown-bag lunch with apple.
All this got me to thinking about the death of community self-provision that dated back to the early days of the workers’ movement. In pit villages in British mining areas, for instance, miners would set up mutual aid societies that would help members weather hard times. As welfare provision was shifted to the state and professional care givers, the client role developed and social workers now ask in coldly clinical terms about your family “system.” (To point this out is not to denigrate social workers, who often have to use pluck and perseverance to navigate and manipulate unresponsive bureaucracies to help, but to demonstrate the large context, where good intentions get wrecked on systemic reefs.)
On the one hand, this professionalized care was a “progressive” development, “progressive” because it meant assistance could be provided more consistently and in greater proportion and with greater standardization than the informal mutual aid societies, which were always plagued by limited resources and erratic reach. But at the same time, it undermined and eventually killed off older traditions and practices of mutual aid. The client is an atomized individual, a supplicant seeking services; the mutual aid societies were collective and called for some sort of involvement with your neighbors, people in the same shoes as yours. This demonstrates once again that every so-called reform has unintended consequences rarely acknowledged and new problems inevitably crop up that weren’t there before.
As I got up from picking vegetables, I asked how I could help. The woman told me she and a few community people met every Weds. to pick weeds and care for the plot. I said I will be there. Our eyes may not be watching God, as in Zora Neale Hurston’s immortal novel, but they sure will be watching the green beans and watermelons.