Central Virginia Catholic Cluster’s project a team effort
Community connection is always on Father Tochi Iwuji’s mind. He is laser-focused on being present to his parishioners and the surrounding community, continually seeking ways to be visible and engaging, thereby creating opportunities for ministry.
Father Iwuji, affectionately called “Father Tochi” by parishioners, is pastor of the Central Virginia Catholic Cluster, which includes St. Theresa, Farmville; Immaculate Heart of Mary, Blackstone; and Sacred Heart, Meherrin.
He is headquartered at St. Theresa where, over the past year, a vibrant example of his approach to ministry and his desire for the Church to be present in the community has come to life in the form of a community garden.
“When I came here, my first priority was to create a platform for people to interact and build community and relationships,” he said.
He sees the opportunity to do this through the lens of pro-life ministry, noting that “this means helping to create something for each stage of the lives of the members of a parish … creating family engagements and parish engagements.”
He considers this an holistic approach to pro-life, and has enlisted the support of what he has coined a “Life Ministries” committee in doing this work.
“He challenged us to act out our pro-life mission in ways that complement but go beyond anti-abortion efforts,” said Heather Edwards, Life Ministries Committee co-chair.
Forming a team
Father Iwuji’s belief that one can’t be pro-life and not take care of all life resonated with parishioner Leo Barber.
“Priests need the support of the laity,” he said, so he answered the call.
“Leo Barber and I share the responsibility of co-chair of the committee,” Edwards said. “He and I are like-minded but focused on different outreach projects, likely related to our different stages of life. … It’s the perfect collaboration.”
“The committee members feel a bit like family to me,” she said. “We get together once each month to brainstorm ways to minister to our parish and the greater Farmville community. We are each going a slightly different direction to accomplish the same goal: to support and celebrate life in all its stages.”
Edwards explained that approximately 10 people serve on the core committee.
“They all heard and responded to Father Tochi’s invitation to join,” she said. “Members from Immaculate Heart of Mary in Blackstone and Sacred Heart in Meherrin are encouraged to join the meeting via Zoom.”
“The garden is a team effort,” Father Iwuji said of the project that began in the early part of this year. “And I consider myself part of the team.”
Build a garden; watch it grow
Participation in getting the garden underway and managing it has extended well beyond the committee.
“There has been a lot of involvement by parishioners,” Barber said. “People are pretty forthcoming.”
Among them are Adam and Sarai Blincoe. Although not on the committee, the Blincoes have been pivotal in the garden project from the beginning. They are limited in what they can do because they have young children but have made themselves available to the committee.
“Tell us what you need for the garden, and we can help,” Sarai Blincoe said.
In considering the project, Father Iwuji thought, “The garden would become community outreach and a way of supporting the food pantry and providing them with organic and fresh produce. It would also create an environment of intergenerational encounter.”
Once he approved the project, committee members and other volunteers began the process of setting up raised beds and planting.
Nearby Longwood University’s Cormier Honors College provided the raised beds for the garden. Adam Blincoe, who works in the Honors College, and Barber transported the beds and filled them with several trailer loads of soil from different sources, including a local alpaca farm.
“They promised us a much bigger load for next season,” Blincoe said.
“That type of soil is very good for gardens,” Sarai Blincoe noted.
The community garden’s eight raised beds, each 4 feet by 8 feet, provide a regular source of fresh produce for the St. Theresa Food Pantry. The garden will also be a source of fresh produce for FACES, a larger local food pantry, should St. Theresa have a surplus.
According to Doreen Hines, food pantry director, the pantry is currently serving up to 80 people a week and between 26-36 households.
For the summer, beds contained different varieties of tomatoes and peppers, basil, cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes and bush beans.
The garden was planted the week of May 16 and its bounty first harvested on June 29.
Hines estimates that so far, about 300 pounds of fresh produce has gone directly from the garden, which is adjacent to the St. Theresa parish center, to the food pantry located in the center. But she believes this is an underestimate because of a late start in weighing the produce.
“There is no official record of poundage for this year,” she said.
In the meantime, the garden is still producing.
In a second round of planting, the Blincoes included lettuce, radishes, turnips and peas. Hines’ husband planted October beans.
“Father Tochi wants to get greens in the ground, too,” Hines said. “The garden has done well. Clients are happy. They told Father and the food pantry. They love the fresh veggies,” she said.
And it’s not just the vegetables they love.
Father Iwuji is not only still watering the garden every day, checking on it and harvesting. He regularly spends time with food pantry clients, reading Scripture and praying.
“He’s very engaging with them. They love it!” Hines said.
Although an experiment this year, by all accounts, the community garden project has been a success. After seeing how well it has worked, Father Iwuji would like to expand the garden, doubling the number of raised beds.
He would also like to see a prayer garden carved out in the community garden, and Barber is thinking of some landscaping.
Sarai Blincoe would like to see the garden include a winter as well as a summer crop.
“This year, we focused on hot weather, so we planted summer staples. Next year, we’ll focus on cold weather, too,” she said. “We’ll plant things like cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, kale, potatoes. We can include some climbing vegetables, too. Maybe some flowers.”
Blincoe is also thinking of other “audiences” they could reach.
For example, she would like to help address food insecurity among college students by encouraging those walking across the bridge from St. Theresa to a Longwood student housing complex to pick from the garden.
Volunteers of every stripe are invested in the community garden’s continued success – from committee members to food pantry workers to the person who casually comes by to do some weeding or watering.
“I can’t wait until next year to see how we can do,” Hines said.