Growing Health & Growing Leaders - Carolina Country

Growing Health & Growing Leaders

The Rev. Richard Joyner is nurturing a healthier community in Edgecombe County

By Margaret Buranen

Video courtesy of CNN

As a child, the Reverend Richard Joyner toiled long hours under the hot North Carolina sun. He and his 12 brothers and sisters worked hard to help their sharecropping parents grow food for the family. Rev. Joyner vowed that when he grew up, he would never work in the fields again.

He became a hospital chaplain and the minister of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in rural Edgecombe County. There, he learned firsthand how rural poverty, poor diet and serious health problems are intertwined.

As with residents in other parts of the rural South, many Conetoe Chapel members had developed obesity, heart disease and diabetes. They didn’t exercise, and they often ate unhealthy foods.

“People couldn’t just go to a store and buy fresh produce, even if they could afford it,” Rev. Joyner explains.

The congregation’s young people were dropping out of school and repeating the cycle of poverty. Teenage pregnancy rates were high. Worst of all, Rev. Joyner found himself conducting funerals for people who were dying far too young.

He searched for ways to improve the lives of his congregation and community, but resources were scarce or nonexistent. Desperate, he parked along a country road one day and begged God for help.

Rev. Joyner says that the answer to his prayer was: “Open your eyes. Look around you.”

“I did not accept this invitation very happily,” he admits. “I heard it, but I didn’t like the answer.”

The answer, it seemed, was agriculture. The pain of watching his parents and other families work so hard but have nothing to show for it was sharp, yet no other solution seemed even a possibility. Reluctantly, Rev. Joyner turned to agriculture to try to turn his congregation — and ultimately his community — toward healthier, more productive lives.

Rev Joyner with youth

The Rev. Richard Joyner with local youth on their community farm in Conetoe

Cultivating young leaders

The first project for Conetoe’s Family Life Center was a produce garden for church members. Rev. Joyner invited young people to show up at 5 a.m. to create it. Wondering if anybody would bother to be there, he found 35 eager teenagers waiting for him.

What’s different about Conetoe’s Family Life Center program is that the teenagers and kids are leading it. Older members offer advice and teach skills, but the young people make the decisions — when you involve the kids first, they share at home what they’ve learned. Youth can serve on the board of directors starting at age 12.

It was the kids who got the idea for Conetoe’s Bee Bus. This brightly painted old school bus provides a home the bees find easily. The bees pollinate community gardens and the church’s. The honey is sold (along with produce) to provide college scholarships for the young people.

“The young people are the leaders,” Rev. Joyner explains. “This is their garden. These are their bees.”

“The young people are the leaders,” Rev. Joyner explains. “This is their garden. These are their bees.”

School attendance and graduation rates among Conetoe’s younger members have improved. The teenage pregnancy rate has declined. The fresh vegetables, exercise routines and health habits the young people take home to their older relatives have had a positive effect, too. Hospital visits among older congregants have decreased 75 percent in the last few years. Best of all, Rev. Joyner isn’t conducting funerals for people whose lives were cut far short by ill health.

Rev. Joyner says Conetoe’s Family Life Center will grow, with more outreach efforts involving the hospital, the school system, and anyone who needs healthy food but can’t afford to buy it.

“We want to build a community wealth [of services and opportunities] that will benefit everyone in the community,” Rev. Joyner says.

About the Author

Margaret Buranen writes from her home in Kentucky.

Comments (2)

  • I was looking forward to seeing the video mentioned in the print version of this article and was quite disappointed that it isn't here. What's up with that?

    Jim Senter |
    January 05, 2020 |

  • Jim, are you having trouble loading the video at the top of the page? It's loading for us. Thanks!

    Carolina Country |
    January 05, 2020 |

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