It’s spring, and Chris Battle is digging in the dirt.
“I always had a little gardening in me,” he said. “As a kid, I’d walk behind my grandfather and his tiller when he would plow his garden up, trying to stand in his footsteps. Since then, over the years, when I could, I’ve always had a little garden.”
A Cincinnati native who is a product of Morehouse College and Southern Theological Seminary, Battle and his wife, Tomma, have lived in Knoxville since he accepted the call to become pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in 2008.
They have 18 children.
(You read that right. Here’s the story: “I had two from a previous marriage and then Tomma and I got married, had five miscarriages and ended up adopting a sibling group of five. Then we had two ourselves and after that they just kept coming. My sister-in-law passed of cancer, and we took her children in. Then we had another sibling group of four. Some of them we just help take care of – all of them don’t live with us.”)
Over the years, he has become increasingly troubled by the unavailability of healthy food in inner-city Knoxville. His concern grew when he read the results of a survey showing that 67 percent of the residents in the neighborhoods near the church buy their food at the dollar store.
“Last May I was confronted with the reality of our people living in a food desert. From our church (at 2137 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.), the nearest three Krogers are from 2.6 to 2.9 miles away. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says if a third of our community is a mile away from a grocery store, it’s a food desert. On my way to almost any of the Krogers, I pass payday lenders, pharmacies, people in wheelchairs, dollar stores and fast-food places. I can get burgers and pizza, but I can’t get any collard greens. It’s not the drive-by that’s killing us. It’s the drive-through.”
With this in mind, Battle and some of his congregation started a community garden at the church with 16 individual plots. He has enjoyed working the soil and says he’s learned a lot.
“What became clear was that it is an opportunity for me to get out and meet people in the community. I met more people out there in the garden last year than I had sitting in my office for a decade. We had a gleaning fence – from the Hebrew tradition of leaving food for the poor. I’d put produce in plastic bags out in the morning, and by afternoon they were gone. Other people with plots started doing it, too.
“Then somebody kind of planted a seed in my mind about having a farmers’ market on the east side.”
So he got together with Charlotte Tolley and Kimberly Pettigrew of Nourish Knoxville and found others who were interested, like Stan Johnson of SEEED, Tanisha Baker of Five Points Up and Vivian Williams of National Women in Agriculture. Pretty soon the Eastside Sunday Farmers’ Market was up and running at Tabernacle on Sunday afternoons.
“We had the market for three months in the church parking lot – just go out there and get your fresh veggies,” he said.
He’s been learning as he goes. One day, a young woman from Abbey Fields Farm, over by the old Standard Knitting Mills, brought in some kohlrabi. He’d never heard of it.
“I said, ‘What’s that? Black folks are not going to be eating kohlrabi.’ Then we cut some up, dipped it in honey, and pretty soon people were coming back looking for kohlrabi. If people are exposed to stuff, they’ll eat it.”
The market project was so successful that Battle got to thinking about 2019. He read books, went to conferences and had more conversations than he could count.
(He is a member of the Christian Community Development Association, which sponsors Shane Claiborne, who is fighting gun violence with a book (co-written by Michael Martin) and a nationwide tour called “Beating Guns,” a name inspired by Isaiah 2:4: “… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks …” Claiborne and Martin brought a forge to Knoxville and transformed guns into hand tools. Battle has a little hand shovel that used to be a rifle barrel.)
“It kind of hit me that I have a lot of pastor friends with property going unused. So I talked to Sam Brown at Logan Temple (AME Zion Church).”
Then he talked to some other Browns – Richard Brown at Payne Avenue Missionary Baptist and Lee Russell Brown at Bethel AME – plus Mike McNair at First AME Zion and Stuart Bryant at College Hill Seventh-day Adventist. He asked if they had land for gardens. They all said yes.
“Starting in May, all of those churches will have community gardens,” Battle said.
Additionally, he’s been given the use of another plot of land on Woodbine, and he’s got a church in mind that he’s going to talk to.
The biggest development to date is that he’s been given the use of Abbey Fields Farm, 1400 Washington Ave. He’s renamed it BattleField Farm and Community Gardens. He feels good about his progress and is looking to transplant that success into the west side. He thinks it’s going to work.
“Here’s the crazy part. I’m in my car on my way to talk to people over there, and I get a phone call from Texas,” he said. “It was a guy that used to live in Lonsdale, and he said, ‘I hear you are doing community gardens. I’ve got a piece of property in Lonsdale and wanted to know if you wanted to use it.”
Then he talked to Mark Green, a pastor friend in Lonsdale, and asked if he had some land for a garden plot. Green said yes, so Battle’s got two pieces of property northwest of downtown to work. Beardsley Community Farm is helping with the plowing, and Battle is excited about the community’s willingness to help. But like most anything else, gardening costs money. In addition to sweat equity, BattleField Farm and Gardens needs help with tools, tillers and rain barrels.
“Most gardens don’t have water, and KUB wanted $1,200 for a water line at Tabernacle,” Battle said. If you have a rain barrel, you need a building next to it. If we could get some sheds donated, that would be wonderful. We need hoes, shovels, rakes, plants, seeds, tomato stakes. And good old money.”
To that end, he’s started a Gofundme drive.
The success of his urban-gardening project has been rewarding and demanding, and it’s got him thinking about new directions.
“We’re going to be doing a little something different. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but we know what it doesn’t look like. I’d rather see a transformed community than a full church. I’ve had good church working in the garden.”
Battle can be reached by email.