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The inmate confessed he didn’t want to be there at first.

“I didn’t want to work on no farm for nobody,” he said. His name is Lorenzo Cole. He sat with a group gathered in a loose circle on the porch of one of the buildings at Serenity Farm in Benedict. He shook his head and gazed out over the fields toward the Patuxent River and Calvert County. “But they told me it’s a chance to serve people, hungry people …” He trails off, his eyes on the haze and heat shimmer, the fields and the river. There was a pause.

“See, that’s a God thing,” said Prince Frederick resident Bernie Fowler Jr., the leader of the impromptu discussion on the first day of harvest season for Farming 4 Hunger, the group he founded to bring produce from farms to hungry people in Southern Maryland.

Fowler says that a lot.

“We went from 450,000 pounds [of fresh produce] last year,” he said during the same conversation on the porch, “to 1.5 million pounds this year. That, gentlemen, is a God thing.”

He said he sees God’s hand in a lot of what he does with Farming 4 Hunger, that he feels called, moved by his strong Christian faith to feed hungry people fresh food — food that they otherwise wouldn’t get. Farming 4 Hunger signs depict a John Deere tractor in a desert, a symbol, Fowler said, of the food deserts that many poor folks find themselves in, with few outlets providing affordable food, fewer still the fresh produce that is more nutritious and better tasting than the “nonperishable” canned and boxed items that so many in the region are used to dropping off at area food drives or bringing to community events as the price of admission.

Listen to the folks who feed hungry people around the region, and their religious faith comes up time and time again.

Alan Broadhurst, a member of Park Hall True Holiness Church in St. Mary’s County, said, “my love for people” is the reason he volunteers at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen at the St. Paul’s campus of First Saints Community Church in Leonardtown. “I hate seeing people down. If they need help, we’re supposed to give them help; God blesses us with that. I would do this just because of my love for people; also it’s serving God.”

Veronica Haileyesus Bullock, president of Our Place, a group planning to establish a permanent, seven-day-a-week soup kitchen in Charles County, said, “I have always believed God created me in this world to do his work, not for myself. He gave me the tools, everything I need, to help others, to feed people who need food.”

The Rev. Julie Wizorek, Bullock’s pastor at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Piney Parish in Waldorf, said that feeding the hungry is basic to Christian beliefs.

“The usual [Bible verses] people refer to is from Matthew, ‘when I was hungry, you fed me,’” she said. “It goes to the more compassionate side of Jesus, of meeting people where they are and having compassion if they are hungry.”

And it’s not just Christians, of course.

Cole, one of the inmates from the Southern Maryland Pre-Release Unit in Hughesville who help out at Serenity while they’re completing their sentences, was mustering his will on the day of that conversation on the porch. It was the day before the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Cole is a devout Muslim, and he was facing weeks without food or drink during the day, harvesting vegetables in the hot sun.

Feeding mouths, feeding souls

Fowler said he was inspired to begin feeding hungry people fresh food in a small way, maybe a large garden, maybe a few of them. It began in December 2010.

He quickly realized “that would only feed a few people. A voice kept on in my head, ‘Take it to a farm, to a larger scale.’ I remember the day, I got in my car and drove it straight to this farm,” he said in a later interview on the same porch, flinging his arms wide to take in the whole place. He paused, his arms coming down slowly, his face thoughtful, remembering. “It changed my life. I was 100 percent called to this, absolutely brought to this location.”

Fowler went to church with Serenity’s owners, the Robinson family: Franklin from the elder generation; David, his son; and Theresa, David’s wife. He was waiting to meet David to discuss his ideas about feeding hungry people using Serenity’s fields, and paused to look at the view.

“My God, the view,” Fowler said. He paused, shook his head, looked down the slope toward the river. “I got really emotional. I knew I was at the right place. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew we were supposed to use this farm to produce food to feed people. A lot of people.”

As the idea began to come together and volunteers gathered, Fowler began to see something else. Serenity Farm could become the basis for something greater, a community resource, feeding hungry people, yes, but feeding Southern Maryland in many other ways.

“I realized quickly that hunger comes in so many forms,” Fowler said. “I heard God saying, ‘I want you to feed my people, not just with food.’”

David Robinson said it’s a big step for his family. They are in the first phases of plunging into deep, unknown waters, taking the farm nonprofit to grow food for hungry people full time. He’s known Fowler since high school and through church, but still.

“It didn’t get started as a business,” David Robinson said. They planted 6 acres the first year, 18 the second.

“Corn and potatoes,” he said between rows, interviewed while harvesting corn. Four inmates, David and Theresa Robinson, and Fowler all were plucking ears from stalks and tossing them into big “gaylord” cardboard containers on a loader, farm helper 15-year-old Michaela Smith fielding the stray ears and Franklin Robinson driving the tractor.

It was a hot, humid day, and everyone was streaming sweat. “We weren’t sure there’d be any use in it,” David Robinson said. “Just because you feel good about helping people doesn’t mean everyone else does — the chemical dealer, the tractor dealer all those people — are going to feel the same way.”

But the Robinsons are committed, he said. There aren’t any heirs to pass the farm to. Times have been tough. To leave a legacy, the family wants the vision to succeed.

Fowler and the Robinsons slowly are building something unique, a “church without walls,” in the words of Teon Plater, an Owings resident who was an inmate working on the farm last year. Plater finished his sentence and works as a personal trainer at a Calvert County gym, a job Fowler helped him get.

“Initially ... a church was the people of the church,” Plater said in a telephone interview. During the Israelites’ period of slavery in Egypt, “they had to worship out in the fields, just like we do” at Serenity Farm. Plater also referred to the verse in Matthew. “Christ said, visit the people in prison, visit the people in the hospital, feed people who need food. ... These are the things that make you righteous, and these are the things that Bernie is trying to accomplish.”

In addition to the inmates, a host of volunteers — adults and youth groups — from churches help out. People with disabilities from Spring Dell Center in La Plata volunteer. In the future, Fowler wants a youth camp, a ministry to teach not just Christian values but agriculture, nutrition and environmental science.

“We feed souls here,” he said on the porch. “A lot of mouths, most definitely, but souls, too.”

From farm to table

The food grown at Farming 4 Hunger’s main location at Serenity Farm gets distributed to area food banks with nonperishable goods on trucks provided by the Maryland Food Bank, but local churches also are involved.

Fowler said he hopes to eventually be able to buy trucks to do the distribution himself, without having to work around the schedule of the Baltimore-based state food bank.

Churches in Southern Maryland sign up through the Maryland Food Bank, which loads a truck in Baltimore with some produce and other items — bread, juice and items like olives donated by grocery stores — then stops by Farming 4 Hunger to take fresh produce from the fields there, usually picked that day.

The churches provide a parking lot and volunteer labor, and publicize the event through local media and many fliers. Hungry folks show up, and they get food.

“Love of neighbor. It’s as simple as that,” the Rev. Julie Wilson said at a “food drop” at Trinity United Methodist Church in Prince Frederick on Aug. 23 about why her church agreed to host the distribution. “We are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and if we have neighbors who are hungry, God calls us to feed them. The [Maryland] Food Bank and Farming 4 Hunger set up this program to help us do that.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Prince Frederick hosted the first food distribution in Calvert County on Aug. 2, and will host another distribution from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 13 at the church at 25 Church St.

Anne Weems, a Trinity member, also heard the call.

“Several times I have been [to Serenity Farm], even to pick the food. There’s just a lot of joy we get out it. We have the faith that God gives us to be able to feed people. We feel like God called us to do this.”

Weems has been going to church all her life, and welcomes the new program as another way to help her community.

“It’s so exciting to have it here, in the church, where it should be, honestly,” she said. “We started with a prayer to connect with God. He is present. God is here from beginning to end.”

Other farms, other food banks

Even without 100 acres dedicated to feeding hungry people, any farm operation can get in on the act.

Sotterley, a Colonial-era plantation in Hollywood that is open to the public, has extensive gardens and has been funneling some of its produce to local churches. Executive Director Nancy Easterling is enthusiastic about the effort, though there have been a couple of bumps in the road.

“This is new for us this year,” she said. “We were inspired by Serenity … and we want to contribute to the community. … We’re still trying to figure out what’s going to work for us, what the soil will let us produce.”

The soil and the local wildlife. Easterling said that the deer population pretty much destroyed the sweet potato crop this year. But when they figure out what the hooved set will let them harvest, they’re ready to go.

“We do have a donor who will underwrite [buying plants] and help with the harvesting and everything else,” she said.

The soup kitchen at St. Paul’s in Leonardtown has dabbled in fresh produce as well, getting food from several garden sources.

“One lady got really involved, and was supplying fresh food for several soup kitchens [in St. Mary’s County],” said Mona Famoso, the director of the soup kitchen at St. Paul’s.

The kitchen serves two meals a week, at lunchtime Tuesdays and Thursdays. There’s a lot of pride in the kitchen for putting out a great meal. Melanie Knokey, one of the regular volunteers who serves as head cook, showed off the St. Louis-style ribs that were the center of a meal that wouldn’t surprise anyone at any barbecue joint in the country: ribs, coleslaw, baked beans and bread, with cherry pie for dessert.

“I like mine with a little ice cream,” Famoso said. Alas, the budget doesn’t quite stretch to a la mode. But the St. Paul’s operation is serious about quality.

“I’ve been doing this since 1997,” Famoso said. “When I got here, I made a few rules, including, ‘if you wouldn’t eat it yourself — and gladly — it doesn’t go out of the kitchen here.’”

Famoso said she got into it at first because she loved to cook, but quickly, “I realized how important it is to the community. … It’s an opportunity to serve people and to serve God.”

Volunteer John Brown said that the effort is about more than just food, too.

“I learned a long time ago, it’s not about food, it’s about fellowship,” he said. “We take care of their nutritional needs, but also their spiritual needs. Someone can come up to the window there,” gesturing to where the plates are served, “if they say, ‘pray for me,’ we don’t wait to go home and pray, we go out and pray for them right there.”

Long road to a permanent home

Bullock came to the U.S. from Ethiopia when she was 25. She moved around for a bit, working as a nurse’s assistant, then as an administrative assistant at an Orthodox church in Washington, D.C. It was there that she heard about St. Paul’s in Waldorf. She helped the church with outreach to her native country, helping establish a program that helped 25 orphans through school.

Her early experiences spurred her on. She went to a Catholic boarding school and befriended the children who didn’t have much, the outcasts without friends.

“When my family would come visit, I would ask them to bring something so I can give it to them,” she said.

Jack Faherty, a board member for Our Place, has a lot of admiration for Bullock.

“She’s just a good person,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s hard to find people like that. And she’s doing good for a lot of people.”

Faherty is no slouch in the goodness department, either. After a long career in the Department of the Navy, he retired and has worked for the Meals on Wheels program, for the Charles County Literacy Council for the last nine years, and now to establish Our Place.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got more time. I’ve got to do more for the community, for homeless people, poor people. I can’t just sit and be bitching about it all the time.’”

Bullock worked for a while at the St. Paul’s food pantry, open every Saturday, and although she remains a Catholic, the Episcopal church became a second home.

“I am a Catholic, and that will never change,” she said. But “the first time I walked in the door [at St. Paul’s], the first person I saw, her name is Lorraine Berry, gave me a hug. Everyone said hi. I felt so welcome.”

The task of getting a permanent home for Our Place, funding buying or renting a building, renovating it, funding the ongoing plan to serve meals every day, is a daunting one, but Bullock and the other volunteers are resolved. And, they feel, God is on their side.

“He gave me the tools, everything I need,” she said, her voice rising with passion. “All I need is to trust God, have faith in him. … I have this heart. There is a reason he gave me that, and I’ve got to follow it.”

jdavis@somdnews.com