By Evan Faulkenbury, SOHP Field Scholar
I had never been to Eli Whitney before. Named for the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney is a hamlet – a crossroads, really – in rural Alamance County, North Carolina. You get there from Chapel Hill by heading due west on Old Greensboro Road for about seventeen miles until it runs into Highway 87. But half a mile before you get there, on the right side of the road you’ll see Concord United Methodist Church. The church sits just before a bend in the road, right next to its cemetery. It’s a small, red brick building with a white steeple, finished in 1961. If you pull into the church’s gravel lot, you’ll see a garden. The garden was what brought me there on March 12, 2015.
I was there to interview Donna Poe. I arrived early, so I parked and walked through the cemetery, around the church, and up to the garden. There were two large sections filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables, and at the end was a cross. Donna pulled up in her pick-up truck after I had lingered only a minute. Poe was in charge of the community garden. She started it only a few years ago through the church, but its popularity had soared. She organizes three workdays per week, and anyone who joins takes home a share of the bounty. Earlier in the month, I had emailed dozens of pastors at churches across the region, asking if they had extraordinary women members who would like to be interviewed for my project on conservative grassroots activism. Donna Poe’s minister recommended her, not as a typical political or social activist, but someone whose faith makes a real difference in the community.
We went inside the church to have the interview. Donna was born on October 13, 1962 in Albany, New York, but home for her had been Spring Hill, Florida. She told me about her family, her work, and how she ended up in North Carolina, moving up here seven years ago with her husband to be closer to her sister.
But the heart of her story was her spiritual journey. She grew up in a Protestant home, but she did not have a personal relationship with God until recently. Once, she and her family visited a church for a special Christmas service:
“And so we went, and somewhere in the middle of the service…it was really weird…it was kind of like what we would equate [to] our time of passing the peace [a form of greeting in church services]. They said, ‘Do you know where you’re going? Do you know where you’re going?’ And they turned to the person to each side of them. And it seemed like people came to us and said, ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I get chills when I think about it. It was really freaky. And my one son is like, ‘Mom, what’s going on? What are they saying?’ And they were really freaked out about it…I have to only hope and pray and know that God was there throughout all that and there was reason for that, maybe just for me to share the story.”
The implication was that Donna and her family was going to hell if they did not know Jesus. Angry and hurt, they did not return to church for a long time. Years later, a friend led Donna in a prayer to become born-again. Now, she and her husband are active members at Concord United Methodist Church.
Donna’s story was a personal testimony about how she came to know God, a different kind of oral history. She realized that all along, sometimes at odd moments, God was “planting seeds” in her life. The odd Christmas service was one time among many when, looking back, she could “see His presence” guiding her, planting seeds, leading her to where she is today.