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  • Writer's pictureKate Galer

Called to the Ministry and to the Garden: Rev. Carolyn Cavaness

Women in Horticulture’s Kate Galer sat down with Rev. Carolyn Cavaness on a cold January evening to find out more about her and the Bethel AME Victory Garden. Rev.Cavaness is the pastor at Bethel AME Church in Ardmore, PA. She started the Ardmore Victory Garden program in 2019 in response to food insecurity in the neighborhood and community. Rev. Carolyn wasn’t a gardener or horticulturist when she started this journey, but as a leader and organizer, she has much to share.

Can you tell us a little about your background and where you grew up and what led you to Bethel AME?

My name is Carolyn Cavaness, native to Newark, NJ, Brick City, the concrete jungle. I went Barnard College at Columbia for undergrad and I was an Urban Studies/ Econ major. I come from a family of clergy persons and musicians and I knew as a child I would end up in the ministry but my parents were very, very intentional that my siblings and I were balanced people. We just didn’t do church - we did music, basketball, you name it. I had a professional career before coming into the ministry full time in non-profit political fundraising and development. From that comes the notion that community organizing is how we go about, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs, “looking through the window, seeing through the window and walking places and seeing how cities are made and the connections and what sustains them.” I have been here at Bethel for 8 years. I am part of the Methodist tradition and so pastors are sent so I was literally given a piece of paper and told I was going to Bethel AME Ardmore and I started crying because I was like, “where is that place and what am I doing there?” Definitely a moment of fear and trepidation. I am going on the Main Line, can I do it? Definitely been a place where I have been able to bring all of myself to it and many times you are not able to do that. I did not grow up with a notion of farming and gardening so oftentimes people from back home ask Carolyn, how did you get into this? It was certainly around some of the work on food insecurity here in our community and what are some of the responses and then later in the conversation entered, which I had no idea about, food justice, food sovereignty, food empowerment, food apartheid. That was not the lense in which I was doing this work before.

Were you at another church before Bethel?

I was at First AME Sharon Hill for a year and a half. This is my second congregation.

Do you have any childhood memories of gardening?

No. My dad pastored a church near the Poconos so we had a ton of land when we were there so I remember running around a lot. I remember looking forward to it and the fresh air. I remember my grandmother had this rose bush at our family home that would come back up, but that is as far as I can remember.

Can you tell us how the Ardmore Victory Garden program came about?

In 2018 the congregation began a conversation about a community garden. Looking at the space next to our church to see if there could be a garden on it. I came from a school of thought that if you have something that can be a blessing and you don’t use it, it’s a sin. How do we put nutritionally dense food in people’s hands and how can this be used as a strategy in concert with the food pantry bag? We had started the Health Ministry in our church and had a monthly health check and cooking demonstration, so it just made sense to see how we could use the land as a garden. So, we teamed up with Trellis for Tomorrow which is based in Phoenixville. They help both corporate and non-profit and faith based institutions in establishing and maintaining gardens. I call them my garden architects. Here we are four years later, we started with eight beds and now we are at twelve. We are averaging about one thousand pounds of produce each year which we donate back to local food pantries.

In light of the pandemic, our former gardener came and said, Reverend, how would it be if we built some beds in people's homes or repurpose and revitalize existing beds? I said, let’s do it! We have, to date, thirty-five beds which we either helped to build or help to sustain. A woman’s shelter here locally was given beds by the county but did not have any seeds or starters, so we got them up growing. Or people who wanted seeds or dirt to start, we gave it to them. We have created a teaching lab, a community, and in the midst of the pandemic, in the midst of all the death and destruction and peril, how people were really looking at the garden and seeing stuff growing and how beautiful it is.

Have all or most of the gardens been in the Ardmore area?

Yes, in this immediate area of South Ardmore.

Are the people who have the gardens able to connect with each other in any way?

That’s a goal for this year, more of the engagement. They are connected to the garden at the church and the resources, but also creating a community within. The other piece that is cool is that we did a class with Haverford College called ‘People, Places and Things'. They interviewed some of our gardeners and it led to other things and at the culmination, some of our families were able to come out and meet and greet. To see that level of sharing between the families and the students was a hallmark experience.

You said you were an Urban Studies major, with Jane Jacobs as a role model. How has that education made you the leader and organizer that you are?

I just started driving last year. So if you walk the place you know everything that’s going on. Being an Urban Studies major and being interdisciplinary, I learned how to read across and not up and down, which I think is key. It does stand in direct contrast to how we are educated in this society.

We made a commitment to support Black and Brown persons who want to be in agricultural work and stress that it is just as much of a noble profession as being a doctor. You are the person that is bringing up what we are eating and that fuels everything.

We've always been on the lookout for Black and Brown farmers and trying to support and highlight them. Being sensitive to those conversations and how that connects to the history of many families. I don’t think you can talk about the Black experience without talking about slavery, but also the piece of caring for the land and the empowerment of that and the work we are doing now with connecting with Black and Brown farmers and bringing them, literally, to the table.

Can you tell me about the Black Church Food Security Network and how you connected to it?

The Black Church Food Security Network [BCFSN] was created in response to the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore City. One of the responses of the local government to the outrage of the community was to hold back food distribution. So Dr. Heber Brown, founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, said we should never be so reliant on a government system for our food. He went about empowering the Black churches who are, within Black life, the key landholders and you put that all together and many had land to use. The purpose is to create, to disrupt, to build a brand new food supply system. It has three objectives - one is to empower Black churches with land to grow food, second is Soil to Sanctuary, which is bringing what you are growing to the people, and third is to create a national network of Black and Brown farmers and bringing them to the table so they can be compensated and as well regarded as their white contemporaries. What are the issues holding them back? How are they being left out of the Farm Bill? Is it about the infrastructure? Their capacity? Is it generational?

This applies to both large and small scale Black and Brown farmers, during all stages of the process. In Pennsylvania, we have not identified a Black farmer. They need access to equipment, investment, and many farms are generational. Like the garden here, how do we ensure that we continue it, that it isn’t just personality dependent.

Building the structure for succession and success. So interesting that collectively Black Churches are the largest black landowners in the country.

What has been your approach to becoming educated in the gardening world? Have you self-educated or picked it up from people who already garden?

A little bit of both. I feel like I had amazing teachers and mentors and partnerships. Certainly with Trellis for Tomorrow and David. I am a natural planner and look at timetables, year one and two. And we have an amazing relationship with Haverford College by way of HaverFarm and those folks there have been tremendous. I also feel like it is something that has just grown on me. I have picked up the sensitivities about the weather and time, kind of by osmosis.

You become much more aware of the weather as a gardener.

Absolutely. What does planting look like for the spring? You got to kind of wing it and just be prepared because when it is time to plant, we just gotta go in. In the end, this is trial and error.

That’s what gardening is.

You can be the best of them all and it may not work out. Just keep trying at it. What are all the other things tied to it? Can we be doing something to help the system out? Can we do something to maximize the success of our crop? That's when I learned about pollinator gardening. Down the street we have the Ardmore Progressive Pollinator garden and we get the benefits of that.

That’s so important, the interdependence of the whole ecology, the whole system, the different pollinator plants, the soil, weather, nutrients.

Yes, definitely.

I noticed that in your last Ardmore Victory Garden newsletter you had a link to the Northeast Indigenous and Black Farmers Reparations Map. Can you explain what that is?

We started a catalog of BIPOC-owned Seed Companies and with that we looked at how we raise consciousness. Frances Condon, who is our garden fellow from Haverford College, has really helped me to be even more sensitive to these other networks that are happening and the interconnectivity with what we are doing, so we try to promote them as well. Check out the link to the Reparations Map here.

Do you write your sermons?

I do an outline.

Do you write in other ways for work or pleasure?

That’s something I miss. In fact, a couple good friends of mine have said I need to journal. I remember writing a lot of poetry as a kid. It is time for me to take that back up. Sit with it for a while.

If you did write more, do you think it would make you a better leader or organizer?

Oh sure, I think it would help me to decompress what’s going on in my head. And to be able to use it as a point to look back, where I was, who I was with. I think I may have taken my youth and ability to recall quickly for granted. It frustrates the heck out of my congregation. Photographic memory and all. But the more people you meet and the more you get involved, it becomes a lot to respond to quickly. I am turning 39 this year and I was reflecting that 39 was the age for King, it was the age for Malcolm X and how we have been able to preserve and connect with them is from what they left behind, which is their body of work, their writing. The writings are what people reference and go to.

Do you have any women that you admire in any field?

My mom. My mom is an educator. She made a commitment when we were kids - she left her job at Bell Telephone and just wanted to be with her kids. She went into education. She was doing differentiated learning and instruction before it became the only way to teach. We went to Catholic school and, in fact, the Catholic School that we went to, my mom is principal of now. When we were kids, she taught Kindergarten there and we went into her class and painted all the tables red and colors and she was on the floor teaching. To see her versatility and even now, in light of COVID, she continued to stick with it. Be your authentic self but in order to stay connected and push forward and to empathize with people around us, you gotta be able to change and make adaptations and meet people where they are.

I would say also, there is a school of theologic practice called Womanism and one of the early women involved was Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon. She was the first African American female ordained by the Presbyterian Church and the first African American woman who earned her PhD at Unionville Theological Seminary, where I went. She used in her dissertation the voices of Black women, like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. Black female writers weren’t given the same credence as their white counterparts and Black men. She makes a strong argument for contextualization. Take a person or situation and put it in a circle and connect all factors to that and while we could never be that person, it helps get a sense of where that person is coming from.

She definitely had an indelible impact on how I look at the world, see the world, the ministry that I have been called to.

Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

The difference between sympathy and empathy and in this moment how do we truly empathize with people.

It’s challenging, but that is the only way we can view others as humans.


Has there been any major roadblock that you have had in your gardening journey so far?

We did not here at the church have a gardener and as much as Trellis’s program is user friendly, you need someone with technical expertise. Each year has taken on a different kind of frustration, but I am grateful that we have had friends that we can lean on that can help us. For example, Frances, our fellow, her fellowship ends in September and there is a bit of anxiety around that. We really have upped the ante, how do we keep this going? Is there fundraising or ways that we can make this a sustainable program? It isn’t just about the Bethel space, it is about being a resource and plugging people into other programs and institutions. We need to be sure we have enough work for a full-time position or make it a part-time position.

Are you planning on hiring someone when Frances leaves?

That’s what we are working through. Even if there is a commitment from Haverford College. Frances’ position actually came by way of students who had funds leftover in their Student Activity Fund and the student government went through the process to make it happen. I let them deal with it. I was president of student government at Barnard so I get the whole politics of it. Now, as an institution, they see the benefit of the fellow position. That's why it is so important that there is the interplay of the communities. Frances is full-time and gets full benefits. She is considered a Haverford College employee. She is studying to become certified in pesticides and a Master Gardener, so she is getting resources as well.

That’s an interesting way of fostering the next generation of horticulturists and gardeners and organizers.

Do you have any upcoming projects that are exciting to you?

We are beginning to gear up for the spring with the Bethel Garden and our home gardeners. I am a person of collaboration and bringing people together so with my becoming more intimately involved with the BCFSN, I will be helping to build out faith-based community gardens in the Philadelphia area. We are looking at a speaker series starting once a month in February, looking at topics, and just getting more people growing. Infusing our program into the community with outreach and giving out plants and information at community events.

What are people’s favorite produce?

Collard greens and tomatoes. I would like us to do more in the herb space. Maybe at food pantries you could get a pot that is planted with an herb and take it home and grow it. With the numbers that the food pantries are seeing, that would be something that people could take home and grow.

Do you have a favorite vegetable or fruit that you grow here?

We have only 2 fruit plants. A fig which will be two this year and an apple tree, which will also be two. So we haven’t gotten anything from them yet.

I don’t eat tomatillos, but I love watching them grow. I am a collard green fan. I like watching potatoes grow.

Do you cook?

I have done more cooking because of COVID. I am a basic collard greens, string beans kind of person. Olive oil and garlic.

Do you have a favorite flower or tree?

I love orchids.

Anything else you want to add?

We welcome opportunities to collaborate and work together. We welcome seeds and tools. There might be some women that would be cool to connect with through Women in Horticulture.

We look forward to collaborating as well! Thank you.

Contact Reverend Carolyn at

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Follow on instagram @ardmorevictorygardens

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