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Hillside High production captures the cost of gun violence

The trouble started when Hillside High School student Logan Lewis hopped off the stage and into the audience wielding a fake handgun. 

Gunshots sounded, and a student actor on stage crumpled to the floor, dropping another fake handgun. The victim’s friend picked up the gun and chased Lewis to his home where he pounded his fists on the door, screaming for his mother. More gunshots rang out, and Lewis’ mother opened the door to find her son dead on her doorstep. 

In the blink of an eye, the fictional community became a crime scene: Yellow tape wrapped around the porch and desperate sobs from huddled family members pierced the air, echoed by sniffles from the audience. 

It was all made up, an emotional scene toward the end of Hillside’s production of an original play “State of Urgency.” 

But the play also reflects actual events. “State of Urgency” originated as a response to Durham’s worsening gun violence problem. It also draws upon the real-life experiences of Hillside students, linking the experience of street violence with classroom struggles. 

The play was performed three times over the weekend of November 14-16, and discussions are underway about presenting the play to other school audiences around Durham in the future.

A student-teacher collaboration

Hillside Drama Director Wendell Tabb wrote the play together with 16 Hillside students, including 11th-grader and Drama Club President Aniya Lowe.

“I got emotional at times,” Lowe said. “It’s really the nicest people to go through the worst things…They’re speaking about it to you and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, this happened to you and I didn’t even know’.”

The play—the school’s first in-person production since the pandemic began—featured powerful monologues drawn from students’ personal experiences, as well as moving original songs and dance numbers. It addressed a range of issues, from colorism and school bullying to police brutality and Black-on-Black violence, forming a collage of the harsh realities feeding the growth of gun violence in Durham. 

A call to action

Act One of “State of Urgency” opens with a flurry of emotions: Students, all wearing t-shirts with taglines such as “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” yell out desires for peace, safety and mental health support. The voices crescendo into a collective question, perhaps pointed at the police, the government, the adults in the room, or all three: “Where are you?” 

It is the first of many appeals to the audience. 

The play’s action takes place on a city block, with a corner store, community recreation center and living quarters. 

The audience first sees the block as it was in 1979: unified, safe and lively. Things quickly deteriorate as flashing lights and eerie music bring us into the present, where the block feels isolated and unsafe.

Scenes of police brutality follow, along with scenes of school strife, where colorism and materialism lead to bullying and exclusion. 

Act Two opens with the students wandering the block, lamenting the violence they are living through. 

The scenes that follow look beyond the world of high school, including a depiction of a traffic stop gone fatally awry. A traffic officer mistakes a man’s phone for a gun and shoots the man as passersby capture the tragic death on camera. The stage sweeps into a Black Lives Matter protest, with students hoisting signs and chanting.

The play also spotlights intergenerational debates over police reform and the value of protesting.

“Preserve the good and weed out the bad,” the cast says in unison, summarizing the debate.

The play wraps up with the students returning to the stage and imploring the audience to look within and be the change they want to see.

“This was a call to action,” Oral Chinfloo, a Hillside parent said after the performance. “I hope people reflect on what they just witnessed.”

Fiction and real life

The play pays homage to civil rights leaders of the past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. 

Outside the theater, Tabb also highlighted local activism. In the building’s foyer, organizations such as Bull City United and Guns Down Hearts Up set up tables devoted to their work against gun violence. The Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt stretched along the foyer, holding over 800 names, each written on a cloth square. One square held the name of Robert Antone Baines, who was fatally shot in February 2021. His mother, Brenda Young, stood quietly nearby.

Before the play began, Tabb welcomed Young to the stage. Young shared how senseless violence took the lives of three of her family members. She begged members of the audience to help end local gun violence. 

“I grieve every day,” Young said. “Don’t wait ’til it hits you… You do not want to go through this pain.”

Tabb then asked any victims of gun violence in the audience to stand. Six people rose.

After the play, as students greeted their families outside the theater for congratulatory hugs, a few people congregated around the memorial quilt. Young stood over the quilt, looking at the square with her son’s name on it. Closer to the middle of the quilt,  a young dancer wept quietly over another cloth square. 

“Even though this is make-believe for us in terms of theater, this is not make-believe in real life,” Tabb said in an interview afterward. “It’s not a game. And as a community, we can’t treat it as a game.”

Above, Brenda Young points to her son’s name on the Durham Homicide Memorial Quilt, on display at Hillside High School during the production of ‘State of Urgency’. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal 

Burruss banks on ‘boots on the ground’ experience in her mayoral campaign

As mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss showed us around her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms, she stopped at the road in front of her house and pointed to the ground where bullet shells had strewn the street the night before. 

“I picked up 15 shells from this parking lot,” said Burruss, shaking her head. 

Having served on the resident councils of several Durham Housing Authority communities – she previously lived in Calvert Place – Burruss is familiar with the gun violence and affordable housing crises facing the city. 

Through her campaign, Burruss hopes to encourage others from low-income neighborhoods to run for political office. She said people like her, who have relationships with residents of Durham’s often-overlooked communities, have an important perspective to share. 

“We don’t consider people who are actually boots on the ground, that are actually in the community and making a big impact,” Burruss told the 9th Street Journal. 

In June this year, after hearing gunfire every night from her home in Edgemont Elms, Burruss organized a community barbecue, inviting district police and local families to spend time together and build relationships. In addition to her resident council responsibilities, Burruss is a member of the Residential Advisory Board of DHA and chairperson for the Consumer Family Advisory Committee of Durham.

In 2018, she received a Neighborhood Spotlight Award for her community outreach effort in Durham, which included organizing food and toy donations and community events. 

This campaign marks Burruss’s fourth attempt at running for political office in North Carolina. She was a candidate for mayor of Monroe in 2007; town council in Marshville in 2011; and city council in Durham in 2019, receiving 1,258 votes. 

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1959, Burruss comes from a family of preachers. After working many different jobs to support her son, Burruss decided to pursue higher education in her late 40’s, receiving an associate’s degree in Human Services from South Piedmont Community College in 2004 and a Bachelor of Sciences in social work from Gardner-Webb University in 2006. 

Though she has never held a political office, Burruss is an experienced community leader; she said her roots in the community give her an advantage over other candidates. For example, Burruss has become frustrated by what sees as broken communication channels between DHA residents and local government officials. In her experience, the local government makes a dangerous presumption that all DHA residents have access to  computers and internet required to find information about affordable housing and employment opportunities.

“Durham officials don’t realize not everybody can afford internet access, and older people are not using computers,” said Burruss. 

Alternative methods of communication, such as electronic billboards and posters containing updates from the local government, could be a better way to reach those without internet access, she said. 

Patching the communication gaps between low-income residents and the Durham mayor’s office, Burruss said, is a vital prerequisite to addressing the issues she is most passionate about — crime, affordable housing, and employment. 

Addressing crime and poverty would be Burruss’s main priority as mayor. She believes investment in education and parental support in communities with high crime rates can help break this cycle. 

Burruss does not support defunding the police in Durham. Rather, she believes police officers should be retrained to better communicate with residents and those with mental health conditions. She also supports paying police officers more so they don’t leave to find work in counties offering higher salaries.

She says her experience as a liaison between local residents, police, and the Housing Authority positions her well to improve city relations as mayor. If elected, Burruss plans to spend time in Durham, speaking to people “on the ground” to inform her policy decisions. 

“If I were in the mayor’s chair, you’d be able to put your hands on me,” said Burruss. 

At the top: Mayoral candidate Charlitta Burruss serves on the resident council for her neighborhood, Edgemont Elms. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Durhamites use their wits and each other to land coronavirus vaccines

A neighborhood email list promising leftover vaccines launched Bruce, a diabetic Durhamite, on an odyssey. In want and need of a COVID-19 shot, the 76-year-old said he walked through pouring rain to the vaccination clinic at Duke University.

When he arrived, soggy but hopeful, the nurses told him he had been misinformed — they were not taking walk-ins. 

“It wasn’t the end of the world, but the principle of it just seemed so crazy,” said Bruce. “It’s just the whole vagueness and randomness of it all, you know?”

Bruce, who got the shot days later, isn’t alone. As the gates inch open, Durhamites are still hustling to get jabbed, flooding social media sites for tips to lock down fast-filling vaccination appointments or get leftover shots.

On reddit pages and Facebook groups, through neighborhood email lists or by word of mouth, people are sharing insights about how to get immunized faster. Many report signing up on waitlists for multiple vaccination sites in and outside of Durham. Some have driven hours to get to well-stocked clinics.

Most people The 9th Street Journal asked about their vaccine quests declined to share their full names. But their stories display how hard some people are working to get vaccines.

Becca had more luck than Bruce as a walk-in. She got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday by simply showing-up at the Walgreens on Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. Nabbing the leftover dose saved Becca from driving two-and-a-half hours from Durham to a coastal Onslow County clinic that she heard about on her neighborhood email list. But the shot stood for more than saved time. 

“It means freedom!” cheered Becca as she waited 15 minutes in the store for potential post-vaccination side-effects. “It means I can hug my friends and go to the gym, and it means I can not stress about ending up in the hospital.”

Social media crowdsourcing 

Durhamites discussing out-of-county vaccination options are flooding the r/bullcity reddit board.

User u/_Brandobaris_ said he couldn’t find vaccine appointments via the state health department, county health department or Walgreens when he became eligible in late February. So, he got creative.

“Using friends and reddit, I found and a couple other NC counties and pharmacies,” he wrote. He joined their waitlists, too. 

Ultimately, though, it was his wife’s incessant refreshing of the Walgreens vaccination site that ended up saving the day, he reported. She managed to get them both appointments at a location in Chapel Hill last week, where they received their first doses. 

Lisa, a 42-year-old Durhamite whose health issues place her in Group 4, told 9th Street that she had visited over 16 websites trying to find a vaccine appointment. Her plea for help on the r/bullcity page generated hundreds of responses and guidance on where to get a vaccine. Lisa said she has a jab scheduled for Wednesday in Greensboro.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m a very savvy computer user, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who’s less computer-savvy or doesn’t have a computer to try and navigate all this. There’s just too much information and not a single repository to have it all in one place.”

Vaccine voyages

Security guard Jamal Patterson welcomed people to the Blue Devil Tower vaccination site at Duke University on Wednesday. He hoped to nab a spare vaccine at the end of his shift. Photo by Olivia Olsher

Bruce said he got on Duke Health’s vaccination waitlist back in December. But after weeks of waiting, he started looking elsewhere. He decided to call the Duke Primary Care Clinic. They put him on their waitlist, too. 

“And then again, weeks go by and nothing happens,” Bruce said. 

After his fruitless walk through the rain, he finally found the correct email to request an appointment. He received his second dose on March 2. 

Bruce knew he wasn’t the only person having trouble. He said a friend has a competition among loved ones to see who will drive the farthest in order to get the vaccine. The friend’s nephew claims the top spot, having driven two-and-a-half hours to the Hertford County town of Ahoskie.

Jamal Patterson, a security guard from Graham County working at a vaccination clinic at Duke’s Blue Devil Tower on Wednesday, said he hoped to secure a leftover vaccine at the end of his shift. His boss said that extra doses might be available to him and his co-workers, he reported. That didn’t work out on two previous days, but he wasn’t giving up.

“At the end of the workday, if they have some leftover, I can be like ‘Hey!’” he said, hopeful it would be his day.

To schedule a vaccination appointment in Durham County when eligible, sign up for the county health department’s vaccination scheduling list. Or use the state health department’s tool to find local vaccine providers. 

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at

At top: James Spruil waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine at the Walgreens Pharmacy on Fayetteville Street in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Local leaders build COVID vaccine trust in Black and Latinx communities

When Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton looks into the eyes of some of his elderly Black parishioners, he sees a deep, historic hurt that leads them to question the coronavirus vaccine. 

“Older folks still have the memory of Tuskegee,” Middleton, a Durham city council member, said, referencing the Tuskegee Study, a study on syphilis that withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of misinformed infected Black men as recently as 1972.

Historical malfeasance has led elderly Black Durhamites to mistrust medical institutions, explained Middleton. To address the gaps between vaccination rates for people of color and white people, that anxiety needs to be taken seriously, the council member said.

“We have to affirm the legitimate fears and concerns that people have,” Middleton told the 9th Street Journal.

Eligible people in marginalized communities, particularly Black and Latinx people in Durham, are getting the vaccine at a much lower rate than white folks. As of March 3, 19.5% of Durham County’s white population has received the first dose of the vaccine, according to data made public by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. That’s almost double the rate for Black Durhamites: 11.3% of Black or African-American people have gotten their first shot.

For other marginalized ethnic and racial groups, the rates are even lower. Five in 100 Hispanic people in Durham have received their first vaccine, while only 6.27% of American Indian or Alaskan Native people have received the vaccine. 

A lot of the inequity is a result of structural shortcomings. People of color have less access to wifi connection and transportation, making it hard to get the vaccine even for people who are eligible and want it. 

But fears over the safety of the vaccine widen the gap, local health experts said during Durham County public health’s “COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community” livestream on Feb. 16. 

To address the inequities, the department has offered free rides to vaccination sites for people with appointments. Local churches have chipped in too, working to gain permission from state leaders to become official vaccination sites.

Overcoming the psychological barriers to vaccination, however, requires a more empathetic, creative approach. 

A Durham public health worker hands residents masks as they enter the Durham County Human Services COVID-19 vaccination site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

For Middleton, getting his first shot was a part of the effort. He was one of several local Black leaders the county health department selected to vaccinate on live television. His second shot, set for March 10, will be livestreamed too. 

While he has also been verbally advocating for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine via his radio channel and pastorship, Middleton believes the fact that he can point to his arm and say “I got it” goes a long way.

“Representation matters,” he said.

From the pulpit and the recording studio, Middleton has been spotlighting Black women who have helped create COVID-19 vaccines, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who has been instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, he added. 

Nurse Faye Williams, who came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic, was the first person in the Triangle to be vaccinated. Speaking at the county health department’s Facebook event, she said she hoped other Black people might’ve seen a reflection in her as she got the shot. 

“I wanted them to look at me and also see themselves… I wanted to be an example, and do my part,” she said.

Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins speaks during a live panel discussion titled ‘COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community,’ hosted by the Durham County Department of Public Health. The Feb. 16 livestream also featured Population Health Director Marissa Mortiboy, nurse Faye Williams, and Duke University Assistant Professor Dr. Julius Wilder.  

Durham County Health Director Rodney Jenkins, who also spoke at the event, admitted he had to take some tylenol and catch an early night on Christmas eve when he was vaccinated on Dec. 23. But the effects didn’t last long, he said. 

“I came back Christmas day feeling brand new,” he said, adding that he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

The panelists touted rest, hydration and Tylenol as key ingredients to a successful vaccination experience. 

Building trust in the Latinx community

In Durham’s Latinx community, financial and linguistic barriers compound technological and transport challenges in preventing people from getting the vaccine, wrote Dr. Krista Perreira, a social medicine professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

Some Latinx residents may be hesitant to receive the vaccine because they don’t know that it’s free or that receipt of the vaccine will not be considered in a public charge determination, which could affect immigration status, Perreira said. 

Others might be unaware that no documentation of US citizenship or immigration status is necessary to get vaccinated, added Perreira, a member of the state’s CEAL Research Team, a coalition of medical professionals focusing on COVID-19 awareness and education research among underserved communities

“For Latinx residents who may not have a computer, may not have a driver’s license, or may not read or speak English, these barriers can be especially high,” she wrote. 

Other pressures may discourage Latinx people from seeking vaccination too. 

“Your average Latinx person will probably not feel at ease walking into a county health department or hospital, and will feel more at ease getting vaccinated at an event that is tailored for our community,” explained Rev. Edgar Vergara, head pastor at La Semilla, a United Methodist church that serves Latinx Durhamites.

People walk into the vaccination site at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Duke Health, La Semilla and other local non-profit and religious organizations have joined together to host a series of vaccination drives. The drives take place in places familiar to many Latinx community members, such as El Centro Hispano and the Latino Community Credit Union.

Last weekend, over 500 people were vaccinated at an event at La Cooperativa Latina in Raleigh, reported Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, health equity director for Duke Hospital’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Martinez-Bianchi leads Latin-19, a network of Duke doctors and state health officials focused on fighting COVID-19 in the Latinx community. Vergara said another vaccine drive in Durham is scheduled for Thursday this week.

Having someone who speaks your language, who is a member of your own community providing resources for fighting COVID-19 makes a huge difference, he added.

“Together,” said Vergara, “we are able to reach more people and have a greater impact.”

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher at 

At top: Durham residents exit Southern High School after receiving the COVID-19 shot at a vaccination in late January. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Peace vigil stirs mourning, pledges to curb street violence

On Sunday, men and women in bright green baseball jackets and fluorescent yellow masks took possession of a corner of McDougald Terrace where several shootings have occurred over the last five years.

While the Bull City United members finished setting up, people who live nearby and supporters from other neighborhoods rolled in, by foot and in cars. Joyful songs like “Before I Let Go by Frankie Beverly and Maze played from speakers as people greeted one another. 

A street outreach program founded in 2015, Bull City United, tries to reduce gang and gun violence by framing it as a contagious disease that can be treated and prevented. The group’s strategy involves detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating high risk individuals and changing social norms. 

Many team members come from Durham neighborhoods where this violence is most common. They hosted seven vigils across Durham last week to honor the Week of Peace. The vigils remember people lost to gun and gang-related violence and work to spark hope that things can and will change. 

After Bull City United’s Keshia Gray teared up reading names of people killed in Durham in 2020, team member David Johnson took over. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham experienced a surge of gun violence last year. From Oct.1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, the number of people shot in Durham soared 59% to 221 people, according to police data. One out of every six gunshot victims in Durham during that time was younger than under 18, including eight children younger than 12.

On Sunday, David Johnson, a Bull City United supervisor, welcomed attendees as they arrived, most of whom he knew by name. Once more than 20 people gathered, Johnson took a mic and addressed the crowd.

“We are out here trying to show our love and support,” he said, adding how grateful he and the United team is for people joining them to seek change. “Y’all have shown us nothing but love.”

Johnson introduced  Keshia Gray, United’s outreach coordinator, who knows the McDougald community because some of her family lives there. “It sure is good to be home, y’all,” she said. “But one thing that is getting up out of here is gun violence.”

Determined whoops and “Yes Ma’ams!” escaped from the crowd.

Bull City United has not been as visible in recent months as it was after launching in 2015. Gray said it is growing now, pointing to Ty Robinson, a young man in the process of becoming a conflict mediator. She knew Robinson originally as a person at risk of being exposed to violence, she said.

“Gun violence is not normal, depression is not normal, the effects of gun violence aren’t normal,” she told the crowd. “Burying your children is not normal and we are not going to allow it to be normal.”

Gray invited any mothers who lost children to violence to speak. Mothers were there, but none stepped forward.

Gray then read names of people killed by gang and gun violence in Durham in 2020. DaShawn Jones was on the list. So were Benjamin Smith, Terry Bradshaw and Kordell Young. Gray choked up shortly after naming Young, who was fatally shot on March 20 last year.

“He was one of our own,” Gray said, noting Young was active in Bull City United.

Seeing Gray overwhelmed, Johnson took over reading names. Starting with Jose Rodriguez, Russel Dukes, Jr., Phillip Jones, then Anthony Adams, Jessica Cortez Luna and Joshua Lindsey, he listed many more.

Ashley Canady, president of McDougald Terrace’s resident council, sang at Sunday’s vigil. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Once 40 names were read, the mix of families with young children, young and older men and women, and quiet, bereaved mothers shared a moment of silence. 

Ashley Canady, president of McDougald’s resident council, walked to the center of the group and started singing “Hero,” by Mariah Carey. The lyrics fit with the push to encourage community members to work together to reduce violence. “When you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong, and you’ll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you,” she sang.

As Canady continued, United team members in the green baseball jackets passed around white and green star-shaped balloons, another tribute to people lost last year. Everyone released the balloons together. A wave of quiet passed through the crowd as they watched the balloons rise to the sky. 

“Peace is a lifestyle,” said Gray, back on the mic. The people surrounding echoed the words back to her. 

After Gray led a short prayer, people lined up for boxed meals of soup, sandwiches and cupcakes. They picked pandemic goodie bags holding hand sanitizers, fluorescent masks with a Bull City United logo, water bottles and T-shirts. 

Tammy Goodman lost her son, Charleston Goodman, to gang violence in 2018. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Tammy Goodman was one of the mothers present who did not address the crowd. She wore an orange sweatshirt with a photo of her son, Charleston Goodman, on the back.

Three years ago, 26-year-old Charleston Goodman was kidnapped outside of his home in East Woodcroft Parkway on Sunday January 28th, she said. He has not been found. In August 2019, his nine-year-old godson, Z’yon Person, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. 

Sundays are difficult for Goodman and her family, she said before Sunday’s event began. And vigils are bittersweet. 

Even if she doesn’t speak, showing up to advocate against violence gives her motivation to get out of bed each morning, Goodman said. In late 2020, Goodman co-founded Guns Down, Hearts Up, an anti-violence group focused on raising awareness of gun violence and advocating for more political investment in the problem. 

“I’m turning pain into purpose,” said Goodman. “I know the pain would consume me if I wasn’t doing this.”

9th Street reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at

At top: Balloons rise from a violence-prevention vigil that members of Bull City United organized at McDougald Terrace last week. The star-shaped balloons were released to remember 40 people killed by gang- and gun-related violence in Durham in 2020. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the date when Charleston Goodman was kidnapped.

Church plants seeds to ease hunger, promote spiritual growth

At 3:17 a.m. the Rev. Ben Johnston-Krase jumped out of bed, scrambled for his iPad and started Googling — somebody must have thought of this idea before him.

He scoured the web, searching for a reason to go back to sleep and forget about it. Nothing came up. 

Twenty minutes and $80 later, the domain name was purchased.  Johnston-Krase put away his iPad and went back to bed.

The next morning Johnston-Krase called his friend, the Rev. Allen Brimer, and told him everything.

“Well, that’s it then,” Brimer recalled saying. “We’re gonna have to get this right.”

That was 2014. Soon Johnston-Krase and Brimer found themselves sitting in front of the Presbyterian Church USA evaluation team in Atlanta, Georgia, asking to create a new farming-focused congregation. To their surprise, they were given a green light. 

“Part of me wanted them to tell me no, no, no, don’t be a church planter. But that’s not what happened,” said Brimer. 

The men created Farm Church, whose mission is to gather a Christian-centered community around food cultivation. Its special focus is food insecurity in Durham.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a Trinity Ave Presbyterian Church Youth group helped weed a garden that Farm Church members tend. Photo by Allen Brimer


The idea for Farm Church came to Johnston-Krase in a dream. In it, he was taking a call to a church. When he got out of his car, there was no building, only people worshipping on a small plot of farmland. That’s when he woke up and frantically searched the internet.

Connecting to faith through cultivation was a concept that had been ruminating in both his and Brimer’s minds for some time.

Brimer caught the gardening bug in 1995, after stumbling upon an organic garden on a ranch where he was working as a camp counselor in New Mexico.

Growing food “woke up some ancient dragon in me that had been dormant,” he explained.

Brimer quit the counselor job and worked full-time in the garden that summer. The following summers he travelled to Arizona, Indiana and New Mexico to work on farms and learn as much as he could about growing food. 

“I just started farming, farming, farming,” he said. 

After acquiring the blessing of the Presbyterian Church, Johnston-Krase, Brimer, and their friend the Rev. Brandon Wert started a nationwide search for the perfect home for Farm Church. 

They considered locations from California to New York. Durham, North Carolina, was the dark-horse candidate. None of the pastors knew anyone in the area. That meant they would have to build roots in the community from the ground up.

But when they came to visit, they fell in love. “We came to Durham and it just shined,” said Brimer.

There were also plenty of mouths to feed. Eighteen percent of people living in Durham are food insecure, according to research done by The Southeastern University Consortium for Food Security and Health. That adds up to over 50,000 people.

Moreover, mild winters here allow Farm Church’s congregation to spend lots of the year outside with their hands in the soil. And despite decades of development, the city is still surrounded by lots of open land, which Brimer hoped would make it easier to find space of their own.  

So in August 2015 the men packed up their families and moved to Durham. Phase one was complete. Next they needed congregants. The following months they consumed excessive amounts of caffeine at local cafes like Mad Hatter’s and Beyu Blue and telling people what they were up to. 

“We were constantly just going and meeting people and telling the story over and over and over,” Brimer said.

Each meeting led to three more people who might be interested in their vision, and then three more. One coffee conversation led them to connect with SEEDS, an urban garden and kitchen classroom on Gilbert Street. 

An outdoors communion. Photo courtesy of Farm Church


On May 1, 2016, Farm Church hosted its first service at the SEEDS campus. Brimer offered a scripture passage while more than 60 people stood on the bare earth SEEDS shared with them. Then they got to work.

First on the agenda: Improving soil health. 

 “The first year in that garden, we were literally digging into red clay, like hard, dry red clay. It was awful,” said Anneke Oppewal, a middle school Spanish teacher who was one of Farm Church’s first congregation members.

Five years and several harvests later, the soil is rich and dark brown. And the congregation has grown. Anywhere between 70 to 100 people pass through Farm Church a week.

On Wednesdays, members spend the afternoon working on a tenth-acre plot on Watts Street. Anne Hodges-Copple, an associate bishop of the Episcopal church and a fellow gardening geek, offered them the land, Brimer said. 

With no official building to its name, Farm Church attracts those looking for an unconventional religious community that offers an active worship experience. Something that feels productive and purposeful.

“It has attracted people who are spiritually curious, but institutionally suspicious,” said Mark McIntyre, a member of Farm Church since its founding.

Oppewal said she felt unfulfilled by her previous experiences of “normal” indoor church. 

“It was all too easy to go in, sit down, stand up, leave. I was like, I think church is supposed to be more than this,” she said.

“Farm Church mixes this notion of practicing our faith life with doing something that’s actually physically useful to people as well. It satisfies not just a spiritual need, but a physical one,” said McIntyre.

Few people living in urban centers like Durham get to experience the satisfaction of defending precious crops from crowding weeds or watching shoots burst from seed capsules to stretch toward sunlight. Norman Wirzba, a professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, believes such cultivation experiences take on spiritual meaning. 

“When you look at scriptures, they’re all about God’s love for the land, God’s love for non-human creatures, God’s love for all human beings, and certainly God’s love for bodies,” he said. “That’s why you find Jesus constantly healing bodies, feeding bodies, befriending bodies, reconciling bodies, even exorcising the demons that are disfiguring bodies, because Jesus loves embodiment.”

Brimer, now head pastor, describes the garden as a “smorgasbord of metaphors” for Christian teachings. On Sundays, after Brimer reads and reflects on the scripture passage for the day, he ends with some meditative questions for the group. 

“When is a time that you did the compassionate thing, even though it was the hard thing to do?,” he might ask. Or: “What does justice look like in the midst of a pandemic? What does mercy look like in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement?”

With these questions in mind, Brimer walks members through the SEEDS gardens, pointing out plants with insect damage or encroaching weeds. He teaches skills, like how to harvest greens so they grow back stronger. The group then chooses what to prioritize and gets to work.

After working the land for 45 to 50 minutes, congregants step into an indoor space on the SEEDS campus for a break. They discuss the meditation questions and the scripture passage’s implications for their daily lives. 

“I never thought weeding could be something spiritual,” said Oppewal. “That very much connected with me, the idea of taking things out that are not serving us to make room for things that will; that has been a big metaphor.”

After discussing scripture and Brimer’s questions, it’s time for communion liturgy — minus bread or wine these days due to COVID-19. Service ends after everyone shares joys or concerns from the week and Brimer says a final prayer.

People clean tools and head home.

Bags of greens harvested by Farm Church members. Photo by Allen Brimer


Farm Church members are passionate about food insecurity.

Radishes, lettuce, kale and the other foods that members grow are donated to local food banks, including one run by Iglesia Immanuel Presbyterian congregation, and to Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s food pantry.  During the pandemic, they have helped efforts to feed Durham public school families who depend on free or reduced-price meals.

When bad weather keeps them home, they watch documentaries about food systems and join Zoom talks with others working to try to improve access to healthy food in Durham.

While the injection of fresh produce from Farm Church into Durham food sharing networks is a first step at helping, Brimer wants to go further.

Reducing food insecurity in Durham has been a humbling experience for many. Low-income, marginalized communities experience a higher risk of food insecurity in the U.S. and Durham is no exception.

Part of a predominantly white, middle-class congregation, Farm Church members acknowledge they are disconnected with the people most in need of assistance. 

“Farm Church right now is very much a Band-Aid to very big and real problems that we can’t just address and be done with. We know that food insecurity stems from racism and poverty and health disparities, and these things that we can’t necessarily tackle,” said Oppenwal.

Plans are underway to develop a spot by a bus stop on Holloway Street where people can one day pick their own food while waiting for a ride. Brimer plans to seek out more people working on solutions and offer the church’s help, he said. 

“We want to ask if we can accompany them solving the problem and keep asking: How can I be useful here?,” he said.

9th Street reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at

At top: A Farm Church fall harvest. Photo by Anneke Opewal