Mildred in the Desert

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  – Isaiah 43:19

Last Monday a group of residents from Hillside Court piled into a passenger van and drove forty minutes outside the city to Goochland County to volunteer at the farm. These visits are one of many ways Shalom is working to address the diverse and complex contributors to food insecurity in targeted neighborhoods. Volunteers come and see the farm in action, learn a bit about growing food, get down to work mulching, composting, planting or harvesting, and walk away with bags of produce they had a hand in producing and what was hopefully an instructive and meaningful experience. For some folks in the group last week this was their first time stepping foot on a farm; for others it was their first trip to Shalom; but for Mildred it was like going home.

Mildred lives in Hillside Court, one of many government housing projects in Richmond. The closest grocery store is over four miles away and, like over fifty percent of residents of Hillside, Mildred doesn’t have a car. For most residents that trek must be traversed on foot or on the city bus – either endeavor is a serious time commitment, given the bus ride is about an hour and a half one way. Aside from the collard greens growing in a tub beside Mildred’s front door, the closest sign of fresh food might be a few sad-looking, overpriced, under-purchased bananas or apples on the counter at the corner store. Hillside is what urban planners and other people who study food systems would call a food desert. Mildred is what I would call a deep spring.

When I first met her I was on a site-visit with my boss, Dominic, to an expansive grassy plateau that sits above Hillside, a potential location for Shalom’s first urban farm. Mildred greeted Dominic with a wide grin and the biggest embrace her tiny frame could offer my 6’7” boss. Turning her dark, glowing face to me, she offered one of those great smiles and her wrinkled hand, small but strong. After catching Dominic up on neighborhood happenings, she led us to her front door where she proudly displayed the cluster of collard greens growing from the tub Shalom had provided in a container gardening workshop at Hillside several months before. She glowed as she told us about the many collard-garnished meals she’d enjoyed out of that one little collard patch. It was a tiny oasis in the food desert that stretched for miles around, kept verdant by Mildred’s well-deep devotion, free-flowing love and weathered hands. As Dominic and I drove off, he assured me Mildred knew more about growing food than either of us.

I didn’t remember her when she stepped out of the van on Monday; our previous meeting had been so brief that her wide smile and tiny frame seemed to me only vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until I watched the deep way she looked at the fields, heard how profoundly she breathed in the fresh country air, that I recognized her as Mildred, keeper of the oasis in the Hillside desert. Then I could almost see the dewy contentment hovering cloudlike over her wide brimmed hat, the joy pooling around her boots. As we picked cucumbers together under the baking sun, memories, stories, and bits of farming wisdom flowed out of her like sweet water, and I drank it all up.

She told me about the farm she grew up on with her eleven brothers and sisters. It had been in her mother’s family for generations. She told me about how hard they all worked, her sisters around the house with her mother and she in the field with her father and brothers. You couldn’t keep her inside, she said. She told me about her father’s old plow mule (he never did switch to a tractor), how he’d head for the barn at noon everyday, like clockwork. Mildred’s father could be in the middle of shaping a bed and that mule would start off toward the house, clear across every one of those straight rows. She stood up from her bent-over cucumber-picking position as she told me this in order to gesture dramatically with her arms before bending over again, this time from laughter. She told me about the chickens and the milking cows, and the shelves stocked with canned and pickled things her mother put up for the winter. She told me about how bitter times could be – she went a whole year without shoes – but how sweet the watermelons were on a summer afternoon, straight off the vine, a Sunday treat.

Mildred told me, “Ask me something about the city and I won’t have any idea. Ask me anything you want about the country and I’ll know. I’m a country girl.” I don’t know about all the turns in Mildred’s long road from the farm in North Carolina to projects of Richmond – her father got sick, her mother went blind, she followed her fiancé north, then the wheelbarrow filled up with cucumbers and we were on to the next task. And I was left with my head swimming, my heart saturated with Mildred’s story. To think that Mildred’s tub of collard greens is the only remnant of her beloved farming life makes you wonder how that bubbling spring of a lady isn’t a bucket of tears. Yet somehow, miraculously, there doesn’t seem to be even a drop of bitterness in her. She’s a deep spring – she draws from a deep Source.

My encounter with Mildred has left me not with any particular or profound theological insight, but with a thirst – for righteousness like a mighty stream, for justice like rolling waters – and a hope in the deep spring in the Hillside desert.