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Published on July 18th, 2012 | by Michael Hansen

An Atheist Walked into a Church: My Day in East Lake

Today I went to church voluntarily for the first time in a very, very long time when I made an appearance at East Lake United Methodist Church (ELUMC). It took a moment to get my bearings, but navigating hallways of old churches is something of a pastime — an instinct, really — for many who grew up in the South.

It’s not unlike the cliché of riding a bicycle; just replace handlebars, pedals, and gears with yellow lighting, linoleum floors, and the occasional aroma of mothballs.

About the same time I figured out where I was going Sally Dover, program coordinator for P.E.E.R., Inc., popped into the hallway. She introduced herself and promptly led me to the church’s Downstairs Diner, which serves lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Summer intern Angelica Trammell, a second-year graduate student at UAB’s renowned School of Public Health, joined us.

The purpose of our meeting was specific: I wanted to learn about P.E.E.R.’s new Mobile Market program that soft-launched that morning. The market “officially” launches Wednesday, July 25 with stops in “convenient, high-traffic places,” as Dover put it.

As I dug into a rather tasty taco salad, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my youth. Of years spent attending bible studies and playing basketball at Audubon Park Baptist Church. Of my great-grandmother Nan — better known as Mommie — and her affection for her north Memphis home and the church next door to it, National Avenue Baptist Church, where she spent so much time.

I am not a religious man (quite the opposite, actually), but I appreciate the value and role of faith in improving lives and communities. Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in sanctuaries and fellowship halls, at potluck picnics or neighborhood get-togethers sponsored by congregations. Whenever something big happened — good or bad — I usually ended up in a church: breathtaking weddings and heartbreaking funerals sit atop that list, stark reminders of how precious communion is.

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East Lake is a neighborhood at risk. It reminds me a lot of where I grew up, actually. If you’re ever in Memphis, visit Sherwood Forest. By no means a ghetto, East Lake is a low-income, working class community established nearly a century ago. The withering neighborhood is racially, ethnically, and socially diverse. Average household income is a little more than $27,000. Dover says about 30 percent of the area lives at or below the poverty line (compared with about 23 percent statewide). Health, obesity in particular, is a problem countywide (about 32 percent in JeffCo), but especially in poor areas.

P.E.E.R., Inc. (which stands for Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources) was founded by East Lake United Methodist Church pastor Sally Alloca and has its headquarters at the church, though they are two distinct entities. The former’s mission is “to empower a thriving, diverse community […] through resources for healthy living, learning, and working.” Programs that seek to make that happen include the East Lake Farmers Market, Senior Market Baskets, the East Lake Community Kitchen (a job training program in partnership with ELUMC’s Downstairs Diner), a community garden, and the new Mobile Market.

P.E.E.R.’s flagship initiative is the East Lake Farmers Market. Introduced at the organization’s beginning, it brings much-needed fresh fruits and vegetables to a food desert every Saturday morning from May through October.

“There is no neighborhood supermarket … the closest one is three miles away,” Dover said to emphasize the market’s significance. And those three miles are not walkable, either, with I-59 basically splitting the community into eastern and western halves. She also mentioned that nearby Woodlawn has a Piggly Wiggly that sells produce.

With few healthy options nearby, those who live in food deserts — almost exclusively a problem of low-income areas — often turn to fast food and processed foods because they are cheap and readily available, making a bad problem even worse.

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Last year, P.E.E.R. won a $67,000 competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) through its Farmers Market Promotion Program. That funding allowed them to buy a van, which they turned into a food truck of a different sort: a mobile farmers market. A distant cousin to the trendy food trucks you see around town and on the Food Network, this four-wheeled market sells raw produce to folks who need it the most.

Starting July 25, P.E.E.R. will take their popular farmers market on the road each Wednesday, selling fresh produce all over East Lake. Initially, locations will be Shepherd Center East, Hawkins Park Recreation Center and Step-by-Step Child Development Center. Dover said they are working on plans to add stops at after-school sites and housing authority residences.

P.E.E.R. hopes to get a boost in brand awareness from the coming media attention that a mobile farmers market is sure to bring. Listening to Dover and Trammell talk about the positive effect their projects are having on East Lake, it is a wonder P.E.E.R. is not a household name in Birmingham — pioneers that other needy communities can follow.

For instance, P.E.E.R. delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to about 140 area elderly citizens via Senior Market Baskets. Their paid culinary job-training program, the East Lake Community Kitchen, trains workers in ELUMC’s health department-approved kitchen so they can obtain permanent employment in the food services industry. The community garden teaches East Lakers about healthy living through cooking lessons.

Main Street Birmingham, a nearby non-profit known for their commitment to community investment, ponied up for a wireless EBT machine for the new Mobile Market, meaning customers can pay with SNAP benefits (formerly known as “food stamps”). Because of that, East Lake’s most impoverished residents can afford fresh, healthy foods whether they visit the Farmers Market on Saturday or meet up with the Mobile Market during the week.

Spending an hour in East Lake awakened my roots growing up in a tired, old neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, where I learned to work hard, to help others, and to value community. It reminded me of my belief that it is through fellowship with one another that we learn, grow, and change — and East Lake needs a change. Without hope, opportunity, and advocacy for the least among us, there can be no such progress.

I have faith.

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About the Author

My name is Michael Hansen. Born and raised in the South — Memphis, Tenn., to be precise — I am a firm believer that food and drink bring family, friends, lovers, colleagues, and enemies together like nothing else on the planet. I live and play in Birmingham, Ala., where I own a small marketing and website design firm called Mud Pie Creative Lab with my siblings. I am an avid foodie, wannabe writer, so-so music critic, aspiring gardener, day dreamer, college sports fanatic, animal lover, news junkie, problem solver and all-around nice guy. Google

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