*Adapted from “Race and Reconciliation in Cedar Grove,” which aired July 7, 2010, on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC 91.5 FM
The farming town of Cedar Grove, N. C., has been home to both African-Americans and whites for generations. But until recently, many people in the community preferred to keep their social and religious lives separate. This is the story of how a tragedy changed that.
Pastor Grace Hackney is a tall woman with a gentle smile who loves being a minister. Hackney didn’t follow her calling until later in life, after working as a teacher and raising two children. When she graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2003, her first assignment was to the historic congregation of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church.
“After living in northern Chatham County and going to school at Duke, I thought I had a good sense of what life in North Carolina was like, but I didn’t,” says Hackney. “It was like coming to a different country. This is a very different part of North Carolina.”
Northern Orange County is a place of both great wealth and great poverty. Many families there have owned vast parcels of land for generations. At the same time, there are desperately poor people who live in trailers or barns without running water and working toilets. When Hackney arrived in Cedar Grove, it was also very segregated. Even though blacks and whites were neighbors, they rarely socialized with each other. And they certainly didn’t go to church together.
During her first week as pastor, an African-American man showed up outside the church. Hackney noticed no one had invited him in. She went out to speak with him, and learned he was looking for work.
“I hired him on the spot to weed the flower bed in front of the parsonage,” says Hackney. He befriended the congregation, and began coming to church. When she later learned that he had landed in jail, she went to visit him.
“The lieutenant at the jail questioned me about my credentials,” Hackney says. “He said, ‘I know that church in Cedar Grove. They wouldn’t have a woman pastor, and they certainly wouldn’t have a black person in their church.’”
That didn’t stop Hackney from trying to get to know everyone in the community. One day she was outside Cedar Grove’s tiny post office, which is right next to her church. When she saw an African-American man standing there looking at the church building, she went to him and introduced herself as the pastor.
“I did that often at the post office,” Hackney says. “That’s how I met people.” Although she learned his name was Valee Taylor, Hackney didn’t know anything else about him.
Taylor, who is a retired probation officer, remembers that he’d been working in his garden that day and was wearing dirty work clothes. He was driving his old pickup truck to deliver extra vegetables to people who needed them. He was shocked when Hackney spoke to him.
“She said, ‘My name is Grace Hackney. I’m the new pastor at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, and I would love you to come, I welcome you to come, and worship with us.’ Surprisingly, I’ve never had a Caucasian pastor to approach me and invite me to their church.”
Hackney remembers saying, “Valee, as a white Christian and as a United Methodist, I feel like I owe you an apology, because we have not always done rightly by African-Americans.”
In 1800, African-Americans made up nearly one-fifth of the Methodist Episcopal Church. But they were denied full equality from the very beginning. When white Methodists began backing away from criticizing slavery, black parishioners formed separate African Methodist churches. The majority, white Methodist churches that remained were segregated until 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed. Grace Hackney carried the weight of all that history on her shoulders as she talked to Valee Taylor. But that’s not what Taylor remembers.
“She made the mention of souls, and asked me, ‘What do you think the kingdom of heaven looks like?’ She said, ‘It’s all souls; it’s no color.’ It’s stuck with me to this day.”
One of the first things Valee Taylor did after that conversation was to call his mother to tell her what had happened. For generations, his family has lived in Orange County, where his grandfather was the largest landowner, with a thousand acres to his name. Taylor’s father is a retired army officer who served two tours in Vietnam. His cousins include prominent doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. But no one in the family could remember a white minister in Orange County ever inviting them anywhere.
The Taylor family owns a hundred-acre tract about a mile down the road from Cedar Grove United Methodist Church. To get to Valee Taylor’s house, you pass a little convenience store that sells everything from canned vegetables to minnows and fishing worms. For years, crack dealers had loitered there to sell drugs, sometimes getting high in broad daylight. But a new storekeeper named Bill King, a white man married to an African-American woman, had rented the building and set up shop.
“He was a fair man, but he was a very stern man,” says Taylor. “When he told [drug dealers] to leave, he meant it. He was like a one-man army. It wasn’t a crusade; he’d just say, ‘Take it on down the road,’ and that was it.”
Residents of Cedar Grove started shopping at the store more often. Parents let children ride bikes there to buy sodas and ice cream. And Taylor noticed that Bill King let people who were short on cash buy food on credit.
“He was a man of meager means,” Taylor says, “but he would share what he had with people who weren’t fortunate enough to buy what they needed to survive. And he would allow people credit, even though he had signs all over the store saying, ‘No credit. Don’t even ask.’ If you needed it, he would be there for you.”
Taylor says people in the community admired King’s work ethic, particularly after learning that he suffered from Crohn’s disease.
“He was very sick, but he always wanted to have a convenience store. That was his lifelong dream. And he never missed a day of being at work. When he had to go to the doctor, somebody else would work for him.”
Taylor began dropping by the store on his way home just to chat with King. One afternoon, Taylor was resting at home when the phone rang. A friend in Durham told him that King had been killed at the store.
“I said, ‘What you talking about man? I was just down there earlier. I saw him.’ He told me what channel to turn on the TV, and I saw Bill’s younger daughter talking about how her father had died.”
On the afternoon of June 10, 2004, Bill King was shot in the back of the head as he was closing up shop. Police found the drawer from the cash register outside the store, but they couldn’t find the murder weapon. They couldn’t find any suspects either.
“I personally felt helpless, and I think the community felt helpless,” says Taylor. “You depend on law enforcement to find the killer, but you know they can’t do but so much. They questioned everybody. They did a neighborhood sweep. They traced every car they knew that was at that store, and it just came up a big zero.”
The following week, Taylor remembered the conversation he’d had with Pastor Grace Hackney a few months earlier. Since the murdered shopkeeper was white, Taylor thought it would be a good idea to get a white church involved.
When he showed up at the parish house, Taylor hadn’t seen Hackney since their first meeting. He asked if she remembering telling him to knock on her door if he ever needed anything. She assured him that she did, and invited him inside.
“Valee wanted our church to help raise money for a reward to find the person who killed Bill King,” Hackney says. “He said, ‘You know, a poor shop owner in a rural community, they’re not going to get the same attention that a rich shop owner is going to get if they’re shot in the head. That’s just the facts.’”
Hackney and Taylor spoke for a few hours about how scared people in the community were. After all, the killer was still out there. They decided that offering a reward wasn’t the right response, but they knew the community needed something. So Hackney visited Bill King’s wife, Emma. She didn’t have enough money for a funeral, and she’d already had her husband cremated. They decided to hold a vigil in the store’s parking lot, on the two-week anniversary of the murder.
“I invited her to bring photos,” Hackney says. “She brought his ashes, and we set up a little table with the cross and candles. Then we just waited to see who would come.”
More than a hundred people showed up—black, white, Latino, rich, poor, churched, unchurched. Taylor, who had brought his 76-year-old mother, Scenobia, with him, says, “Tears came to my eyes to see the whole community come together. We had black preachers that spoke, we had white preachers that spoke, and you could feel the presence of a higher power.”
For both Taylor and Hackney, it was a sign that Cedar Grove’s segregated history could actually come to an end. The town was finally in a place where race and class didn’t matter. Hackney told the Taylors that she felt strongly that this was a picture of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Scenobia Taylor and her children still remember the nights when the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in their yard, and when segregationists fired gunshots at Valee and his siblings as they began attending previously white schools.
“She’s seen all that, and at that vigil I think she was able to see a new world being born, a new community, a very new community of different colors and shapes and sizes,” Valee says.
Food and Faith
At the time of Bill King’s death, Scenobia Taylor was feeling troubled. She had recently purchased more than a hundred acres from her brother before he died. She was bothered by the fact that no one in her family’s generation used their land for anything but themselves.
“My father, he gave land for a school,” she says. “My grandfather, he gave land for the church, and for people to be buried. Papa, at one time, he had a thousand acres. We have all this land here, and what do we do with it? We not doin’ nothin’.”
She wanted to do something like her grandfather and father had done. She began to pray, “Lord, please show me, give me a sign or somethin’.”
Not long after the vigil for Bill King, she got the sign she was waiting for. She dreamed that God told her to give some of her land away to feed the hungry.
At the time, Hackney’s church was studying the story of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. While planting a field wasn’t customary during wartime, God told Jeremiah to buy land in a place called Anathoth and plant crops to feed his community.
Hackney began thinking about the hunger in Cedar Grove. She and her congregation sponsored community discussions about how food and faith are linked. Valee Taylor was already talking to local ministers, both black and white, about how his mother wanted to give land to the community. After much prayer and discussion, Scenobia Taylor decided to donate five acres of prime land to what was historically the whitest, richest church in the community—Cedar Grove United Methodist.
The Taylors wanted to build a garden to honor Bill King’s memory, and to name it Anathoth after Jeremiah’s field in the Old Testament. There, anyone, black or white, rich or poor, could come to a community garden and get food to eat.
But such a generous donation to a white church didn’t go over well with some in the black community.
“People said, ‘What have they done for us? Ain’t never did nothing for us,’” Scenobia says. “We told them, ‘We’re not looking to the past. We’re looking toward the future. We’re trying to build Anathoth Garden here in our community, starting a community of giving here.’”
Scenobia Taylor’s pastor approved of the idea. But some members of her extended family argued that their grandfather had worked hard to amass a thousand acres despite the Depression and terrible racism. They weren’t about to see five acres of it go to a white church.
“They attacked my mother real hard, tried to make false accusations, and it all came because she was giving five acres to that church,” Valee says.
“With my family, you know it’s not only white that’s prejudiced; it’s black too that’s prejudiced,” his mother says. “They don’t see things like they should.”
Two extended family members filed a lawsuit, claiming that Scenobia Taylor had acquired the land dishonestly. In the meantime, the church’s discussions about food, faith, and farming had become controversial. The idea of starting a community garden to help feed the poor didn’t sit well with everyone. Among some, there was a perception that poverty is the result of chronic laziness.
Hackney was making waves in other ways. Her efforts to organize joint worship between African-Americans and whites raised objections at Cedar Grove that “their music is not like ours” and “we worship differently.”
“I knew some of her struggles, as far as what you hear on the street, plus the little things my mother would tell me,” Valee Taylor says. “I knew that it was not going to be easy on either side.” But he assured her that members of the black community stood behind her.
Hackney remembers hearing Scenobia describe the controversy as “the devil on my back.”
“She said she didn’t realize it was going to be this hard,” Hackney says. “I shared that I was having difficulty as well, and we prayed together.” But at this point, she and the Taylors weren’t sure if the plan could succeed.
They struggled through 2004 and 2005 to gain consensus for the project. In Hackney’s church, a quiet majority of parishioners and supervisors ended up supporting her.
“My district superintendent said to me, ‘Just keep your face pointed toward Jerusalem, where God’s calling you to go, and everything else will be taken care of.’ I had a lot of folks who stood behind me in this congregation, and people would leave church with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘Thank you for having the courage to say that.’”
By 2005, the council of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church decided to accept the Taylors’ land and to start a community garden, providing the church didn’t have to pay for upkeep. The lawsuit filed by the Taylors’ extended family members was eventually dropped. A groundbreaking ceremony for Anathoth Garden was held in November of that year.
Today, Anathoth is a small organic farm, thanks to grants from The Duke Endowment, and lots of community effort. There’s a greenhouse, a children’s play area, a meditation garden with native plants, and two acres of crops.
During an early summer tour of the garden, Hackney points out rows of garlic and asparagus, squash and carrots, turnips, cilantro, a variety of lettuces, onions, strawberries, and sweet potatoes.
Nearly every morning volunteers arrive to work under the watchful eyes of a garden director and interns. Anyone can join. A contribution of $5 a year and two hours of work per week earns people the right to take home as many vegetables as they need. Hackney says it’s nice to be in a place where everyone is welcome.
“There’s no judgment, and there’s no proselytizing,” Hackney says. “It’s a living witness of how we embody and receive this life that God has made possible for us on this planet.”
Hackney and Taylor sit on a big deck near a pavilion where garden members hold community potlucks every week. But they both know that Hackney’s time in Cedar Grove is coming to an end. At first, he explains, he hated the thought of her leaving.
“But then the more I’ve prayed over it, ... I came to reckoning that she’s carrying the word on. I don’t think her work is done.”
Hackney knows she will miss Cedar Grove, but says it’s time for her to move on. “I really do feel like I’ve done what God has called me to do here, and I have to trust that God is calling me to go somewhere else.”
She looks forward to finding out what is in store for her at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Bahama, N.C., in northern Durham County. Meanwhile, the work of Anathoth Garden will continue. On any morning you’ll find people of every color and background planting, weeding, and cultivating hundreds of pounds of vegetables that will be distributed back into the community they’re grown in.
Listen to the original North Carolina Public Radio broadcast  at WUNC 91.5 FM.
Grace Hackney D’03 is getting to know her new community at Mt. Bethel UMC in Bahama, N.C. Karl Grant D’06 is the current pastor at Cedar Grove UMC, where Anathoth Garden is flourishing.
This article was adapted with permission from “Race and Reconciliation in Cedar Grove,” by Jessica Jones, which aired July 7, 2010, on North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC.