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The Reluctant Farmer: Meet Reverend Richard Joyner

For close to two decades, Richard Joyner fought to get away from the farms of Pitt County, North Carolina. He grew up in a family of sharecroppers and repeatedly witnessed racial and economic injustices. His family was never properly compensated for their labor, and his father was treated poorly by white land owners.

Later in his life, Joyner became the pastor for the small 300-person community of Conetoe, North Carolina. Within one year, 30 of his congregants died from health-related illnesses. He decided to return to farming to grow healthy food for his community.

Joyner has since launched gardens, a summer camp, and an after school program, and he has witnessed dramatic changes in the community: emergency room visits have dropped and graduation rates continue to rise. Host Frank Stasio speaks with Reverend Richard Joyner about his journey.


On sharecropping with his family: 

While everything was in the fields, it belonged to my father. It belonged to us. Once it reached the market, it changed names. And the profit of that product never really came back to my father, back to us, on the farm. And for 17 years the bitterness began to sit in—seeing my father at the end of that harvest come back home with nothing. 

On intergenerational anger:

[My parents] did a great job of protecting us from that anger. But what I’ve learned later on [is that] internalized anger unexpressed can be as deadly to your health as anything else. My father died of a massive heart attack at 64 years old on the farm. This year I turn 64, and that’s a pretty short life. 

On growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia:  

It was a survival mode. My father really encouraged that you’re not gonna fail. And plus, it was encouraged that if you do fail, you’re gonna spend the rest of your life on the farm. 

On the effect of suppressed pain on his early style of preaching: 

[I was a] fire and brimstone kinda guy. I really think that when you’re not whole, when you don’t have depth internally, you don’t have depth in your soul. You view everything from this blaming, shaming, guilting, painful process. And so that was a tough journey ... We can’t value the beauty of God’s creation without changing it. It’s not beautiful unless I change it and control it. 

On asking God for advice on how to help the community:

I’m praying and I really want to hear what God has to say about this. And literally, I hear [a voice] that says 'Open your eyes, look around you.' And I did, and I saw nothing but fields and land. And I go ‘Is there anybody else? This is no time to be playin.’

On the fitness component of his gardening camps:

We started out with youth that was on asthma pumps and all kinds of medications and stuff. And the first day it looked like we gotta call EMS. They won’t make it. But four weeks into the camp, we had youth running two and three miles, losing weight, not having to worry about asthma pumps, not taking medications.

On coming to terms with his experience as a sharecropper:

One day I was in the fields, and I saw these little kids running across the fields and being happy. And I asked them, “What are you so happy about?” And they said, “This is fun! You know, throwing dirt at each other, eating, it’s just fun!” And I remember as a child that was never fun for me. And I think, what I had been running from, I finally ran into my own youth in that field. And if nothing else ever happened, to be able to have that experience, and to watch children have that experience, it is probably the most spiritual moment I ever had. 

Note: This is a rebroadcast. This program originally aired April 3, 2017.

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Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.