Sowing The Seeds of Community Wellness: Rocky Mount Chaplain Honored

Fighting Rocky Mount Area Poverty

How One Man's Passion Builds A Community

Rev. Richard Joyner is the chaplain for Nash Health Care in Rocky Mount, North Carolina as well as senior pastor of Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church in Edgecombe County. After 25 years of wearing both hats, he felt led to add more to his plate: in 2001, he launched the Conetoe Family Life Center. The purpose of the center is to bring resources that will educate and empower the local citizens of the Conetoe area to make positive lifestyle changes in eating and physical activity.

Last month he became one of only six honorees in the United States to receive the $25,000 Purpose Prize grant from for this work. The Purpose Prize invests in people over 60 years old who are combining their passion and life experience for social good.

During his time as pastor of Conetoe Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. Joyner found that he was presiding over far too many funerals. In one year alone, 30 congregants under the age of 32 died.

“It just started to feel unconscionable that you would see someone 100 pounds overweight on Sunday and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack.”

This prompted him to seek out a candid health assessment of his congregation; and what he found was grim news. 65% of his congregants were obese; most were uninsured and lived in poverty. Something had to be done at the root level to effect change in this community that has very little access to healthy food choices. So he founded the Conetoe Family Life Center. The center’s current initiatives include:

  • An after-school program for local youth, ages 5 to 18. Students tend 15 plots of land, including a 25-acre garden. They plant and harvest; the fruits of their labor are sold at restaurants and farmer’s markets.
  • 150 beehives tended by area youth; these bees pollinate crops, and the honey is sold to stores as far away as Raleigh. The revenue they earn goes to school supplies and scholarships.
  • The youth serve this healthy food at church events and help others understand “right size” portions when serving.

A Surprising Return

Admittedly, coming back to farming was the very last thing Rev. Joyner wanted to do. As the young son of a sharecropper, he experienced firsthand the exploitation and racism inherent in that way of life back then. But he saw his return as a sacrifice for the children of today.

“We can turn things around right here if we start using what we have.”

And it’s working! Congregants have lost weight, emergency room visits for primary health care are down, and the number of deaths has decreased. Joyner’s work is also inspiring other area churches: 21 have now initiated their own community gardens.

“I started working the soil at birth, and I start loving it at 50, and I love it more at 61.”

See more about Reverend Joyner's work in this video by

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