Thousands of orange pumpkins with twisting stems line the front lawn of Milledge Avenue Baptist Church as a deep, husky voice calls out from inside a semi-truck.
“Keep going!” Derrell Hall, who attends the church, says as a skid steer loader picks up a wooden container of about 50 giant pumpkins.
The Milledge Avenue Baptist Church pumpkin patch opened on the first Sunday of October and runs through Oct. 31.
The event began as a fundraiser in 2007 and has become a staple of the congregation. The proceeds support the church and its ministries as the pumpkin patch brings the community together.
“We help people to feel welcome and to come celebrate and have a good time and just enjoy being in God’s creation,” the Rev. Ginny Dempsey, associate pastor for students, said on opening day.
The pumpkin patch has grown since its inception, as it began with a partially filled semi-trick. Now, there are 2,800 big pumpkins and twice that in smaller sizes, said Dempsey, who has been involved with the pumpkin patch for 10 years.
The harvest is driven across the country from a Navajo reservation in New Mexico for the first three Sundays in October to the church, now known as “The Pumpkin Church.”
Such a big crop of pumpkins requires lots of heavy lifting. Between 75 to 100 high school students from Clarke Central High School, North Oconee High School, Cedar Shoals High School and other institutions volunteer to unload each pumpkin delivery. The church now has to cap the amount of youth volunteers because there is such a draw to help the congregation, Dempsey said.
Teens and church members smiled and chatted on the first two Sundays as they lifted pumpkins and pushed barrels of gourds.
Libby Grace Garrett, a student member at Milledge Avenue Baptist since 2020, helped organize and guide the teen volunteers on the first two Sundays. Garrett has attended the church since 2020 and takes pride in the yearly event.
“There’s just a really great community here,” Garrett said. “I always feel very loved and accepted and I just love the pumpkin patch.”
For some shoppers, the church’s location near campus and the Five Points neighborhood is the appeal.
“It’s just a good location. It’s fun to see everyone,” said Callaway Champion, a shopper at the pumpkin patch. “And you know that the community will bring more people out here too.”
Garrett said the pumpkin patch is a great opportunity to reach out to local schools and help students get service hours for school clubs they are involved with. It also helps highlight a core belief of the church’s faith.
“A huge part of Jesus’ ministry was loving each other and serving each other,” Garrett said. “And I think this is just a really awesome, great big example of that.”
Karena LaRosa, faculty sponsor of Clarke Central High School’s Community Service Club, brought 10 volunteers to help with the pumpkin patch on opening day. She has brought the organization for three years. The most rewarding part is seeing the families, she said.
Students from Cedar Shoals High School’s JROTC program helped unload a new truckload of pumpkins from New Mexico, last Sunday. David Dodson, a member of Milledge Avenue Baptist, estimated that the church had close to 100 volunteers participating. He said the money raised from the pumpkin patch helps the children and youth ministries as well as renovations and repairs.
The pumpkin patch’s weekday and Saturday hours last from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; some elementary schools attend for field trips. The Sunday hours begin after the morning church services, and the patch closes at 7 p.m.
The community will come and go throughout the autumnal season, sometimes returning year after year.
“Every year, I talk to people, ‘We came here on our first date! Now, we’re back with our kids,’” said Dempsey, who wore a bright orange shirt with a corresponding pumpkin across the front. “It’s really become a tradition.”
Erin Diehl and Jonathan Williams are journalism majors in Prof. Lori Johnston’s religion reporting class in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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