‘Okra doesn’t give me as many problems as some people do’: Pastor on why he left church to farm

Dollita Okine January 26, 2024
Battle's journey from preacher to food activist began in college when he first felt compelled to preach. Photo: BattleField Farm & Gardens

Chris Battle, 62, quit his position as senior pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, one of the oldest Black Baptist churches in Knoxville, four years ago to cultivate and distribute fresh produce to those living in areas lacking access to wholesome food.

He told People, “I’m doing something that’s meeting a significant need in our community. I think it’s literally saving people’s lives.”

Battle’s journey from preacher to food activist began in college when he first felt compelled to preach. He stated that his life purpose was “to pastor, be of service to others, and then retire.” He had been employed in East Knoxville since 2008 but believed he could do more for the underprivileged neighborhood that lacked a grocery store after spending almost 30 years in several churches.

He grew concerned when he learned about the area’s situation, which is regarded as a “food desert” due to its restricted access to affordable fresh foods, causing residents to rely on processed meals that can lead to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 

Hence, beginning in 2018, he decided to address the issue practically by first cultivating a small garden on property owned by his church and distributing the harvest to anyone interested. As he weeded and watered his fields, more and more people—many of whom hadn’t even been to church—started to stop by.

“That’s when it dawned on me that they won’t come to my church, but they will come to my garden. I knew we needed to find a way to merge the two,” he remarked.

Within a year of discovering his new interest, he had resigned from his job, helped organize a Sunday farmers market, and delivered more than a ton of food bank produce to public housing tenants every week. 

Battle went on to create four more community gardens where the villagers could grow their food, including his flagship BattleField Farm & Gardens, where he also holds his Sunday services informally for a diversified congregation, weather permitting.

“We meet here whenever God says it’s okay—meaning whenever it’s not raining or too cold. We’ve got atheists here, gay, trans, and straight people. I think we’ve even got a witch,” he shared.

The 62-year-old said that his mission to restore his community with collard greens, sweet potatoes, and beets is only beginning. Battle lives with his 58-year-old wife, Tomma, and four of the 19 children he has raised.

“I’ve never been happier; I don’t miss pastoring. I tell people, ‘I pastor okra now—okra doesn’t give me as many problems as some people do,’” he expressed.

Gallup reports that church attendance across the nation has declined—about half of Americans now claim to be members of a congregation, down from 70% in 2000.

Dasha Lundy, a Knox County commissioner, stated of Battle, “His ministry now is gathering people together and feeding a community where the poverty rate among Blacks is 42 percent.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 26, 2024


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