by Venice Williams

I KNOW WHAT IT MEANS to “walk by faith.” Faith has carried me through a number of challenging situations on my life journey. However, one beautiful afternoon last June, it wasn’t just about walking “by” faith. That afternoon was a moment of walking “up to” Faith, greeting Faith and, in that encounter, seeing both our lives shift more than we ever could have imagined.

That spring, I had accepted the invitation to become part-time interim executive director of the Fondy Food Center, a nonprofit organization that operates the Fondy Farmers Market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 2022 growing season marked its 117th year, with Fondy continuing to be the city’s oldest farmers market. The importance of this work did not escape me as I answered the call to serve God’s people in my city in yet another manner.

Fondy Farmers Market sits right in the 53206 zip code—the zip code where the highest percentage of Black men in America, close to 62%, are incarcerated. This is the zip code where, on a scale of 1 to 100, violent crime is ranked 85.5 (U.S. average is 22.7) and property crime is 79.6 (U.S. average is 35.4). Since one-third of Milwaukee’s 2,940 vacant lots can be found in 53206, it is a blighted landscape. Here, two out of three children live in poverty, and residents receive the lowest rating for health outcomes from the Center for Urban Population Health. In 2019, 20 out of every 1,000 babies born in 53206 died before their first birthday. Also, no other zip code in the Milwaukee metropolitan area has a higher percentage of African Americans. What a perfect place for me to live into ministry! What an incredible opportunity to educate neighbors anew about the sacredness of food and remind them of the value of their bodies and their lives.

But first, I needed to meet more of them. I had been a vendor at the farmers market for more than 15 years. Most of my customers did not resemble the families who live in the market zip code.

One Friday afternoon, as my spouse was driving me to the market for the season’s first special evening event, he diverged from our usual, direct course and turned down a street I had never been on before. I didn’t say anything; we were only one block from the farmers market. It was such a lovely day, that many of the folks who lived on this route were sitting out on their porches or entertaining friends as they leaned against their cars. Suddenly, I became excited!

“Pull over and let me out,” I said. “I’ll walk from here.” My spouse eyeballed me, confused. “I don’t know them, and they don’t know me,” I continued. “They need to know that someone who looks like them is guiding the market now. They need to know this is their market.”

He did pull over, making it clear that he would be walking with me.

Three elders and one young woman relaxed on the first stoop we approached. I introduced myself, chatting it up with the elders. I could feel the young woman staring at me, trying to figure me out. After quite a few minutes, I turned toward her and asked, “So, what’s your name?”

“My name is Faith, and I’m an herbalist,” she answered. Her response took my breath away! Within the next 10 minutes, I had hired this 21-year-old new arrival in my life. She would work by my side at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm (just five blocks away from her home, but in the 53205 zip code) and help to staff the new evening market I would be launching at the Fondy Farmers Market.

That very evening, Faith came over to the special event we were holding at the market and stuck close by me the entire time. Every single person my spouse and I had introduced ourselves to that afternoon came to the market as well. Every. Single. One.

Venice Williams is mission developer for an ELCA worshipping community called The Table, and executive director and herb farmer at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm, all in Milwaukee.

This is excerpted from the November/December 2022 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.