Like many places on the South Side, the community garden at 1269 Wilson Ave. has Aaron Hopkins’ fingerprints all over it. From the beautifully crafted gazebo, fences and benches, to the carefully tended beds of vegetables and flowers, Aaron’s handiwork has been part of every step in creating this little oasis in the middle of a busy city block. He calls the project “Growing Community Garden and Family Concerns Urban Community Farm.”
As he sits in the shade of that gazebo on a sweltering summer afternoon, Aaron points out all the construction details that less savvy eyes might not notice. He notes the new wood that has added height to the growing beds.
“It lets us get more and better soil so we can grow more and better stuff,” he says.
He talks about the sitting benches that are built directly into the fence that surrounds the project.
“Those are for the grandmas,” he says.
Aaron uses the garden to teach young people in the community to build and farm. But he can’t do it alone. He enlists the help of senior citizens in the neighborhood.
Aaron explains, “Those benches let the grandmas get down close to the ground with the kids while they’re working together. This is not just about growing vegetables. It’s about growing relationships.”
Whether it be physical labor or relationship-building labor, Aaron embraces the hard work required by those two things. The physical labor feels most natural. Aaron’s “day job” for the last 26 years has been as a demolitions expert for Colvin Gravel Company in Columbus.
“But even before that, I was always doing odd jobs, anything that involved work,” he says.
He especially enjoyed landscaping, a passion that realizes itself today in the farming and gardening he does around the neighborhood.
He’s also a minister, and the work of relationship-building pushes him to grow in his call to servant leadership. As a licensed preacher and ordained deacon at Family Missionary Baptist Church on Oakwood Avenue, he understands the importance of finding your voice even when speaking up feels intimidating.
“It took me a while to embrace the call to get that preaching license,” he says. “I resisted that one for a little while.”
He sees now, though, that preaching helped him realize he has “important things to say.” The reticence that initially kept him from taking the pulpit came up again when he joined the South Side Thrive Collaborative (SSTC). Aaron serves as a representative on SSTC’s Leadership Table, a board of business and community leaders who represent organizations that are active in serving the South Side.
“That first meeting, I’m sitting there with people like Jane Grote Abell from Donato’s and Tanny Crane from the Crane Group. I’m wondering ‘What am I doing here?’ But they asked me my thoughts on things,” he says. “They wanted to hear what I had to say. I realized they didn’t know everything about the neighborhood. They NEEDED to hear what I had to say.’”
That unique knowledge of the community combined with an extraordinary ability to connect with his neighbors continues to drive Aaron in new directions. Those fingerprints that are all over the community garden show up in many other places.
Aaron serves as president of the South Side Community Action Network, the sponsoring organization of his gardening and farming projects. He is active in the South Side Area Commission. He helped Community Development for All People (CD4AP), the United Way, and Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families start the South Side Neighborhood Leadership Academy, a program that trains community members to become community leaders.
Teaching these little lessons matters to Aaron. And for him, the lessons all come back to his Christian faith.
“Jesus,” Aaron says, “was all about figuring out ‘What does love look like?’”
Aaron answers that question as he talks about scripture – loving your neighbor, taking care of the soil, feeding people, speaking up for your community. It feels a little bit like Minister Aaron might have the words to a sermon on the tip of his tongue. With his love of manual labor, Aaron does a lot of his preaching through hard work performed alongside his neighbors. Either way, though, you will learn what love looks like. It looks a little bit like Aaron Hopkins.
This story was originally featured in the August 2020 HNHF Newsletter. Click here to download the full newsletter.