Chapel Hill: Community

Durham pastor finds the divine in a tomato sandwich

“I have had a persistent sense of wonder about tomato sandwiches,” says retired pastor Mel Williams.
“I have had a persistent sense of wonder about tomato sandwiches,” says retired pastor Mel Williams. TODD SUMLINMCT

Many faithful already know that God comes in strange and wonderful ways, mundane ways, ordinary ways. A day may be nothing special on the calendar with nothing memorable going on, but for a moment in the midst of this sameness, we get a glimpse of the presence of God.

Right now, here in the middle of the summer, it could be something like eating homegrown tomatoes, ripened in the warm sun, brimming with that special smooth taste and exuding that marvelous fragrance that sets our digestive juices to raging.

I believe that God nudges us to see holy dimensions in the most mundane of daily activities, like eating one of those tomatoes in a sandwich, for example.

The pleasure of eating that sandwich is an experience of wonder and concentration and the kind of experience our spiritual friends who do Buddhist meditation might call, “living in the moment.”

A good sermon that lives in one’s mind year after year is a thing to be treasured. For me, such a sermon was preached by the Rev. Mel Williams, who back on a July Sunday in 199 was pastor of Durham’s Watts Street Baptist Church.

The title “Tomato Sandwich Spirituality” grabbed me right off. I could not think of any way to put these ideas together, but I did note big baskets of homegrown tomatoes on the tables in the vestibule, so I expected a Great Homegrown Tomato Giveaway.

Not exactly.

We were invited to take one as we left church that morning, but only after we had been instructed in what to do with it.

Turns out this singing pastor who was born in a log cabin in Moore County has a flair for the poetic and is a tomato sandwich fan.

“I have had a persistent sense of wonder about tomato sandwiches,” his sermon goes, but to attain this level of wonder, you have to start with a properly-made sandwich: Spread two slices of white bread lavishly with Duke’s mayonnaise, then place a slice or two of a big homegrown tomato, the kind that covers the entire piece of bread, on the bread, add salt and pepper. Then move to the kitchen sink because it’s gonna drip.

“As you get ready for the first bite, thank God for this feast. Then get lost in eating that sandwich. Sometimes as I take my first bite, I close my eyes and I have heard myself saying spontaneously, “Oh, God! Thank you, God.”

An ordinary bite from a sandwich has become an extraordinary event.

Sometimes as I take my first bite, I close my eyes and I have heard myself saying spontaneously, ‘Oh, God! Thank you, God.’

The Rev. Mel Williams

“If we’re open, maybe we can increase the ‘tomato sandwich moments’ of our lives by turning an ordinary experience into an encounter with God,” the sermon suggests.

Back to the garden

Church gardening has come into its own. Its advocates have been quite successful in getting congregations to pull out their hoes, put on straw hats and dig into the soil.

Early on, a United Methodist Church in Orange County latched on to the church garden idea in a big way.

Anathoth Community Farm and Garden at Cedar Grove in northern Orange County is a success story that began in 2004 as a ministry of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, a small country congregation.

The congregation began the garden as a way for neighbors to come together after a storekeeper in their community was murdered. Over the years, this garden has become a national model for community gardening and is now a faith-based nonprofit endeavor with a full-time staff and a board of directors.

The stated mission of Anathoth is to cultivate peace by using regenerative agriculture to connect people with their neighbors, the land, and God.

A new tack on church gardening is happening right now in Durham where an emerging new worshiping community, called the Farm Church (Presbyterian Church USA) is well under way. Its long range plan is to have a working farm, possibly 25 acres, outside the city where the congregation can gather and where crops and animals can be raised to provide food for the hungry.

This summer, volunteers and pastors, two of three who arrived almost a year ago, are now tilling the soil in urban gardens in the city.

Hear the words of Anathoth’s director Chas Eden to discover a new dimension in gardening.

“Gardening is spiritual work, and this is most evident to me in the wind. On a hot day, when we’ve been working out on the farm for an entire morning and I’m about ready to give in to the sweat and exhaustion, I am often surprised and comforted by an extremely welcome and refreshing breeze.

“The wind flows through the trees, across the field, and over my skin, calming and cooling my body and soul. For a second, I stop to take it all in, inhaling the air that has visited me from elsewhere and will carry on far from me again.

“In these moment, I know there is more at work in the garden than earth and water, something holy is at work. Something divine connects the whole of the natural world.”

Contact Flo Johnston at or call 910-361-4135.