What's the Deal with Methodists and Pumpkins?

"Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere."

"There are three things I've learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin." - Linus van Pelt from "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"

Shari Saunders hates pumpkins.

The taste, the smell, the spice. Basically everything pumpkin.

Saunders can only laugh though, because every fall because she runs the longest-lasting pumpkin fundraiser for a United Methodist church, a denomination with hundreds of churches that sell pumpkins.

“I don’t like pumpkins but I do like the people,” she said.

The Methodist pumpkin craze began in 1974, way before Saunders joined Centenary United Methodist Church, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a dozen years ago as assistant youth director.

Way back in the 1970s, Richard and Janice Hamby were operating a small farm in North Carolina, about three acres. They offered to let Centenary church sell pumpkins on consignment in 1974.

There was no contract, just handshakes and a deal that the church would share the profits. It worked.

Now, still with the same no-contract handshakes, the company supplies pumpkins to more than a thousand organizations and grows 1,200 acres of pumpkins.

There are Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Habitats for Humanities, non-profits and 17 religious denominations in 43 states.

Building off of Centenary’s success, hundreds of United Methodist churches have built up a brand as the place to go for pumpkins.

"A very large majority of who we work with are Methodist churches," said John Hamby, the son of the founders and the second generation of his family to help lead the farm, now located in New Mexico after Hurricane Hugo led to a relocation.

Since the start, those churches and other organizations have raised $80 million for their own causes, he said.

Officials with the national United Methodist Church said it is certainly one of, if not the, most popular fundraiser for their churches, although it isn’t organized through the national church.

The Theology of Pumpkins

There isn't much of a theological reason for pumpkins, although Sunday school teachers are known to riff on pumpkin themes, said Chris Lynch, congregational specialist for the South Carolina conference of the United Methodist Church.

Children can learn about how faith can help them clean out the gunk from their lives, as someone scoops out the pumpkin guts to ooohs and aaahs, Lynch said.

“When you pull out the goo, they love that,” he said.

A single seed can grow a larger pumpkin, a nod to small acts of faith growing. The different colors and shapes can be a message, too. And there’s the connection to farming and food.

Trinity United Methodist Church in Anderson, like many others, includes more than pumpkins. There are places to take family pictures and hundreds of school kids each day come on field trips, said Carolyn Brashear, who helps run the Trinity patch.

People have had first dates at the church pumpkin patches, she said.

At Centenary, in North Carolina, there have been people who come to watch their grandchildren play and seeing second, third and fourth generation pumpkin pickers is not uncommon, said Saunders.

“We’re maybe not always the best at the business, we’ll give a discount to the kid who wants the biggest pumpkin,” she said.

And those people, those connections, are where the real religious importance of the pumpkin lies, Lynch said.

The Giving Pumpkin

There are at least four times where the pumpkin helps people.

The church gets money to support its missions.

Trinity United Methodist Church, in Anderson, has raised around $200,000 since it started a pumpkin patch in 2003, Brashear said. This year, eight organizations including a Boy Scout troop and the former Anderson Interfaith Ministries will benefit.

The pumpkins employ growers and truck drivers.

Hamby employs 30 full-time employees and 600 seasonal workers, on a Native American reservation in New Mexico where the unemployment is more than 40 percent. Hamby’s company sends out each year between 900 and 1,000 semi-trucks, with up to around 2,400 large pumpkins and 1,000 smaller ones.

The church, or organization, also gets foot traffic. People are open to their message, maybe they'll back on Sunday, Lynch said.

And the fourth time the pumpkin gives back is to give some personal time to the church members, who get a chance to talk to each other.

“A lot of people, that first, second, third year, start out with ‘It’s a fundraiser,’” Hamby said. “Then it becomes something else. They tell us, ‘We’re known as the pumpkin church.’”

Saunders said her patch has been seeing increasing pressure from big box stores, selling pumpkins for far less, and from many other pumpkin patches popping up each year.

“We used to be just about the only place, but there’s a lot out there now,” she said. “So we work to make sure people have a great time and come back, year after year.”

Hamby said big box store pumpkins may be cheaper but there’s less variety and there’s none of the fun.

Who wants to post a family photo taken in the aisle of a store, he asked.

Pumpkin patches often show videos of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" and this year Hamby’s farm is offering a prize for pumpkin carving.

Lynch said his family still works shifts at the Trinity pumpkin patch, a family tradition for years.

“It’s a good family opportunity but what’s really cool is you let people see the other side of the church, people hanging out and talking to each other and it may lead them to Jesus,” he said. “But no matter what they’ll have a great time.”

Follow Mike Ellis on Twitter @MikeEllis_AIM

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