"The Pumpkin Church"
by Joshua Carson
If you ask someone from Bethlehem, PA, "Which church is First Baptist Church?" they will likely either point out its prominent location on Linden Street or say, "Oh, that's the pumpkin church!" FBC Bethlehem has become known all over the area as "the pumpkin church" for its annual Pumpkin Giveaway, which takes place on the first Saturday of every October. At this event, members of First Baptist are armed with the love of Jesus and usually about 1,800 pumpkins for anyone who is willing to come by. The story of how this church has come to use a gift of pumpkins to mirror the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is an unconventional and unique story of God moving through people's willingness to give.
This event originally began out of a relationship between the church and a local farmer named Steve Bandy. Steve is a passionate Christian who graduated at the top of his class in agriculture at the University of Florida. In the fall of 2008 Steve knew that he needed to rotate crops (a process in which one goes a season or more without planting the usual crop in a field, allowing the land to rest and recover, returning healthier than before) and had decided to plant pumpkins. Realizing afterwards that there wasn't much of a market for pumpkins in the area, he decided to give them to the church. Rev. Dale Miller, who had just been installed as the church's senior pastor earlier that month, overheard a conversation between Steve and another church member that September. Steve wanted to give the pumpkins to the church but had no clear vision on what to do with them. Pastor Miller responded, "I don't know what we'll do with them, but we will figure out a way to use them as an outreach." And so the Pumpkin Giveaway was born.
That first year proved to be an interesting one. It sounded so simple–just give away the pumpkins–but the church struggled to find a solid methodology for executing the event. On the first Saturday in October, Steve dropped off 1,000 pumpkins at the church property. Volunteers came, put a sign out front, and visitors from the community showed up to receive pumpkins.
"We found that we didn't know how to give pumpkins, and people didn't know how to receive them," says Pastor Miller. This part of the story bears startling resemblance to how many churches deal with the proclamation of the gospel.
"We found that we didn't know how to give pumpkins, and people didn't know how to receive them," says Pastor Miller. This part of the story bears startling resemblance to how many churches deal with the proclamation of the gospel. "We know that the Bible says that God sent his Son to bring us back into right relationship with God, but for whom is that gift intended? For everyone? For church folk? For non-smokers? Surely it's just for Baptists!" Perhaps churches have taken missteps in being too narrow with God's widely given gifts of grace and love through Jesus Christ. Initially, only non-church members could get pumpkins ("this is an outreach!") but somehow that didn't seem right. Eventually the distinction of who could get a pumpkin became a non-issue as the church realized that the priority was to provide a gift for the community – but that the church members too are a part of that community. So on years since one could see just about everybody walking away with a pumpkin.
Year after year people have struggled with how to receive a free pumpkin. Our society doesn't typically give you anything for free with absolutely no strings attached.
However, year after year people have struggled with how to receive a free pumpkin. Think about it: our society doesn't typically give you anything for free with absolutely no strings attached. It's usually "buy one, get one free," or only if you have the coupon (and it hasn't expired yet). In this consumer culture it is difficult for people to believe that a church will actually give you a pumpkin for free, without expecting anything else in return. Many people try to pay for their pumpkins, but all of the volunteers are instructed to refuse to take any money, which ends up confusing many visitors. People have asked, "So how many weeks do I have to come to church if I take a pumpkin?" or "Do I have to give you my address or phone number or something?"
The neighbor of an FBC member who lives across the street said, "Nobody does something for nothing. Especially churches." There's a latent assumption in some people that the church is only doing this to try to guilt people into going to church, but nothing could be further from the truth. By the time you leave the church property on that October morning or afternoon you have been convinced that the only thing these folks want is for you to be willing to receive. Some people still insist on donating, and if they can't be denied they can either purchase or make a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child through Samaritan's Purse.
The church has learned to make the Pumpkin Giveaway a fun event over the years. Not only are there pumpkins, but also music, candy, popcorn, and other activities—all for free, of course. Last year volunteers from the church went out to the Bandy farm to pick the pumpkins themselves, which provided them with an even greater appreciation for the event and the experience as a whole. In the last several years they've increased the number of pumpkins given away to around 1,800 each year.
Pastor Miller sees this as an opportunity to impact families on multiple levels: "If you give a family a pumpkin or pumpkins, not only have you given them something that many families in our community can't afford, but you've given them an activity for later that day. You've given them an opportunity to be together and do something together in a culture when families are spending more and more time apart."
This congregation has recognized the free gift that has been given to them, and so they seek to pass it on to their community. It opens many doors for conversation, and while it's not their primary goal, some people have decided to attend the church because of this event. Regardless, one thing seems clear: When you've been given a free gift, it's not yours to keep—pass it on!
Joshua Carson works with ESA as a Sider Scholar while pursuing an MDiv at Palmer Theological Seminary of Eastern University. An alumnus of Eastern University (2013, Youth Ministry & Biblical Studies), Josh is also the Pastor of Student Ministries at First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, PA.