St. Gregory The Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church in Fowler is nestled in a part of Fresno County that is known as raisin capital of the world.
Nearly half of St. Gregory's 150 dues-paying members are raisin growers or have farming roots in their family history.
Raisins are like gold.
So when it comes to fundraisers, the Fowler church, consecrated on April 11, 1910, is tapping into what's in its neighborhood.
For the third season now, church officials are asking parishioners who are raisin growers to donate bins of raisins — rather than cash — to the church's fundraiser, known as the Raisin Roundup.
Letters were sent in August to more than 300 people on the church mailing list. The plan is simple. Growers sign up to donate a bin or two. Then, members of St. Gregory's parish council pick up the bins and deliver them to local packers, where the church is paid the going rate per ton. It takes about two bins to reach a ton. In recent years, the rate has ranged between $1,700 and $2,000 a ton.
In 2011, the Raisin Roundup's first campaign, 24 bins were donated. They weighed about 12 tons. The going rate was $1,700, so St. Gregory made about $20,000.
Last year, 18 bins weighed nearly 9 tons and raised about $14,000.
The money each year goes into the church's general fund, which is used for the church's annual budget. This year, St. Gregory's budget is $250,000.
The Rev. Yeghia Hairabedian, pastor of St. Gregory, says parishioners have been giving crops to their churches for a long time.
"Traditionally, the church would receive animals or food crops to support the church and clergy," he says. "It goes back to centuries-old customs."
Hairabedian believes the Raisin Roundup is a creative way for parishioners to give as well as think about how God has blessed them.
"This is a very active way of encouraging people to give from the abundance that God grants to them," he says.
"In the case of grapes, this is especially significant because every August on the Feast of the Virgin Mary — mother of God — we celebrate her honor with the blessing of grapes on the holy altar, and grapes celebrate our thanksgiving offering to God."
David Shapazian was chairman of St. Gregory's parish council in 2011, when the church first discussed asking raisin growers in the congregation to give part of their crop — and others to come on board.
"We're based in Selma and Fowler, the raisin capital of the world," he says. "Why not ask someone to donate a bin of raisins instead of a cash donation?
"It's been a real eye-opener, a success. We're pretty happy with it."
So far this year, the Raisin Roundup has signed up promises from growers to donate 10 bins. The campaign runs through the end of September when prices will be determined.
Shapazian has stayed closely involved in the campaigns.
"I am willing to get every bin," he says. "I say, 'Have a bin? Where is it? I'll go get it.' "
Growers receive a tax write-off for their donations, but the growers who have donated to the Raisin Roundup say their reasons for giving are more than for tax deductions.
"There are quite a bit of farmers at our church," says Dennis Peters, a St. Gregory parishioner for nearly 40 years. He farms about 300 acres, with grapes, peaches, plums and tangerines, between Fowler and American avenues.
"Armenians, when they came here to the Valley, went into farming and a lot of them still pass on their farms to family. Others pursue other career, but they have kept the farm and farm on the side.
"It's just a nice way to give some money to the church, by giving a little bit of your crops."
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