Blessed Are Those Who Lead
Members of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, visit Browntown Farms in
Warﬁeld, Virginia. Photo courtesy of The Black Church Food Security Network
hey marched down the center aisle of the hallowed halls of the magnificent Concord Baptist Church of God and Christ in Brooklyn, New York. Hundreds of people arrived with solemn faces for the occasion, led by Dr. Gary V. Simpson, Senior Pastor, and the esteemed Vernon Jordan. These were the toilers in the vineyard, leaders of an interfaith array of congregations from across the United States: civil rights icons, activists and advocates, spiritual leaders, businesspeople. They represented hope for Black communities. From near and far, they had come on this day in April 2015 to celebrate the homegoing of one of their own, the most eloquent of thought leaders and a man as close to God as one can get—the Rev. Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor.
Five years later, in 2020, Partners for Sacred Places gathered some of these same men and women again to discuss trends and needs for Black sacred spaces. This gathering was an opportunity to talk about life, leadership, and the best paths forward for congregations serving people of color. With much of the country in crisis due to social and racial upheaval, the likes of which had not been experienced since the 1960s, the time for honest dialogue, new partnerships, and rapid change were long overdue. And this convening was just the right place and time for such a meaningful conversation.
The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown during a tour of Browntown Farms. Photo courtesy of The Black Church Food Security Network
The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, and The Rev. Mark Tyler, Pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, served as hosts for both convenings, and brought wisdom and gravitas to the conversations. As the convenings unfolded, several themes surfaced of note. Like their ancestors, many leaders of Black houses of worship are what some might call “miracle workers” who think creatively and stretch limited resources to meet as many of the community’s needs as possible. They are master fundraisers and polished presenters, demonstrating that they can be amazing stewards of funds. And much like the story of fish and loaves, where a few bits of bread and fish multiplied to feed the people, the modern-day story of fish and loaves remains evident in these congregations who serve some of the most under- represented and under-supported among us. More than ever, Black faith leaders must lean on the legacies and learnings of their ancestors to support and sustain the people they serve.
As the rich dialogue continued, the conversation shifted quickly to the ongoing need for new income-generating techniques. As faith leaders serving some of the most vulnerable communities in the country, new and innovative ideas emerged to generate additional revenue. From food farming to food distribution, these congregations think outside the box, and their communities reap the benefits.
Sister Maxine Nicholas, a Pleasant Hope Baptist Church member since the 1950s, working in Maxine’s Garden, which was
named after her. Photo courtesy of The Black Church Food Security Network
One new community-serving, income-generating idea came from The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church of Baltimore, Maryland. A visionary and solution-based leader, Rev. Brown looked around his community and observed the many health problems (diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol) many people of color face due to a paucity of fresh, affordable nutrient-dense food in their neighborhoods. So, instead of relying on the usual channels to feed his community, he conceived of a bigger idea that continues to empower his community and support economic growth more than a decade later. Thinking and touching the fertile soil beneath his feet, Rev. Brown reimagined how the same land that supports the physical building of his church could feed and sustain not just the people who attend his church but those in the broader community.
Today, the thriving urban garden of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church has grown more than 1,200 pounds of food, from potatoes to tomatoes.
Brown founded the Black Church Food Security Network, a new approach to “feeding the hungry” which is catching fire, giving him an opportunity to work with other churches nationwide. He teaches them how to develop their land, grow healthy food to feed the community, and support economic development and prosperity by engaging and employing more black farmers as the program builds and expands. His innovative approach offers an example of how congregations can look at assets in new ways and push past the obvious financial and systemic barriers many communities and their members experience to give birth to new solutions that affect massive, meaningful change for all.
The conversations also addressed complex subjects such as neighborhood gentrification. Economic development will happen in many communities over time, but as boutique coffee shops and yoga studios move in, many people of color struggle with the adjustments that come with gentrification. A recent Stanford study conducted by sociologist and assistant professor, Jackelyn Hwang, showed that residents in predominately non-Black gentrifying neighborhoods have more housing options and opportunities to move to wealthier neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. In contrast, people from historically Black gentrifying areas were relegated to less advantaged communities, and many had fewer housing options. Most of the choices available to African Americans displaced by gentrification are other poor Black neighborhoods in the inner city or immigrant-populated areas, exacerbating neighborhood inequality by race and class (Stanford University Study: Gentrification Disproportionately Affects Minorities, 2020). Hwang and study co-author Lei Ding of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia suggest that more needs to be done. Cities with gentrifying neighborhoods must make sustained and ongoing investments in non-gentrifying neighborhoods to combat the housing inequities people of color face, while developing policies that connect them to more resources and opportunities for present and future generations.
Unity Estates is a planned community of 300 single-family market-rate homes primarily developed by the African American Pastors Coalition in Dallas, Texas. Photo courtesy of Keren Carrion, KERA News
While there are differing opinions on how to address gentrification, the faith leaders participating in the convening do not want to stand in the way of progress and economic growth. Their growing concerns for the members of their community stem from a basic understanding of what supports wealth creation and what keeps people impoverished. For Rev. Richie Butler of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, thinking more like a real estate developer than a pastor made the most sense as he thought about new ways to support the broader community. He even joked that Abraham from the Bible was the first real estate developer. Leaning on his education, skills, and background raising institutional capital for private equity projects and as a commercial real estate developer, he saw a bright future and endless possibilities for more African American people with a bit of creativity and ingenuity.