Blessed Are Those Who Lead

Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland

Members of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, visit Browntown Farms in
Warfield, Virginia. Photo courtesy of The Black Church Food Security Network

They 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 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

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

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.

Together with the African American Pastor’s Coalition in Dallas, Rev. Butler developed a unique real estate venture. The planned community would create 300 single-family market-rate homes. The model was not focused on low-income or subsidized housing because Rev. Butler truly believes homeownership puts people on the path to economic prosperity. This real estate project generated more than $100 million in tax revenue for Dallas, and all the businesses that worked on the project were African American-owned. Rev. Butler shares this vital truth with congregations: “You need to remember that you are an investment, not a charity. You are worth the time and money people invest in you, and what you give back to the community is invaluable.”

Despite these successes, many Black and Brown people are still dealing with the challenges posed by gentrification such as increased living expenses, lack of a cultural connection with the newest members of the community, and ongoing micro-aggressions, so tensions can run high. And while the brilliance and forward-thinking idea put forth by Rev. Richie Butler can be implemented by some congregations, many are left to struggle with the realities of their situation. Together with numerous inequities, these frustrations have prompted many faith leaders to look for new ways to bring people together. And just like those that have gone before them, Black church leaders continue to be a voice for those who do not have one. They continue to fight for social justice, equity, and fundamental civil rights. The Black church’s role remains vital as people of color navigate harsh realities that may impede a better and brighter future for the next generation.

African American clergy are also rethinking how they minister and support the life of their congregations. For some Black churches, technology is another area that cries out for investment. As COVID-19 fast-tracked the move to online services across the country, digital literacy for congregation members of all ages is something many faith leaders have committed to pursue in the coming years.

Over the next decade, more needs to be done to support Black faith leaders serving underrepresented and under-resourced communities. Now more than ever, Black faith leaders are calling for more convening, innovating, and listening to propel bold and effective action.

Partners acknowledges the critical learnings that came out of these sessions and is committed to doing more, including serving as a connector to more resources. Every session of the convening was thoughtful, enlightening, and empowering. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the African American house of worship remains a beacon of hope, a place for solace, and the beating heart of the Black community.

Roundtable Attendees
& Interviewees

  • Imam Idris Abdul-Zahir Masjidullah Mosque, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • The Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Bishop The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, Ind.
  • Dr. Byron T. Brazier Apostolic Church of God, Chicago, Ill.
  • Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, Baltimore, Md.
  • Rev. Dr. Amos V. Brown Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, San Francisco, Calif.
  • Rev. Richie Butler St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, Dallas, Tex.
  • Rev. Dr. Wayne Croft Sr. St. Paul’s Baptist Church, West Chester, Pa. Trustee, United Lutheran Seminary, West Chester, Pa.
  • David Daniels Church of God in Christ, Chicago, Ill.
  • Rev. Dr. Gerald Dew Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Ill.
  • Rev. Dr. Gregory V. Eason Sr. Flipper Temple AME Church, Atlanta, Ga.
  • Rev. Dr. Lucretia Facen St. Paul United Methodist Church, Dallas, Tex.
  • Rabbi Capers Funnye Beth Shalom (B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation), Chicago, Ill.
  • The Rt. Rev. Daniel G.P. Gutierrez The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, Norristown, Pa.
  • Rev. Aramis Hinds Bethel Community Transformation Center, Detroit, Mich.
  • Rev. Canon Betsy Ivey The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, Norristown, Pa.
  • Rev. Veronica Johnson Hyde Park Union Church, Chicago, Ill.
  • Rev. Kevin Johnson Dare to Imagine Church, Inc., Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Rev. Eustacia Moffett Marshall New River Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Rev. Bill Moore Tenth Memorial Baptist, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Rev. Melanie Mullen The Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.
  • Bishop Joseph Perry Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.
  • Rev. Charles Quann Bethlehem Baptist Church, Spring House, Pa.
  • Rev. Dr. Gary V. Simpson, Senior Pastor The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Rev. Mark Tyler, Senior Pastor, Mother Bethel AME Church, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Rev. Alyn Waller Enon Baptist Tabernacle, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Rev. Joe Watkins Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, Pa.