How can Christian innovation address the needs of people who are under-resourced and undervalued? Jessica Anschutz of the Lewis Center staff interviews Kimberly Daniel about how Christian innovation can begin to break down barriers to wealth and flourishing.
Jessica Anschutz: I want to invite you to start off by sharing what brought you to the work of Christian innovation.
Kimberly Daniel: Stephen Lewis, President of the Forum for Theological Exploration, and I had questions of what diverse Christian leaders see in their communities as it relates to innovation. What are they doing as it relates to innovation? What innovation has been a part of who we are in our own personal stories?
FTE hosted a series of small conversations in over five cities with leaders, pastors, and entrepreneurs. Through these conversations and our Do Good X program we really got to understand more of what innovation is being done in communities to meet the needs of those who live in the communities. We also got to see what Christian innovation is and what Christian innovation is not. That inspired us to write this book about Christian innovation because we found that a lot of what’s named innovation is really, in our perspective, not really, truly Christian innovation. And we came with that, alongside our own stories of being Black in America and knowing what frugal innovation looks like. That is where we wound up with A Way Out of No Way. So that’s how we were drawn to Christian innovation and came to write the book.
Jessica Anschutz: Say a little bit more about how Christian innovation is different from other forms of innovation.
Kimberly Daniel: Generally speaking, innovation is coming up with a solution to a problem, a challenge, or a need; and the result of it is better than what existed before. That’s innovation generally. But Christian innovation is rooted in the teachings of Jesus and God’s preferential starting place of addressing the challenges and needs of people who are disenfranchised, people who are socially vulnerable, people who are under-resourced and undervalued, and allowing that to be the starting place of where innovation is rooted. That is Christian innovation.
Christian innovation for Stephen and I is ultimately: the ingenious grit of seeing opportunities and unfavorable circumstances and composting available resources to create a way out of no way, and persistent challenge. Even under constrained resources, you are composting and developing these solutions. Even when you see that there is literally no way of developing solutions, you see light. You see hope. You see possibilities. And you work within the constraints to develop something that is better than what was experienced before.
Christian innovation specifically starts with Jesus’ teachings. A lot of what we have seen is that Christian innovation has been named something attached to people or institutions when they have been able to navigate economic or cultural shifts. They come out on the other side of whatever has happened whole, and the institution has survived. That is important, and that is a form of innovation, especially as we experienced with so many challenges during multiple pandemics. That is very important when it comes to innovation. But that is not the type of innovation we’re talking about. We’re talking about Christian innovation that is not just about a leader or an institution.
Jessica Anschutz: So how can Christian innovation inform the removal of the barriers to wealth and flourishing that you have explored?
Kimberly Daniel: That is a big question because the barriers to wealth and flourishing are so deeply entrenched in our systems: our justice system, our economic system, all the systems. Leaders of faith in their small corners of the world and their communities, can start to listen, start to notice, start to challenge, start to address the challenges that they see that people within their community are facing when it comes to these barriers, and they can empower people. Not charity. Let’s not talk about charity and giving up.
How can they empower people with the resources and the tools that they need? How can they give these individuals the platform to speak their own voices, not speak for them, but allow them to speak their own voices? That is a part of addressing these barriers. That’s only a small piece of it. Going back to our definition of Christian innovation and starting out with Jesus’ teachings and providing empowerment and resources to those who are under-resourced and undervalued, that’s something small that can be done.
Jessica Anschutz: One of the things I really appreciated about your book, Kimberly, is that you focus on some practitioners who are doing Christian innovation. Lift up an example or two of how they are addressing these barriers and what they are doing.
Kimberly Daniel: I’ll mention one that’s in the book and I’ll mention one that’s outside of the book because there are wonderful leaders in the book, but I also want to lift up some others who have come up in our work.
Dr. Kit Evans-Ford is a spiritual director doing the work of Christian innovation. She has been a professor, and she participated in the 2017 Do Good X Startup Accelerator. Through her business, her social enterprise, which she sees as her ministry, she is addressing and providing space and support for women who are healing from domestic violence and abuse. She provides sources of income for them because she employs them. She provides a community where they create beautiful, healing bath and body products to be able to send this healing to others in the world.
She also offers a community of support through holistic services, including providing spaces for these women to stay when they’re exiting out of abusive situations. This is a part of Kit’s own story and Argrow’s [House] is named after her grandmother who faced this as well. Kit’s work starts with Jesus’ teachings. She starts with focusing on women who are healing, who have been survivors, who are survivors, and who have not always had the resources to move forward in their life. She provides them with those resources and a community.
Rev. Dr. Heber Brown is the founder of the Black Church Food Security network. He was formerly the pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, and walking out in his community in Baltimore, he saw that there was what he calls a food mirage. What that means is that healthy food was there, but it wasn’t accessible to people in his community because of the cost. People within his community and congregation at the time were having diet-related issues.
He looked at his church’s property, and there was a small plot of land, a little corner. He grew produce for the community. In one of the earliest years of the Black Church Food Security Network, they grew over 1,200 pounds of food to provide to the community. This has grown into an alliance of hundreds of Black churches in communities where they have shifted from doing lawn maintenance to growing food and produce and working with Black farmers to provide access to healthy food within their community. Beginning with God’s preferential starting place and giving access to people who couldn’t afford healthy food that would ultimately have an impact on their physical, mental, and even maybe emotional well-being with what they’re taking into their bodies.
Jessica Anschutz: What inspiring examples you have lifted up. They’re powerful in not only how they address issues of injustice and scarcity and redistribution of resources, but also meet the needs of the people right in the community.
One of the things that comes through in the examples you’ve just given and in the book is being curious — wondering why things are the way that they are. Share with our listeners how they can begin to get curious and how they might then respond.
Kimberly Daniel: Getting curious is so important to truly developing solutions that are needed in communities. I encourage people to get curious about why things are the way that they are within communities. Get curious about what is a challenge or a need in the community. Part of this work of getting curious is about listening. It’s not always about speaking. It’s about truly listening to people, truly observing what’s going on, and really trying to set aside our own interests, really seeing what the needs are, and getting curious about them. When Stephen and I talk about getting curious, it’s always asking questions of why. Why is it this way or how did it get this way? Or what can potentially be done to heal this? So, it’s doing some reflection and asking questions not just of ourselves but people around us, particularly if your work is based in and addressing a community that you’re not from. That’s so, so important.
Jessica Anschutz: The process of asking those questions of the people in the community is a way of leading into deeper relationship and even deeper listening. One of the next steps you identify is meaning making and the importance of staying curious so that you can make meaning. What does meaning making look like when it comes to Christian innovation?
Kimberly Daniel: When it comes to Christian innovation, we talk about meaning making in three ways: reflecting, reckoning, and interpreting.
Reflecting is about working with people within your communities to really get curious and address why things are the way that they are and to do some reflection not just with yourself (that’s important) but with people who are within the community.
Then it’s also about reckoning. Still upholding this piece of getting curious, but it’s about the why. You see what exists within the community. You wonder why things are the way that they are, why people aren’t receiving what it is that they need, and what needs to be reckoned.
Then you interpret. This is where you can begin to really look at potential solutions — after you’ve identified the problem and gotten clear about it. You’re looking for the cause. You’re looking at who benefits from what is happening in the community and who really needs to benefit to address the least of these or people who are undervalued or underserved. When we’re talking about meaning making, we’re talking about reflecting, reckoning, and interpreting in order to get to a potential solution.
Jessica Anschutz: You’ve alluded to the need for church leaders to do their own work and to be sure that they are setting aside their own preconceived notions and listening deeply to those around them, particularly in contexts where they may not match their context. What words of advice or wisdom do you have for church leaders to do that personal work and then to set aside their preconceived notions about what may be needed or what may need to be done?
Kimberly Daniel: It is important to know what your own preconceived notions are, what your own assumptions are, because that can cloud your judgment if your assumptions are not actually right. And there also needs to be a level of discernment because the work of particular communities is not for all leaders to do. You must discern if you are the right person or if you should come alongside someone else, as an ally and partner in the work, who may be a better fit for charging the efforts. Then you come alongside them, or maybe it’s not something that you should do at all.
In a church leader’s own reflections, it’s identifying their assumptions. It’s discerning if they’re the person to do the work or if it’s someone else. It can be helpful to ask others who are in your close-knit community about the assumptions that they have heard you carry in your own leadership so that you can hear the wisdom of the community, because sometimes they can help you to see things that you don’t see yourself.
Jessica Anschutz: That’s powerful advice, and an excellent warning in that you shouldn’t just wake up one day and decide to go out and say “I’m going be an innovator. I’m going to resolve this problem or this situation that I see.” That may not be the problem or situation that my neighbors see or want to have resolved.
Kimberly Daniel: Yes, I completely agree with that because what can happen is that someone thinks it’s a problem, but it’s not actually a problem for the community that they’re trying to help. They have good intentions, but good intentions don’t always yield positive results.
Jessica Anschutz: I have seen church leaders expend a lot of energy generating ideas, putting together plans, with committee meeting after committee meeting, yet those plans never get put into action. Share from your experience how church leaders can experiment with solutions and move from planning into action.
Kimberly Daniel: Do it. I know it sounds like I’m just quoting Nike: “Just do It.” Move plans into action. There’s one church leader I talked to recently and I asked, “What is the community losing or not gaining because your work is stuck in your head or stuck on your whiteboard or stuck on your computer or stuck in conversations?” Church leaders tend to come up with great ideas, some not so great ideas, but you don’t even know if they will work because they don’t go beyond the paper. So, I would suggest considering how can you test out if your idea and see if your plan even works? What is something incremental? Maybe you can’t take the full-scale vision, and bring that to life yet, because of constraints of capacity, of finances, or what have you. But how can you experiment with the idea that you came up with so that you know? Then, you can take those steps to bring the ideas that you have from the paper to life. I’ll also put on my life coaching hat and, “What are your goals? What’s your plan of action here? What are you going to do with the next month, three months, six months, a year?” At the end of the day, it all goes back to my question: what is your community losing because you’re not allowing your ideas to be taken from paper and into context, into action, to help your community?
Jessica L. Anschutz: That’s excellent advice and wisdom and helpful in a lot of cases, even beyond Christian innovation. You talk about sort of testing the viability of the solution. Can you test a piece of it? Is there an example you could share from somebody that’s gone through one of your programs, about how they tested something and perhaps the changes or adaptations they made along the way?
Kimberly Daniel: I will go back to Kit since I’ve mentioned her story earlier. Going through the program, Kit was still a professor, and she experimented with her idea to develop a social enterprise, selling bath products, and empowering women who are healing from domestic violence and abuse. She put on her scientist hat in the evening after work. She’s married with children. She would put her scientist hat on and experiment with different ingredients to create these healing products, because she knew what she wanted to offer to the women.
For the women to be employed, she had to create a product people wanted and experiment with what exactly that product would be. She started out with a bath bomb, and she kept experimenting because it would discolor the tub, it didn’t hold together, or it didn’t have the smell that she desired. So, she experimented and ultimately came up with a product that works and that she could sell. She pivoted and learned along the way. I name her because this is a product and its very clear that she experimented in order to develop what she has now, an array of beautiful products like soap, bath bombs, lip balms and all types of things that built upon her experimentation to make sure it met the needs of people she was selling products to in order to give back to these women who she’s creating this community for. There’s a cycle and, she had to experiment in order to ultimately impact these women. That’s one example of experimentation.
If we go back to Heber’s story — Heber did not go through the accelerator program or anything, but he is someone in our network. Heber experimented by using the land of the church that he was pastoring to grow produce to see if it was needed in his community. This is something that he did, and he led these endeavors to see if it would work for the community, and from that he has been able to scale it to become the Black Church Food Security Network.
Jessica Anschutz: Two very different yet inspiring examples of Christian innovation. Thank you so much, Kimberly. Again, the book is A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation. For our last question today, I invite you to share words of wisdom. If folks are looking to innovate, what should they have in their toolkit or have in mind before they go out to do this work?
Kimberly Daniel: Come with a sense of curiosity, playfulness — because in play comes imagination and inspiration. Come with your innovative solutions, thought partners who reflect the type of people that you hope to impact and who come with diverse ways of thinking and perspectives that may challenge you. It will give light to the wisest solution that can exist and impact your community the most. Curiosity, playfulness, and being mindful of not just writing these ideas down on post-it notes but taking this to life, and knowing most importantly that this work of Christian innovation should be grounded in the teachings of Jesus and the preferential starting place that God talks about in order to be true Christian innovation. In doing that, you are living out your faith; you are doing the work that the community needs.
- A Way Out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation (BookBaby 2020) by Kimberly R. Daniel and Stephen Lewis. Available at BookBaby and Amazon.
- Sustaining While Disrupting, a Leading Ideas Talk podcast episode featuring Doug Powe and Lovett Weems
- Pastor as Community Activist, featuring Heber Brown, III
- Christian Social Innovation Starts with Who, Not Why or How by Kenda Creasy Dean
- Ideas on a Deadline: An In-Depth Interview with Phil Cooke