Episode 39: “Pastor as Community Activist” featuring Heber Brown, III

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 39: “Pastor as Community Activist” featuring Heber Brown, III

How can pastors be on the frontlines of community activism while also being faithful to their call? In this episode we speak with Heber Brown, III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, about his work for racial justice in Baltimore and beyond.

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How can pastors be on the frontlines of community activism while also being faithful to their call? In this episode we speak with Heber Brown III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, about his work for racial justice in Baltimore and beyond.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and I’m editor of Leading Ideas E-newsletter. I’m pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast. I’m talking today with Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III who’s the pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore city. He’s a community activist on issues of racial justice and he’s also the founder and executive director of an organization called the Black Church Food Security Network. So happy to have you talking with us today Heber!

Heber Brown III: Well thank you for the opportunity. 

Ann: Yeah, so since I have last seen you, Heber, you’ve gotten to be a pretty famous guy. I come home from work and I turn on the TV and there you are with Ari Melber on MSNBC. And I’m driving my car and I’m hearing you on WTOP. And then I open up Christian Century and you’re there, too. You recently won an award, I believe, from the Claneil Foundation, from their emerging leader fund.

Heber: That’s correct.

Ann: Wow Heber! There’s really something up with the work that you’re doing. So can you tell our listeners something about the work that you’re doing in the community?

Heber: Yeah. So, I am blessed to, as you’ve said, pastor the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church here in Baltimore. I just celebrated 11 years as pastor of this glorious church. And it is a church that’s in North Baltimore City. And so, a lot of what I do is just pastor people, a lot of your listeners will identify with that. And during the course of my pastoring though, I noticed an opportunity to minister to people in a deeper way. When I learned, during the course of hospital visits to members, that many of them were there because of diet-related issues. I wanted to do more, I wanted to do something more than pray and just provide spiritual counsel. Though prayer and spiritual counsel is so very important, I just felt an urging, and a nudging, a divine nudging maybe, to do something more than that. And that’s when the idea came, eventually for us to start growing food on a part of the front yard of our church. And now we’ve been growing food for about eight years, right on the front yard to provide fresh, healthy produce to the members of our congregation and the community as well. Our church garden was going so well that, after about 5 or 6 years, I really was inspired to scale up and systematize the idea. And it really just started with a question. “What if? What if more churches that own land, used that land to grow food for their congregations and their community? And in what ways could food become a more pronounced ministry through our churches?” And that’s when, eventually, I established the Black Church Food Security Network.

Ann: And can you describe a little bit more about how that operates?

Heber: So, we work with historic African American Congregations because we recognize that, when it comes to the African American Community, the Black Church is an anchor institution like no other. Since the late 1700s, with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and with the founding of some Black Baptist churches as well, the Black Church has been here. And so, what we do is we, we planted this organization in the bosom of the most sustainable and widely embraced institution in Black America. Interestingly enough, Ann, I believe the half has not been told when it comes to how much land Black Churches own across the country. How much land they own and how much land they steward. And, in a time when gentrification and displacement and dispossession run so rampant politically and economically in the nation, I was trying to find the higher ground, the most protected land. When I look at Black Church land, I almost see it as the original land trust of the black community. And so, yeah, we work with churches to start gardens on their land. And then, also, we connect churches with Black farmers to create a niche market for farmers to sell their produce on days when congregations worship.

Ann: Yeah, so I wanted to explore that part of it a little bit more. Just last month in Christian Century, there was a statistic about the decline in the number of Black farms and Black-owned farmland. And it’s really been quite a precipitous decline over the last century. And I think those of us who are city dwellers probably think about this more from the perspective of a consumer. We think about the importance of getting healthy food into the mouths of those who need it. But there really is a complex social ecosystem that’s involved in this. So, I wondered if you could speak a bit more to the interface you have with the Black farming community.

Heber: Absolutely. It was a wonderful farmer in Eastern North Carolina who I was blessed to connect with named Julius Tillery. And, I met Julius Tillery, who’s a fifth-generation cotton farmer, African American cotton farmer, and he introduced me, really held my hand and introduced me to the world of Black farmers and Black farming. Took me around to meet other farmers, connected me with other growers and those who owned food processing facilities. And really helped to fan the flames of this idea that I had. Because I was under no illusion — community gardens and church gardens by themselves are not a solution to food inequity, and really the language we use is food apartheid. They’re no solution. Gardens by themselves can’t do it. Church gardens even can’t do it. They’re wonderful demonstration sites. They’re wonderful in the way of helping people to be remembered to their agricultural and agrarian roots through their family and their lineage. But in terms of meeting the need of the number of people who are hungry, food insecure, and victims of food apartheid, a garden by itself is not going to do it. So, I realized that we needed to establish linkages and connection with farmers, Black farmers in particular who grew a higher volume of produce and had access to much more in the way of meats as well. And so, when Julius Tillery introduced me to the world of farmers in Eastern North Carolina, and since then I’ve been blessed to connect with so many more farmers, even beyond North Carolina, I saw a solution to the problem that church gardens by themselves were running up against.

Ann: I’m so glad you said that because one thing I was going to bring up, and I think you’re probably aware of this, but let me just share with our listeners that Heber’s an alum of our Lewis Fellows Leadership development program here at the Lewis Center. And one of our other Lewis Fellow Alums infamously quipped once, and it’s gotten a lot of media attention, that “Every dying church in America has a community garden.” And I think what I’m really intrigued about your work is that you’ve managed to transform a community garden, you’ve managed to transform a relatively small-scale congregational initiative into something so much more. And so, I wonder what advice you might give congregations that want to use some of their congregation-based initiatives as a springboard into a larger community presence.

Heber: Yeah. I mean and thank you for bringing up my Wesley connection, I’m so grateful and I grew so much through the D.Min. program at Wesley and the Lewis Fellows program as well. And I say that not just to give you kudos publicly, which I will do privately too, but because it was there that I met Dr. Lovett Weems. And I was intentional about coming to Wesley. A lot of my peers and even my family in ministry go to other seminaries in the area, in D.C. and the like. I wanted to dip from the wisdom of a different well. And that is why I came to Wesley and, upon meeting Dr. Weems and taking his classes, I was just blown in terms of how to think through, how to add to what I already showed up with a strong community activist background, but how to add that ministry approach that pronounced ministry approach to it. Well, quickly, one of the books that Dr. Weems has written is called Take the Next Step. And that tiny, little book, I was so moved by it that I bought copies for my friends and I was giving it out as gifts to those starting out in ministry. The wisdom in that little book is a part of what helped me think about the next step for our community garden. It was a whole journey just getting to the place of starting a garden on the 1500-square-foot lot of our front yard. But I was not satisfied that that was going to really swim upstream and get closer to solving the root issues which are layered from economic oppression to racism –go on down the line — even regionalism as well. So, I never rested on our church garden. I didn’t feel like it was the, you know, we’ve reached the pinnacle of growing food. This is so wonderful. Let’s stay right here. I never got real comfortable there. I always knew there was something more and I figured out that, if we could figure it out at our little church, and really I should correct my language, not our little church, our average-sized church.

Ann: Your mighty powerhouse church?

Heber: Yeah. So, 150 folks who are members Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. And I knew that many churches in the country look like that, at least numerically. So I thought about it and I said: “Listen, if we can figure something out at our church, it could have deep and wide ramifications to churches across the country.” And I thank God for that divine inspiration and God’s leading because that’s exactly what happened. We prayed on it. We looked at our garden. And then we took the next step and said “okay, let’s help to pastor and minister to other churches to do the same thing. And then let’s link all of these church gardens together to create a systemic response to a systemic problem.”

Ann: Wow. Yeah, that’s really powerful. I do a lot of work in mission leadership and I think so many congregations have small-scale mission projects operating out of their own church and don’t really have a roadmap for how to make that a stepping stone into a more transformative community presence. And so, I really applaud your leadership in that area. I want to ask you this question. With so many issues at play in the city of Baltimore, why make this a priority? I mean, how does this connect to some of the other problems in your community?

Heber: I spent most of my 20s on the front lines of marches, and rallies, and protests, not just in Baltimore, but around the country. I remember the first time I got arrested for civil disobedience was during the Iraq war, under Bush II and Sojourners and so many other wonderful groups down in DC were part of pulling that together. But that was where I was in my 20s. I was like, listen, there’s a fight for justice out here and I want to be in the mix of it. One of my mentors of sainted memory often would say — Vernon Dobson would often say, “If you see a good fight, get in it.” And that’s what my 20s looked like. The longer, the closer I inched to my 30s, I was wrestling, there was some tension that I was sitting with and wrestling with, asking the question, not whether or not the protesting, the marching, and the like is useful, because I still deeply believe it is. But I began to sit with the question of “is that the unique fingerprint of God on my life, to stay there?” And it wasn’t. It turned into me looking for systemic solutions because I saw, Ann, that pick your favorite villain in human history. And for many of your favorite villains, even after they died, the evil that they advanced lived on in the world in some kind of way. I wanted to do my part to not only positively impact my local community, but also to give my ministry and community something that would serve as a mile marker for generations to come. Because food will always be an issue, especially now with climate change intensifying famine. And water and seeds are more and more priority issues that I believe, communities of faith should be giving attention to. And so many are, as well.

And so, if I can say, very briefly, “Why food?” In the middle of the Baltimore uprising soon after the arrest of Freddie Gray in the summer of Summer ’15, you know that Baltimore went up. It was protesting. It was an uprising, it was a protest against state-sponsored violence. And not just wrapped up in just one Freddie Gray, but really in generations of persons who had been the victims of state violence with no justice for their family and community. And while we were in the middle of the Baltimore uprising, I started getting phone calls at my church from those communities near the epicenter of the marching, the protest, and the state response to civil disobedience. People were calling and saying “Pastor Brown, I’m hungry. Do you have any food?” Turns out, that many of the corner stores in those neighborhoods were put out of commission or closed down because of the protests and the uprising.

Ann: Yeah, I’m old enough to remember that happening during the ’68 riots. I mean, that’s exactly what happened.

Heber: So, there’s this pattern, right? So, there’s this pattern that when there is great social upheaval, food becomes one of the most important issues because your normal sources of food are either closed down, burned out, or the shop owners don’t want to come in. Here in Baltimore, Ann, even the Baltimore city public school system shut down, with 80,000+ students who depend on breakfast and lunch at school. The school system shut down and then the public transportation shut down. So, I just say that food was in the middle of this. We had communities calling us and because food was kind of our hallmark, people knew us for food. They called our line and that’s when I had to – that’s when, really, the flesh and bones of the Black Church Food Security Network was birthed. The idea had been rolling around in my mind for six months. But the uprising pushed the Black Church Food Security Network out of my mind and spirit and into the streets of Baltimore.

Ann: Yeah. I want to go back to a point you made a few minutes ago about the idea of the church owning this land trust. And that’s not just true of the Black Church, that’s true of the church in America, that one of the huge assets that churches have in their community, particularly in urban areas, is the land that they own. And it’s not just a resource for food production, but here in Washington and many other cities, people are looking at it as a resource for affordable housing. I see so many churches beginning to understand that they need to be more intentional in how they steward and leverage that asset of the property that they own. Do you want to say a bit more about that?

Heber: Yeah. I am so inspired by so many pastors. You know better than me, Ann, that our ideas around pastoring are necessarily shifting and changing and adapting.

Ann: Yes

Heber: And I was telling somebody, recently, one of my mentees who was praying about seminary. I was telling him that, in a lot of cases, the picture and profile of pastoring as presented in a whole lot of seminary classrooms is going to be different in some very important ways by the time you assume a pulpit, if there is a pulpit for you to assume. And so, with that in mind, I recognized that, if I just stay preaching, teaching, visiting, encouraging, that I would have, I believe, a wonderful life of sharing life with people whom I love deeply. But, I knew there was something more in me, and I had to really wrestle, Ann, with whether or not what I felt bubbling up in me was something that the role of pastoring could accommodate. I wrestled with that.

Ann: Well let me ask another question related to that, because something I was curious to know was, in terms of your own personal leadership, how do you balance the role of pastor and all of the traditional work that that entails? Whether it’s preaching, or visitation, or teaching, or just being a presence within your community? How do you balance that with this more active public role with all of the tensions that I can imagine that that entails?

Heber: I would say sometimes well and sometimes not very well. That’s the honest answer. You know, I do wrestle like all clergy. Like all those who are in ministry in different capacities with being in alignment and being in harmony with the world without end and the world within. And taking that time to rest and also mentally just knowing that, at the end of my days, if I’m faithful, I would have done my part, but not completely solved whatever the issues I didn’t get the energy to. So that’s helpful to me. The other thing, Ann, that I decided to do very early on. And this might have just been youthful hubris, I was called to Pleasant Hope at 28 years old. And I’m so grateful for a congregation that took a chance on a minister where members literally said, “I have shoes older than you.” And they were right. They weren’t lying. But, I made a decision early on in my pastorate to be – to show the congregation who I was authentically. And not drag them along down the path to where I felt God calling me but invite them to join me in the community as they were led by the Spirit. I figured out that, as long as I preached on Sunday, and really too, in the Black Baptist tradition, and really in many other church traditions, as well, not exclusively the African American Church, so much of ministry revolves around the charisma and personality and giftings of the individual pastor. And I saw that as a recipe for creating a short circuit in what God was calling me to do. And so, I determined very early on, I’m going to do the things that you’re calling me to do. I’m going to preach on Sunday. I’m gonna preach my little heart out. I’m going to teach Bible study. And really, I figured out, Ann, that senior Bible study was the main Bible study I had to teach. And I was going to reach out, call and visit members as they were going through times of challenge. Once I figured out that those were the things that my congregation really wanted me to stay consistent with, I realized there was a whole lot of other stuff that I put on myself that they weren’t asking for. Even if it was on the job description when they hired me, I realized that they had some stuff on paper that they really don’t, you know, want. Once that realization came, then I purposed to be faithful in those three things, of course providing leadership in the trustees and the deacons, all that leadership development happened as well. But the main things are preaching on Sunday, teaching senior Bible study, visiting people when they’re ill or going through challenge in their lives.

Ann: So, it’s knowing what’s non-negotiable and making sure you are solid in those areas and then understanding maybe what you don’t need to spend as much time on to allow yourself to have a bigger community presence.

Heber: Absolutely. And I realized when I did that that I had a whole lot of room, time, and energy to pursue other aspects of my heart, and passion, and calling as well.

Ann: So, what advice would you give to other church leaders who want to take on a larger leadership role in the public square? Because I think you’re so right when you’re saying that this is really – if the church isn’t able to turn itself inside out, there may not be the pulpits for people to fill. And so, how does somebody start to think about maybe the issues that they want to engage? Or how they’re going to take those first steps to begin to get out beyond their walls in a meaningful community presence?

Heber: I think the first step that helped me was just really sitting with myself and being clear about where my passion was. Being clear about what kind of impact I felt God was calling me to make through ministry. Getting clear about that and testing that. Because I think, sometimes, we have ideas about what it is that God is calling us to and it doesn’t pan out. But if you never test it, I mean, dip your toe in the water of it and see if it’s really sustained or examine your life’s journey and see if it’s something that continually pops up along the way. And then, after getting clear on that, one thing that helped me, and I talked to a pastor buddy of mine, actually, Pastor Sammy Logan, who pastors down in Virginia, the Chesapeake area of Virginia, who also is a Wesley alum. In fact, I convinced him to come to Wesley. But Pastor Sam and I would talk often, especially early on, because we started pastoring around the same time, and I told him, one time, I said, “Man, I feel like I’m planting a new church inside of an established church.” And, while I was being faithful to what the established church was calling me to do to the best of my ability, I also had opportunity to explore what it would look like to plant a new church there too. So, that looked like small group settings. That looked like going out to dinner or lunch with a small group of folks, and really just asking questions like “Hey, I’m praying about X, Y, Z right now y’all. What do you think about that? Or can you join me in praying about it to see if God might be bubbling up something in our midst?” And I always wanted to invite, never demand or drag. I invited. And, if nobody responded, I would go out to that march, go out to that protest by myself. Or whatever it might have been. I just kept on being true to my authentic self. And what I found is that more and more people started resonating, not only inside our established church but also in the community. And it came to the point where there was a groundswell of such interest in the things that God was calling me and us to, that that number was greater than the number of those who maybe, out of fear of change, or maybe out of other reasons, wanted to keep things just like they were. Take your time. I felt like I’m 28 years old. I have time. Let me just not drag people, walk with people and stay true to myself and believe that, in God’s time, things would shift. And they did!

Ann: I want to begin to draw this to a conclusion, but I’d like to end by asking you this question: How do you keep yourself centered in this? This has garnered a lot of attention for you and a lot of attention to your church. And you’ve been out in front of the church, leading them in this place. How do you see your own role in this and how do you keep yourself centered?

Heber: One of the things I strive to do is stay in the posture of a student. So, I don’t have a briefcase, I have the book bag that I had when I came to Wesley, still to this day. And that book bag helps to serve as my reminder that I’m still learning, that I’m still a student. So it makes it easy for me to sit at the feet of other pastors who have done something similar or are doing something similar to what it is that I’m feeling called to do. So I’m grateful for pastors like Nurya Love Parish, who’s leading a similar ministry called Plainsong Farm, and is a priest as well. I love the opportunity I had about a year and a half ago just to pour my heart out to her, and she with me. And we talked about just the struggles of trying to do what you said. So many other pastors, like DC’s-own Pastor Joe Daniels, who’s just a wonderful example, I believe, also of what it means to be a community active pastor. And then, there’s history. I sit with history a lot. And I read about the successes and the struggles of those in history who have done this work. Ann, I was so surprised to find the long list of African American Clergy who have done this work before, long before food justice in the life was abuzz. They were doing this work in the 50s, in the 60s, in the early 1900s as well. And so, that helps me to be honest. As I analyze their lives and I see where they stumbled and I see where they thrived, it helps me be honest with myself about myself in this work. As much as the cameras come and the interviews and everything else happens. I’m very clear. I’m more of a cheerleader to the possible than I am the reason or the source of the solution for every community in the nation. No, like, be for real. What people see, what I gather from some folks is that a part of what I’m doing resonates with something that they already have been praying about or thinking about. And that helps me to just stay humble and stay centered about the whole work. My wife and my boys also help me stay quite centered and humble. And when Rev. Dr. Whatever gets too big in my head, they help to call me right on down as I’m washing dishes and cutting the grass. But I’m here to make my contribution. I just want to be faithful and do what God’s calling me to do. Let me say, finally, this is not something that, in the Black Baptist tradition, is as common, but coming to Wesley, and even connecting with Presbyterian sisters and brothers — Sabbatical. Sabbatical was a word that constantly came up in different settings. And I’ve introduced that to my church. And so, we are praying together and looking at ways to make that happen. So that the church is good and I’m good. And I know that there are some foundations and the like that provide support for Sabbaticals. But even if we’re not so fortunate, Sabbatical has got to come and I’m thankful to be a part of a congregation that has a whatever-it-takes kind of attitude in that respect as well.

Ann: Well thank you for sharing that perspective and also for the reminder that you and we are all surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses in this important work. And I thank you for your continuation of that witness and the very important work that you’re doing in Baltimore city and beyond. So it was great to talk to you today Heber and I wish you continued fruitfulness in this really important work that you’re doing.

Heber: Amen. Thank you so much, Ann, I appreciate it.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Kevin Harney about ways to improve your church’s organic outreach and better connect with those outside of your congregation.

Harney: We pray every Sunday for another local church, and we call that church and say “how can we pray for you. What’s going on?” And we pray for that church by name, for their pastor by name, and we pray for a specific need that they’re facing. And we’re really being the body of Christ. But I watch churches that feel like the other local churches in their community are the enemy. I mean, how that must break the heart of God. And so, we’ve got to work together with people who we have alignment with, people who we have slight differences with, and even people who come from a totally different worldview but they want to accomplish something that would bring Glory to God. I think it glorifies God in our area when we feed hungry people when we give clothing to people who need clothing. When we clean up parks. When we do those things that say to a community “we love you.” I think that’s something we can do with people with different worldviews.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Related Resources


About Author

Dr. Heber M. Brown III is the executive director of Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN), which supports churches in establishing gardens, hosting farmer’s markets, and buying wholesale from Black farmers. He served for 14 years as pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the founding director of Orita’s Cross Freedom School, an educational program that celebrates African heritage and develops hands-on skills in youth. His work has garnered numerous awards. He is a Lewis Fellow and has a DMin in Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.