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The Leading Voices in Food

E22: Heber Brown on Organizing Communities Around Their Food

Hosted by: Sarah Zoubek (Duke)
March 12, 2019

In the US food system, communities of color suffer disproportionately from lack of access to affordable, nutritious food. But what happens when you connect growers with their communities? Or when communities grow their own food on Church owned land? In Baltimore, Maryland, and along the I-95 corridor in the southeast United States, you can see this happening through the Black Church Food Security Network. Our next guest on The Leading Voices in Food is Reverend Dr. Heber Brown, who founded this network with the goal of helping churches to grow their own food on church-owned land, and to partner black farmers and urban growers with historically African American congregations to create pipelines for fresh produce.

Reverend Dr Heber Brown, III, calls himself a community organizer and a social entrepreneur. In 2018 Baltimore Magazine named him a Visionary of the City. He is the senior pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church and holds a doctor of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary.

Interview Summary

You advocate for systematic changes to systematic problems, is that right?

Absolutely, and the Black Church Food Security Network is very much about a community-controlled alternative food system based on self-sufficiency, and black food and land sovereignty.

Help our listeners understand this concept even of self-sufficiency, black food, land sovereignty, what do these things mean and why is it so important today?

Absolutely. So in the context of my community and my context of ministry and in the city of Baltimore, I have been exposed to many food-related initiatives that have tried to address the issue of food insecurity, particularly in communities of color. The African American community in the context of Baltimore city. And I’ve seen a lot of great work be done through these organizations. And I’ve worked for organizations that also had some relationship to providing direct service to communities as well. And so from the inside, I’ve been able to see not only the high side and the benefits of those kinds of approaches, but also the limitations on shortcomings. And one of the shortcomings I saw was that when there was not an active desire and intent to invest in local communities’ agency, then it furthered a dependency on charity.

Charity is great for immediate emergency needs. Charity is not a long term sustainable solution. And so that’s where I saw the big gaping holes when it comes to food because food access is all the craze right now. Food security is a buzzword in a lot of big important circles. And while food access and food security and nutrition are all wonderful things to be concerned about, how are we staying equally sensitive to investing in communities, their desire to create their own solutions, right? So I know that you know, many people will say those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. The question is, are we listening to the solutions that bubble up? And are we privileging those solutions over solutions that are kind of lobbed into a community from the outside? So the Black Church Food Security Network seeks to really honor and listen deeply to what local communities are creating for themselves and what they already have in hand.

So much of looking at communities that are challenged by food insecurity focuses on deficiencies, right? The community doesn’t have this and they don’t have that and we become expert and fluent in speaking, articulating those deficiencies–oftentimes based out of a need to get a grant or to get some type of support. You’ve got to paint the terrible picture. But when we just paint terrible pictures, we can overlook what these communities already have. So in the context of my community, we had the black church. And some of the listeners may not be as familiar with the black church community. Well I’ll just say since the late 1700s with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African American denominations and churches have been around in this country. You’re talking about from the late 1700s to present day. You don’t get much more sustainable than that in my eyes when it comes to an institution created by a historically marginalized community. And so it was important for us to have our work spring from the base of an institution that black folk created for themselves. And have found a way to sustain in the midst of ridiculous odds, right? From from racism, terrorism, racist violence, from the burning of crosses on our land, to fire, arson and fires being started at black churches, from our pastors like my classmate Clementa Pinckney being murdered in Bible study.

All of those types of tragedies–the four little girls who were bombed, killed in Sunday school–the Black Church has shown a deep resiliency. It bounces back, no matter what is thrown at it. That’s the kind of place I wanted to anchor myself in terms of creating what we organized as a systemic solution to a systemic problem. So African American church communities provide a base of that kind of support and have been a base of support for black people in this country since the late 1700s.

That’s such a different narrative than we hear in this food space–that incredible strength of platform and the ability of a community to solve its own problems. And so what does it look like for community to have that agency?

It looks like heaven! I’ve never been there, but it’s got to look something like that because it’s beautiful and intergenerational. I mean, in my church at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, I had people in my congregation born in every decade from 1920 to the present time. And we all are together every weekend for a few hours together, eating together, laughing, crying together, praying, praising and dancing. The full gamut of the human experience finds a home in the sanctuary is a black church spaces. And so it’s powerful to see that kind of connectedness, especially in a time when we are accessable to one another, but not necessarily connected to one another. Right? You want to text me, you want to facebook me, inbox me, DM me, IM me, you can get at me. But it doesn’t mean we’re connected. I think church spaces where the black church or non-black church spaces and faith communities more broadly concerned, are sacred spaces that still nurtured that connectiveness between communities. And so that’s one thing.

The other thing that makes it special in the context of the Black Church Food Security Network is you’re talking about local institutions and a macro level kind of network and community that owns material assets, right? So you’re talking about churches that own commercial or close to commercial kitchens, 15 passenger vans, big spacious parking lots that can be used as staging grounds for farmer’s markets and the like, classrooms. And a lot of this goes under used or underutilized from Monday through Saturday. And so it is a part of my great joy to go travel the country, meet with bishops and Pastors and African American church spaces and to tabulate, you know, what are we really talking about? Like if we were to talk about all the land in the country owned by black churches, what is that number? Because that number will change our narratives around how we engage food insecurity and black communities.

A lot of that land is sitting there and a lot of churches, all they do is cut the grass every week, make it look pretty and holy. But I talked to bishops and religious leaders and say, listen, that land looks nice, but what if you can see that land as a partner in ministry in your community? To meet a very real need and also serve as a launching pad for the entrepreneurs in your church? For those who are social innovators in your community? This is raw material that if we just organize a little bit better and aligned it, it can be a transformative factor in our neighborhoods.

That’s so exciting that you’ve seen the asset in those communities, but then also the greater asset of amplifying that into a network. Could you tell us about the genesis of that network. How did you get started and what does it mean to have a network?

Yeah, so this is–the genesis of it for us really sprung from our churches experience at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore. I wanted to do something to positively impact the health of my congregants. I was tired of going to visit with them in the hospital and they had diet-related issues. And seminary just taught me to give a prayer and scripture and leave. I was like, nah, there’s something I got to do. Something more than that. I mean I love prayer and I love scripture, but what else can we do? And that’s where the idea came for us to develop a connection with controlling our food sources. Initially I was going to partner with this fresh food market across the street from our church. But the prices were crazy. And I did not want to lead my congregation in another partnership that saw us subservient to another community’ desire or lack of desire to help like that is dehumanizing and toxic.

That’s a toxic charity that I didn’t want to lead my church into. So instead of doing that, I said, listen, I came back to the church, God gave me this epiphany. And I was walking at the front door of my congregation, this little piece of our front yard–I have walked past it hundreds of times. But that one time I saw a vision for a garden on that land. And so we started growing eight years ago. It is a 1,500 square-foot plot of land and because of the leadership of some beautiful people in our church, we grow about 11 or 1,200 pounds of produce on a 1,500 square foot garden in the front yard. So I saw that. And I saw, and this is the first time I’m sharing an interview forum since the passing of sister Maxine Nicholas, who was the patron saint of our garden, the mother of our garden.

God gave me this vision for a garden, but I was born in Baltimore city. My roots are here in North Carolina, but I was born in West Baltimore. I don’t have a green thumb. I spoke to a vision and a woman, a dynamic woman by the name of Maxine Nicholas, stepped forward, said pastor, let me help you with that. You all don’t know what you’re doing. She grew up in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina on a farm with 11 brothers and sisters and moved up north during the great migration. But that knowledge and that history and that background experience stayed with her. She transformed that garden. And just last Friday, just last week, we celebrated her life. She passed away at 87 years old. She was a member of Pleasant Hope for 64 years and she is a major part as to why and how I dreamed of something bigger.

So I saw what she was able to do without one church. And then I realized all these African Americans that moved north during the great migration. Grew up on farms or grew up in an agrarian society. And while they may have come to Baltimore and came up north to work in factories, that knowledge was still in them. And they were sitting in our pews and our churches–being good ushers, being good choir members, good musicians, you know, all that kinda good stuff. But there was something more in them that the church wasn’t seeing. So I am again excited about ways to take our one church’s experience and replicate it, scale it, scale it up and scale it deep. But other churches, knowing that many of the people who fit the profile of a Ms. Maxine, they are also there at many of these other churches, looking for and hungry for opportunities to show that they still got something to contribute to all of this. So we come to these nice conferences around food security and the light, and you see a lot of younger people and young professionals and advocates and that’s cool. But the people that I see on the front lines of changing the material conditions of their community around food at these local black churches are older, African American women in particular. African American women ages 55 and older are the ones who are on the front lines of these churches. Growing food, leading the food initiatives and the like.

What was Ms. Maxine able to accomplish? It’s important for people to know there’s a garden, but it sounds like it’s so much more.

Yeah. Oh, I’m going to cry. I miss my friend. I never knew that, you know, when God called me to pastor at church, I had this idea you go in and you preach and you’re teaching and go home. But no, I’ve learned you really fall in love with people and I never knew that I would have close friends who are in the AARP Club, right? Seventy-five, 80 years old. And they’re my buddies. Maxine was my buddy. She was the one who had the strength. I would say she had the strength of 10 teenagers. She’d be in our church garden early 6:00 AM. She’s in the garden already. And by the time I pull up to start my day at the church, she’s leaving out. All right, pastor have a good day! She had that work ethic, that tenacity around the garden. She had a no nonsense way of like, she knew what you wanted in that garden and you are going to do it the way Sister Maxine said you should do it.

And we learned to follow and trust her leadership and it’s yielded so many benefits for us, but she brought that real tenacity to really grow our garden. Her life experience. And just the work ethic to really move it forward. And here’s the thing. She is not unique, at least in that she’s not unique in that in that. There’s a profile of these kinds of people and particularly these women, black women who were at all these churches. And I know the nation is just mesmerized by charismatic black male leaders, right? Dr. King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson much respect–just in case they’re listening. Much respect to you, Reverend Jackson. And all the rest. But there’s another part of that story that without an Ella Baker, without a Fannie Lou Hamer, without a Maxine Nicholas, these historic moments in our history where the black church communities were concerned or connected would not have happened.

Charismatic male leaders and personalities and programmatic ideas just don’t do it alone. And so I really think that, you know, a lot of people talking about black women when it comes to the body politic. Well, it comes to politics right now, right? And so look into the way black women vote and how that makes a difference in different elections. Watching and studying and seeing and honoring black women, how they move in black church spaces. So it might be a majority men at the mic, but be clear without the women that don’t work. And so that holds across different churches. And I’m just so honored to go and sit at the feet of many of these dynamic women and hear their stories because just like I could tell you about Maxine Nicholas at our church. I can tell you about Patsy Appleberry in Ohio. At her church I can tell you about sister Murray Edwards at her church in Richmond, Virginia. These are dynamic women who I think we need to do much more in the way of listening to and hearing. And hearing while they’re here because they have some ingredients and insight to the topic of food equality and food equity that we need to be sensitive to.

You talk about food apartheid and I think that might be a pretty new term for a lot of folks. So could you define that for our audience and how that manifests in Baltimore?

Yeah. Really it is just the challenge to the term food deserts, food deserts, you know, a desert for the most part is a naturally occurring phenomena. It’s something that’s a part of our lived, you know, experience. Right? And if you’re not careful, you can conclude that “food deserts,” just happen. Like all of a sudden it just happened out of the blue and that’s really just not the case. Food apartheid points to the policies, points to the specific behavior of local municipalities to create neighborhoods that don’t have access to resources, or control over their resources. It didn’t just happen. So what I see with the word food apartheid is one–an attempt to rightly name and target the dynamics that created the outcome, and then two, to really give it the weightiness that it needs, right? The word apartheid strikes. It hits a certain lands a certain way in our hearing. And apartheid has that weightiness and that heaviness that really describes for me the severity and urgency of this issue. It has not only health ramifications, but economic, environmental–going down the line. There’s something we need to figure out and we need to honor the weightiness of the issue and a food apartheid for me does more right now and to honor that.

Is that a conversation that you have within your own congregation?

Well, we speak to this. It’s a term that I use. I’ve actually had a sermon Redeeming the Deserts–where I talk about a challenge to the term food desert and using scripture. And Jesus performed a miracle one time in the desert and life was there. It just was not recognized easily and in these “food desert” communities–we run the risk of labeling them and saying there’s nothing of value there and it’s just not true. And so it is a term that we utilize. It’s one that I preach about and teach about in my congregation as well.

There’s such momentum here and it seems like you’ve been able to do so much in growing the network, but what’s next? What are you most excited about and what are some next steps?

Oh, well, what’s next is I’m working with my congregation to help groom up young adults in our church to really grab this and see this black food and land sovereignty as an aspect and dimension of their spirituality and faith formation. Not just as an aside, or just something that’s purely about my professional career. I’m really working with them to see the ministry applications of all of this and at least put it on their radar that they can be a different kind of minister. So they’re going to see me preaching every Sunday and say, well, no, I have not been called to that. And I said, listen, every minister doesn’t preach on Sunday. We need ministers of information. Ministers of research. Ministers of public policy. Ministers who have, I don’t know if I created this term or not, but we need more congregational organizers as opposed to just community organizers. Those who are sensitive to the nuances of congregational life and can bring community organizing principles and a congregational mobilization principals together, and move congregations toward grabbing hold of and securing different objectives and aims.

And so I’m really investing in our young adults. I’m going big next year with our church budget to invest in and to create employment opportunities for our young adults. Our Church owns a house as well. We want to get into intentional community and give the young adults a house. We want to put all the supports in place so that they don’t have to worry about, so they can bend their genius in the direction–and their creativity in the direction–of figuring out the problem of food inequity and have a church support that.

So this is a gamble. I’m not seeing churches create cold storage units on their land and giving young adults houses and steering the budget towards employing them. But I’m trying to do everything I can to inspire young adults to really grab hold of this while we have the elders still with us. I need the elders and these young adults to be together and I see that the investment financially that we’re making, the young adults can help that, make that more possible. And so we’ll see how it goes. But that’s the big thing I’m excited about. If it doesn’t go well, I come back next time and tell you it failed. Don’t do this.

We often hear of the youth engagement, but it’s never tied to try and engage them with the elders. I think as far as the dialogues I’m familiar with. What is the difference between community organizing principles and congregational organizing?

It’s a sensitivity to just the mores and the characteristics of congregational life. So if you work in corporate America, if you work at a university even, there’s a certain way that the university or the corporation moves. A certain, you know–behave this certain way. All of that is a part of it. The church has that too. And so, you know, while I have a lot of friends of mine who will come to church and call me Heber and I’m cool. That’s my, that’s my name. I’m Heber. But that will rile the nerves of the mothers of my church because you do not call the pastor by the pastor’s first name. At least in a lot of black church tradition. You don’t do that. Somebody sensitive to that kind of stuff. And it might seem small, but that might be the difference between whether or not a mother works with you on your project or not. Or whether they return your call. Or they do your survey.

And so I see there’s some work to be done there to grow up congregational organizers who know about that kind of stuff. Know where the land mines in churches are, where you want to stay away from. What language do you want to use. Even if you prefer to use a different language, how do you bend your tongue to speak the language that’s most familiar to the people in front of you so that you can get to where you’re trying to go. Right? As opposed to trying to make 70 year old Maxine do it your way or make them line up with your understanding. Good luck with that.

You know, it’s better in my view, to be more sensitive to where that community is. And it’s those kinds of sensitivities that I love to help inspire in our young people today.


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