How a Baltimore pastor is organizing Black farmers and Black churches for food security and freedom
Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III is the senior pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Md. He joined the Faith & Money Network’s 2017 “Trip of Perspective” to Haiti to make cross-cultural connections between faith and money. In this story, Brown shares how a garden he planted on his church property grew to a multi-state alliance between historically Black churches and Black farmers. To learn more about Faith & Money Network’s “Trips of Perspective,” visit faithandmoneynetwork.com or contact Mike Little.
The garden at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church grew from faith-filled frustration.
In 2010, the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown III was pastoring a congregation in Baltimore, Md. that was experiencing food insecurity and diet-related illnesses. He felt “divine discontent,” he said, knowing what the members of his church needed to heal lay behind racial barriers.
“I just knew we had to do something,” he said. “And we had a little something.”
That something, said Brown, was land.
Brown confessed that his farming experience was limited at the time. He had memories of collecting string beans from his grandmother’s garden and heard stories of his great-grandmother preserving the food she gathered from her farm in Virginia. But he recalled his participation in a food and faith advisory committee sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. It taught him that faith-based organizations could be catalysts for a just food system.
A church garden
When Maxine Nicholas, a member of Brown’s congregation, heard his vision, she “ran with it,” he said. They purchased four raised bed kits from the local hardware store and assembled them on the church lawn. A garden began to grow just outside the church walls with Sister Maxine Nicholas’ leadership and the support of many others.
Ten years later, the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church garden is still there. But something larger has also taken root in the years since — a multi-state alliance between historically Black churches and Black farmers known as the Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN).
The BCFSN’s mission is two-fold. The network supports congregations as they start their own gardens on church-owned land, while also connecting Black farmers from Minnesota to Texas with congregations to host farmer’s markets inside the churches in a program called “Soil to Sanctuary.” In addition, they conduct asset-mapping of Black Churches and their surrounding communities.
This multi-pronged approach makes the BCFSN more than a food distribution program. Though food remains at the heart of it. After all, the Bible was produced by an agrarian society, Brown noted. But by fostering personal and financial investment in church gardens and Black farmers, the BCFSN embraces and gravitates toward a cooperative economy.
Brown sees this approach as scriptural. He pointed to Acts chapter two, where people rejected individual ownership and pooled the proceeds. In doing so, every need was met.
It’s stories like the one from Acts that prompt people to imagine a different kind of economy, Brown said.
Deep roots in farming and co-ops
Brown cited Fannie Lou Hamer, “a woman of great faith,” he said, “who unfortunately has been reduced to nine words: ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
In addition to being a civil rights leader, Hamer was instrumental in the formation of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Mississippi in the 1960s, which brought families together over shared land.
“They grew food together. They started co-ops around sewing and farming. And so many other things,” Brown said. “They even had a pig bank where they would give families a pig … [and] when that pig had two piglets, they would bring the piglets back to the bank for another family.”
Together, they brought Heifer International to the domestic front, he said. It’s a story Brown said he was never told growing-up, along with the stories of people like Reverend Vernon Johns, Father Divine, and Marcus Garvey’s chain of grocery stores. They and Hamer “understood farming and agriculture as the stage for not just meeting immediate needs, but even larger needs around justice and freedom,” Brown said.
The BCFSN is not an anomaly, he said, but rather the continuation of a less honored, long tradition of Black faith communities.
Since the 1700s, the Black church has posessed the greatest degree of locally-controlled economic resources, and the greatest degree of autonomy from the white power structure that dictates everything from policing, to banking, to education, Brown said.
“The Black church is that space where black folks have been able to organize outside of the white gaze in order to share life together, to cry together, to dance, to rejoice, to sing, to extend our own family lines,” he said.
The Black church is also the largest land-owning institution in Black America, he added. Much of that land goes unused during the week. But it’s not just the land, Brown said. It’s kitchens, classrooms, 15-passenger vans, computer labs, multimedia equipment, and wifi, he pointed out — “material assets that can have a greater purpose beyond just Sunday mornings worship service if we were just to think about ministry differently.”
Responding to the pandemic
Brown’s “Soil to Sanctuary” program, which brings Black farmers to church buildings for mini farmers’ markets became one approach to that unused space. But in March, Brown found himself forced to join many pastors in reevaluating their programs when the coronavirus pandemic prompted churches across the country to shut their doors.
So they pivoted, he said. Instead of having an in-church market, the BCFSN started buying from Black farmers in bulk and delivering the farm-fresh produce, meats and other items to churches engaging in food distribution efforts. Many of those churches were, and still are, partnering with food banks, corporations, and the USDA, Brown said.
“All of that can have a place,” he stressed. “But what I know is many small farmers and many Black farmers are not in the procurement stream of the USDA, major corporations, and these municipal programs around feeding communities.”
It’s an opportunity to not only support Black farmers, but for churches to think more critically about the price they’re paying for the high-sodium, canned food they receive without financial cost from outside agencies, he said.
“If we can get more churches to get used to the economic behavior of paying small farmers for what they grow, and we can nurture a true relationship, a transformative one, not just the transactional one between the church and the local farm, then it becomes more likely that it will become a part of the institutional habit of the church,” Brown said. “It’ll become second nature that when we’re hungry, when we need food, instead of jumping straight to the big box stores, [we say], ‘What about that farmer we got that food from?’”
The farm he started nearly ten years ago with Sister Maxine has also proven fertile ground for relationship building amid the pandemic. The garden is one of the few ministries congregants have been able to continue in, he said.
“People have flocked toward the garden and they appreciate not just being together, but also getting their hands in the soil and getting close to growing,” Brown said. “I think this pandemic activated something within us that reminded us that all of us are people of the land and that’s been an important and powerful thing to be a witness to as we head to the holidays.”
Brown knows that the holidays, like his ministry, will look different this year. He, like many others, will gather virtually with friends and family, But he wonders if this moment without the hours spent cleaning and shopping, might prompt a deeper discovery of what the holidays mean.
“Maybe we get a clearer sight line to what really matters,” he said. “Maybe that phone call to a loved one who you’ve not seen all year — just hearing their voice — would be gift enough.”
“Hungry for change”
If there’s one thing the BCFSN has taught him, it’s that people are hungry for change.
“Our socio-political and spiritual imagination is prime for other models and ways of being together economically, agriculturally, through health, relationally, [and] otherwise,” Brown said.
And there are those who can guide us through, he added, pointing to Tomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Dorothy Height, Reverend Vernon Johns, Father Divine, and Marcus Garvey. A different economic model is possible if only we can turn from the “colonizers textbook” and allow ourselves to be “drawn to the prophetic imaginings that can happen from the underside of the gospel.”
Just like the Pleasant Hope Baptist Church Garden, the BCFSN will continue to grow in new and different ways in the years to come. But it’s work will remain rooted in the Black church. That is important, Brown said.
“We have churches that are 100 years old, 150 years old, knocking on 200 years old,” he said. “And when we ask ourselves the question, ‘What was going on 150 years ago in this country, as it relates to Black people, there was a very different scene than what it is today. And these churches, these institutions are still here.”
With climate change already impacting food production in many parts of the country, Brown knows that the Black church’s work to meet the fundamental needs of marginalized and oppressed communities will only become more critical.
“What my prayer is is that when we do this work with food, when we’re all dead and gone, that these institutions will still be here,” he said.
Christina Colón | November 19, 2020
Christina Colón is a writer, editor and digital strategist. Her work has appeared in Sojourners and Global Press Journal.