On December 6, 2022, Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, III spoke at the Mission Investors Exchange 2022 National Conference which took place in Baltimore, MD. Mission Investors Exchange is “the leading impact investing network for foundations dedicated to deploying capital for social and environmental change.”
Here are Dr. Heber’s prepared remarks:
“There’s this new app that’s creating a buzz online these days. Through its platform, you submit a few basic pictures of yourself and through A.I., it enhances your images with futuristic flair – the pictures come back more colorful, more artistic and with a very modern edge. It helps you to see the potential of what’s possible when you look at the basic in a different way.
I think about that when I look at this image before you. If I were to ask you what do you see in this picture, many of you will say: I see a church. And you’re right, but what I’d like to do is imitate that popular photo app and enhance this image of a church for you and help you to see more than the basic.
For you see, too often, people pigeon-hole churches and don’t consider their contributions to society beyond purely religious activities. I mean if you want to talk about impact – churches and denominations have served as spark and springboard for MULTI-SECTOR impact for generations. For example, last year Trinity Church Wall Street, in partnership with the Nonprofit Finance Fund, announced 6.5 million dollars in no-interest loans to non-profit organizations in New York City. Another example? The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. After studying the ways that episcopal churches benefited from the enslavement of African people, they established a reparations fund with an initial $1 million dollars in seed money. They now provide grants annually to nonprofit organizations throughout the state. Then there’s the Faith-Based Development Initiative of Enterprise Community Partners. They provide Houses of Worship with the knowledge, training and technical assistance to shepherd their development projects from vision to reality.
This helps to shape my lenses when it comes to looking at churches like the one on this screen. While many just see a simple House of Worship; as a preacher’s kid with a social entrepreneurial gene, I see something far more profound. I see African American churches as the original anchor institution of Black America. So many colleges and universities got their start because of a Black church. Hospitals and nursing homes exist because of Black churches. The Civil Rights Movement moved because of the power of Black churches. Even some of your favorite entertainers got their start in church. That’s right…you have to thank the Black Church for Lizzo, Beyonce, John Legend, Tyler Perry and even Snoop Doggy Dogg.
That’s right! We did that!
And I figured that if churches can do all of that, what more could we do? I began answering this question for myself seven years ago when I launched a nonprofit organization called The Black Church Food Security Network. We organize and network weave the existing assets of Black churches in order to further food sovereignty and food security in African American communities. Churches have so many assets that go largely underutilized Monday through Saturday. We’re talking commercial kitchens, passenger vans, land, multimedia equipment, houses, classrooms, parking lots and more. Given the decline of people who actually physically attend churches now (preferring virtual connection since the pandemic); there are HUGE opportunities to partner with churches and their Community Development Corporations to revitalize and leverage their assets for multi-sector and generational impact. We help churches like the one pictured here to grow food on their land, host Black farmer’s markets, organize agri-tourism events and participate in a grassroots food supply chain project. Nearly 200 churches and 100 Black farmers from across the United States have joined our Network so far. Inspired by our organization’s work, just recently a church here in the city has invited us to partner with them to revitalize their 30-acre overnight camp that has been sitting dormant for 20 years.
Using an asset-based community development lens, we look at the African American community and do not start with the question of what’s wrong; instead we reflect on what’s strong? And for many of these communities, you’ll find the strength and untapped potential for dynamic innovation, investment and impact at the church.
From food sovereignty to housing, financial services, community investing, healthcare and more; global Christian denominations and local churches with an appetite for equity and justice are in the picture with deep and decades-long roots in communities.
The pandemic, racial reckoning and societal shifts have forced many of these churches into a hard reset regarding their assets and how they understand their potential impact in community. While some just see the challenges of this time, I hope something of what I said today has updated the picture of churches in your mind because as the only pastor speaking at this investment conference, I’m here to announce that the doors of the church are open.