After Freddie Grey’s arrest and death in police custody in 2015, the pastor of Baltimore’s historically Black Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, Dr. Heber Brown III, says his phone started ringing constantly.
“Some of the communities that were at the epicenter of the uprising were starving because their corner stores were put out of commission,” Brown tells Outreach Magazine in a feature on churches creatively sharing the gospel.
“People were saying, ‘Pastor Brown, can you bring us food? We’re hungry. We need food.’ Up to that point, that was one of the unique fingerprints of our ministry; that’s what we were known for. That’s what I was known for: food.”
Brown paid a visit to a fresh-produce market located across the street from Pleasant Hope, seeking a partnership. But he was frustrated when he learned that the prices were simply too high for most in his church to afford.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a “food desert” as a part of the country devoid of fresh food, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. “Admittedly, in our community we don’t live in a food desert by the USDA’s definition,” Brown says. “What I realized was, we live in a ‘food mirage.’ We’re like a mirage in the desert because we can see what we need, but we can’t touch it.”
As Brown walked back from the market, full of what he calls “righteous discontent,” God directed his attention to a 1,500-square-foot plot of land in the church’s front yard that had been utilized for community cookouts and other events.
“I saw this part of our land, and I really felt God saying, ‘Use what you have,’” Brown says. “And in that moment, the frustration teeming up in me, God gave me a vision of taking this land and making it into a garden. And that’s what we did.”
Brown called Aleya Fraser of Black Dirt Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and started networking with Black farmers and food distributors in the region. Soon, after working with other churches who were establishing their own church gardens, they created the Black Church Food Security Network. Today, the network consists of 13 churches in Baltimore.