What’s in Your Hand?
An Asset-Based Approach to Community Ministry
In 2015, three days after the death of Freddie Gray, I joined forces with a coalition of grassroots activists and concerned citizens with a long track record of working for social justice in Baltimore to form Baltimore United for Change. We didn’t wait for any funding — we put our heads, hearts and hands together and began to do the work. When Baltimore City schools were closed, our partners provided safe spaces and fed thousands of students and families throughout the city. We hosted Civil Disobedience Trainings as well as “Know Your Rights” and other legal and activist trainings. The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown, III launched the Black Church Food Security Network, connecting farmers from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to churches in Baltimore, distributing thousands of pounds of food to our community. We created a website, a communication strategy, and launched a skills bank to create an “on ramp” for concerned community members that wanted to serve. Over 260 individuals and organizations answered the call.
I am a big believer in the collective. I grew up in the church and watched churches pool their resources every Sunday to meet the needs of our local communities. As a young professional I found my dream job, serving as program director for the Collective Banking Group (today, the Collective Empowerment Group), a faith-based community economic development corporation serving over 200 churches in Greater Washington, D.C. In 1997, the now late Rev. Marvis May, a Baltimore Collective member, told the Baltimore Sun that, “The black church in Baltimore deposits over $1 million in banks every week.” Three years later Sun reported that the Baltimore-area collective had doubled in size to 110 congregations with over $1 billion in collective assets. (The Baltimore Collective is no longer in operation, but as you can see, we can accomplish a lot when we come together.)
There seems to be a church on every corner of my hometown of Baltimore. Yet, these churches and other community organizations often work in silos. These silos lead to fragmentation. Fragmentation leads to duplication, and duplication leads to wasted resources — time, talent and treasure.
It was partly with that in mind that I recently launched #CLLCTIVLY, through which we are creating an ecosystem to foster collaboration, increase social impact and amplify the voices of Black-led organizations in Greater Baltimore. We are currently in our first phase, CLLCTIV ASSETS, in which we are creating an online asset map/directory of organizations in Greater Baltimore listed by neighborhood and area of concentration. Our mission is to end the fragmentation and duplication of programs, to learn from and about each other, and to be a resource for the Greater Baltimore community that seeks to find, fund, and partner with Black social change organizations.
Often the social service sector as well as churches use a deficit or needs-based charity approach when serving our community, treating the community as victims or clients of the state instead of equal partners. CLLTIVLY uses an asset-based framework — a proactive strategy for sustainable, community-driven development that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. An asset-based community framework draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.
Back when I was serving at Collective Banking Group, we invited The Rev. Matthew Brown from Buffalo, New York to be our guest speaker at our annual conference. Rev. Brown spoke from Mark 6:35-38, the well-known story of Jesus feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish given by a little boy. As the story goes, Jesus was not only able to feed the 5,000, he sent the disciples to collect the leftovers and they filled 12 baskets.
Rev. Brown posited that maybe it was not a miraculous event at all, Jesus multiplying the fish and bread to feed the 5,000. Maybe, he suggested, it had more to do with a little boy’s willingness to share. “Surely the little boy wasn’t theonly one to bring a fish sandwich,” Rev. Brown said. “But if you give your little bit, and I give my little bit, not only will we meet the immediate needs, but we may just have overflow.” Our willingness to share may inspire others to give as well. So, I’ve got to ask, following the old-time preaching of The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. that still rings true today, What’s in your hand?
No, no, no…don’t worry I am not asking you to sell your possessions … well not all of them. But as a 2016 report by the Institute for Policy Studies states, “If average Black family wealth continues to grow at the same pace it has over the past three decades, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the same amount of wealth White families have today.”
Individualism will not save us. Collaboration, cooperation, and the sharing of resources — time, talent and treasure — is a must. Only then will it be the case that there will not be a needy person among us — or at least that’s what the first followers of Christ believed. That’s the path we’re following.
CLLCTIVLY is also founded on a decentralized leadership model that I call, MLK2BAKER. MLK2BAKER centers on principles, not personalities to build sustainable communities. When I first started what would become the base for such efforts, KINETICS, I sat down with The Rev. Dr. Fred Smith at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. We spoke about theological education, the Black Church, and the future of church leadership in general. Dr. Smith told me that he believed future leaders would need to be “grand facilitators,” that hierarchical, top-down approaches would not go over well in the future with a growing educated community.
Smith’s wisdom seemed spot on. It still does. Having organized in faith-based communities for over 20 years now, I have realized that we have such a diversity of talent within our pews that often is over looked. Top-down approaches don’t always give room for the genius of the collective talent in our midst to thrive. But as I once heard Dr. Gloria White Hammond ask, “Do you want to be a minister or mini-star? As my big brother, Cameron Miles once said to me “there are ministry opportunities on every corner of Baltimore if you are serious of ministry.” So the question for many ministry leaders as we look outside our doors is, do we want to be a ministers or mini-stars?
I once heard a pastor say that God had given him the vision for the church and where there is more than one vision, there is division. But this sort of top down approach may not make room for the gifts that are in the church. What if your vision is too small? Can we cast a vision that is encompassing of the diverse gifts and talents in the church, community, city and nation?
What if churches used asset-based approaches to map their congregations?
You don’t have to be a megachurch to do mega-ministry. Heber Brown, after all, started growing vegetables on a small plot of land next to his church when issues of congregational health and access to fresh food became a concern. “Maxine’s Garden,” as it was called, birthed the idea to start the Black Church Food Security Network that now expands across Maryland and down to the Carolinas, connecting churches with farmers and congregations with healthy food.
When Pastor Brown wanted to help meet the needs of the children in his community when Baltimore City schools are closed, he partnered with local community members and begin hosting a two-hour inter-generational conversation and lunch. Years later, that two-hour gathering has become a full-day program that is open whenever Baltimore City Schools are closed. Orita’s Cross Freedom School relies on the various gifts and talents in the community to lead workshops and trainings for the youth.
You hear a lot during Lent about what people are giving up. But an asset-based approach to ministry, to faith, isn’t about giving up. It is about sharing. It is about connecting. It is about loving others in concrete, life changing ways.
What assets and gifts do your church or local community have to share? How can you connect to bring about change? Do you have ministries that matter? Are the ministries relevant to the congregation? Are you using what you have in your hands — your little bit?
When our visions of church are not limited to preacher personalities and performances, we can build holistic ministries that matter. What if the vision of the church belongs to the people, the collective, the ecclesia? What if connecting people through people and to people creates a church everyone wants to be part of?
Asset-based community development starts with learning conversations. Get to know the gifts, skills and assets of the members of your church. Focus on gifts, not deficits — on sharing, not “giving up” what you have.
What many of us are looking for is right in our hands, and it turns out that that little bit adds up to so much of what our communities need.