Sitting in a room with 15 clergy members, referencing notes from his tablet, and quoting rap lyrics to pronounce his points, the Rev. Heber Brown III leads the weekly senior Bible study at Baltimore’s Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. His discussions revolve around various topics, including the importance of speaking the truth even when it is not popular.
“Galileo was locked up because he dared to suggest that the planets revolved around the sun and not around the earth,” said Brown, as he sat at the head of the table, in front of a green chalk board with a partially erased scripture. “He challenged absolute truth and was incarcerated until he died.”
Brown, 33, who is married and has two children, has been serving Pleasant Hope Baptist Church for nearly five years. In that time, he has grown into a prominent evangelist and respected activist.
Continuing in the legacy of Black religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Brown regularly protests injustices and raises awareness about controversial political issues. A stereotypical “preacher’s kid,” Brown said he grew up in a house full of preachers and church performers. His religious upbringing has shaped his church’s ideology.
“We see the church as an anchor institution in our community,” said Brown. “Regardless of what you believe, there is no doubt that the church has a long history in supporting and advancing our community.”
Brown received his B.S. in Psychology in 2002 from Morgan State University, which is located just three miles from his current church. Three years later, he graduated from Virginia Union University with a master’s degree in divinity. He is currently attending the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and plans to receive his doctorate of ministry in May 2014.
Brown, unlike some of his more formal peers in the pulpit, dresses casually and has an approachable personality. His sermons do always focus on Bible scriptures and old-fashioned hymns. There may be a Black History presentation, there may be a live performance.
You never know what’s in store during a Sunday service.
“I’ve been in church all my life and I’ve never gone to a church service that was functionally like an open mic” event said Brion Gill, a school teacher and member of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. A friend introduced her to the church. On the way to her first service, she said she received a last-minute phone call asking her to perform. She initially considered passing up the opportunity but ended up doing it.
After that, she was invited to create her own program, “Poetry as Praise” in 2012, which brought local poets and spoken word artists to the church to recite their work.
Brown established a social justice committee at his church to address local, national and global issues. He has partnered with groups like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, the Baltimore Algebra Project, and the Stop the Youth Jail Alliance, which battled against a now-defunct plan to build a youth jail in Baltimore.
“I feel like he is a strong guy for some of the stances that he takes,” said Jabari Natur, an activist and master barber, who met Brown at a rally in Baltimore five years ago. “He’s the new-age Martin Luther King. He took a stance on the jail and many other issues throughout the community. He is putting in the work and he’s probably just getting started.”
Even after the major success of helping to keep the jail from being built, Brown isn’t satisfied. “We feel pretty confident now that we’ve crossed that finish line,” he said. “The second phase is that we have to pass the baton and make sure that money doesn’t just disappear. We need that money now to invest in our community.”
Brown isn’t afraid to be controversial. He is an outspoken critic of President Obama’s foreign policy.
“In a quantitative, substantive way, it’s hard for me to see significant differences between an Obama presidency and a [George] Bush presidency,” said Brown. “President Bush came nowhere near using drones like Obama is using drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen. The number of [civilian] casualties that are piling up under this president is extremely problematic.”
Brown has been honored for his work with numerous awards, including the Kingdom Ambassador Award and the Ella Baker Freedom Fighter Award.
In the future, Brown wishes to model his church after the former church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Chicago with over 8,500 members that was once the church home of the Obamas.
Like Wright, Brown wishes to incorporate Afrocentric theology into his sermons and continue to give Jesus a revolutionary stature in history.
“Our orientation as followers is challenged to be towards what Christ said,” he said. “Christ was killed because he challenged the cultural, popular, and social understandings of that time,” said Brown, nearing the conclusion of the senior Bible study session.