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These Two Pastors Became Believers—In Young People

By Rich Bell and Sarah Moore and on May 25th, 2016

The Reverends Richard Joyner and Jeffrey Brown reached turning points in their careers when they realized that the early, preventable deaths in their communities—due primarily to poor nutrition or violent crime—were problems they could help solve. Through their authentic approach to community engagement, specifically with youth, both have created positive change that many in their communities thought was impossible.

Conetoe, NC, is a rural town eight miles from the nearest grocery store and home to 300 people. After Rev. Joyner presided over 30 funerals there in one year—funerals for people who had died primarily from complications of chronic diseases resulting from lack of access to healthy food—he said, “I couldn’t ignore it because I was spending more time in funerals than anything else.” Now, more than a decade later, Rev. Joyner and the nonprofit Conetoe Family Life Center have harnessed the energy and creativity of more than 80 young people, tending 130 beehives and harvesting nearly 50,000 pounds of fresh food from over 25 acres of land. Children have learned planning, business, math, and science skills; families have easy access to fresh food for the first time; and emergency room visits have decreased. [1] [2]

Meanwhile, Rev. Brown’s neighborhood in Boston was collapsing into a ghost town as families stayed indoors to avoid street violence. When a teenager died within sight of Rev. Brown’s church late one night, the reverend realized that merely preaching against violence wasn’t going to work. “If he had gotten to my church [that night], it wouldn’t have made a difference. The lights were out. Nobody was home.” So Rev. Brown and fellow clergymen began walking through the neighborhoods, building trust over time with youth who were committing the violence. That approach grew into a public safety and crime reduction strategy that, over an eight-year period, reduced violent crime in Boston by 79 percent. [3]

Both of these community leaders were deeply embedded where they lived and recognized that an important segment of the local population was being routinely left out: youth. Despite the differences between where they lived, Rev. Joyner and Rev. Brown had much in common.

They met youth where they were and listened.

Conetoe’s children were motivated by the fear of losing family members to diabetes and heart disease. Recognizing their creativity, Joyner listened to their ideas and encouraged them to lead whenever possible. For example, when the children suggested that bees would help pollinate crops, Joyner explained, “I really didn’t want bees. I thought it was an added risk. But I got out-voted.” That trust in youth-generated solutions has resulted in a movement that sustains itself from within.

Rev. Brown volunteered at the local high school to try and reach youth committing violent crimes, but he quickly realized that they weren’t going to high school. And after just a few walks through the neighborhoods, he saw that they weren’t out during the day, either. Rather than starting yet another program that would try and fail to draw in young people, he went to them by walking the streets late on Friday and Saturday nights. “And then we did an amazing thing for preachers—we decided to listen and not preach.” What they learned allowed them to build trusting relationships with the people who most needed help.

They were asset-minded.

Rev. Joyner accepted the reality of their small town: they weren’t getting a grocery store. Unless they took matters into their own hands, poor nutrition, diabetes, and heart disease would continue to take too many lives too early. Rather than dwelling on the lack of outside sources of healthy food, Joyner focused on what they already had, which was available land and a tightly knit community willing to work together. He explained, “We have to reframe poverty. When the system talks about poverty, they start from what you don’t have. If you start from what I don’t have, you can’t help me build on what I do have.” [4]

Rev. Brown was also realistic when it came to addressing violent crime, acknowledging, “We can’t arrest ourselves out of this situation.” And where many considered gang members and drug dealers to be lost causes, Rev. Brown built relationships with them. He explained, “We stopped looking at them as the problem to be solved. We started looking at them as partners, as assets, as collaborators in the struggle to reduce violence in the community.”

They were persistent.

Reverend Joyner and Reverend Brown developed their relationships with youth and the broader community through years and years of work. Though there were moments of vulnerability, discomfort, and even resistance from their communities at times, they continued to put their faith in the voices of their communities. And in doing so, these two community leaders made believers out of people—believers in positive change.





Rich Bell

Senior Project Officer

Student of systems change and advocate of the small, slow and connected.

Sarah Moore


Artist and advocate for natural places.