How Historic Black Churches Are Charting a New Path with Local Government

The Rev. Harold L. Dugger, Sr., Pastor and his wife, Lady Dugger

The Rev. Harold L. Dugger, Sr., Pastor and his wife, Lady Dugger

The First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights, a Sacred Sector participant organization, has a long history of serving the local community. Since 1908, the “Church in the Heart of the Community, Reaching the World for God,” has been doing charitable work for those in need, operating everything from an addiction recovery program to a marriage ministry to a clothing thrift store. Through Sacred Sector Community, First Baptist says it has been able to strengthen its ability to serve, and enabled the congregation to become an even greater force for good in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

In partnership with the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) of Prince George’s County and an academic, public-private partnership with Georgetown University, First Baptist Capitol Church is exploring a new development opportunity  whereby university students engage in pro-bono feasibility studies as capstone projects. The school approached Pastor Dugger, Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights, who worked with students on a feasibility study for a prospective senior and veteran housing development project that the church, in partnership with the EDC, would like to pursue. This feasibility study, if paid for out of pocket, would run $80,000-$100,000.

Pastor Dugger said of Sacred Sector: “It is such a blessing to partner with and benefit from Sacred Sector's resources. These new opportunities with the EDC would not have been possible without the support of Sacred Sector. The program helped us think about how public policy impacts us, and what types of organizational structures are necessary to grow our capacity. These resources help me be very specific in terms of ministry, policies, and best practices so that [First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights] can be in partnership with the EDC.”

Pastor Dugger explained that when he has conversations with his ministry peers, they think he has very valuable advice to offer: “They think we are geniuses. But really it is what we learned from Sacred Sector, this vision of excellence in everything we do. You guys were very providential.”

Specifically, Pastor Dugger explained how Sacred Sector’s resources impacted how he thinks about public engagement. He described how his church continues to strengthen his preparation for educating public officials about the distinct needs of faith-based organizations: “I believe God is preparing me as a catalyst, as a liason between the church and the government.” He emphasized how his church leadership is transparent with their faith identity and their faith-shaped beliefs, starting with his own congregation: “[On] Sunday mornings, we have conversations here about difficult things, like the survey from the Barna Group asking pastors about their positions on sensitive topics like human trafficking, same sex marriage, et cetera. Many pastors don’t want to go there, but we are having those conversations right now.”

Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Thomas from Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church, another pastor in Maryland, plans on collaborating with Pastor Dugger on joint development projects in the area. Forestville New Redeemer is also a Sacred Sector participant. Thomas said: “Documentation [of our work] is important. Sacred Sector emphasizes this. We know it is important to have clear policies and clear documents about our impact for the world to see when we are long gone. This is so important to document.”

Pastor Dugger says other government partnership opportunities have come his way:

Prince George’s County had summer jobs program for youth between 14 and 22, I believe. These youth would work between 32 and 40 hours per week in the summer. The county government asked if we could employ some of these at-risk youth. They trusted us as an employer who could supervise the youth well and give them structure and help them make a difference in the community. The first thing they asked me was whether we have policies in place on sexual harassment and ethical conduct. It was because of Sacred Sector that we are advanced in understanding where we need to be from a policy perspective. It is because of this that we are considered for a wide variety of government partnerships, from new development opportunities to summer youth employment programs.

These kinds of opportunities are common for Pastor Dugger’s church and he emphasized how important having policies and organizational infrastructure in place has made them a top pick for these types of government partnership opportunities.

Dr. Thomas echoed similar sentiments. He explained that in terms of development, his church is in the process of making the vision of a development a reality. His church has property limitations due to local zoning ordinances in Prince George’s county. He explained:

What we are looking at right now is senior citizens and veterans and how we do housing not limited by zoning. We are also looking at how that housing facility can be close to a one stop shop. We are interested in providing residents access to health care and dental care on the property. We are interested in providing access to healthy, fresh food. We would like to provide ongoing training. We are talking about the high-tech jobs and retooling veterans to new opportunities.

Pastor Dugger emphasized a similar vision for wrap-around services that support the entire community, meeting the whole needs of the individual, from physical to spiritual to economic. He explained that the church’s plans for an EDC-sponsored senior citizen housing development would also be connected to the broader community:

Pastor Dugger also emphasized that they would plan to have communal meals in a common area, and the cafeteria would also provide jobs to the community.

Pastor Dugger explained the guiding motivations for the EDC of Prince George’s County in working with a church to help develop housing for community members. The EDC “understands the value of our church community. We have a reputation for serving the community through our food pantry, through our partnerships, and through our citizenship and advocacy for community members on affordable housing.”

Pastor Thomas emphasized how the process of cultivating understanding and partnerships with the local government can take time and was not without challenges: “Failure can bring about victory. We first started with the fight for more church-friendly zoning. We worked on that for years, and now our work is moving in a positive direction and the county understands our needs, even though there are still challenges.”

Pastors Dugger and Dr. Thomas also explained their involvement in the Center for Urban Renewal Education (CURE) and how they help bring CURE members from around the country to DC every year to engage in an advocacy day. This is yet another example of how Sacred Sector has inspired First Baptist and Forestville New Redeemer to engage with the government to further their faith-based missions.

Pastor Dugger stated: “If you could look at my heart and see how grateful I am for Sacred Sector, you would see it is overflowing. We have a civic responsibility as a faith community. [Sacred Sector is] helping us live out our faith and fulfill our role in the community.”