Mixing religion, community

Pastor started three nonprofits to help downtown church neighborhood.

By Jennifer Whytock

ASHEVLLE, N.C. — When John Grant was about eight years old, he would write speeches and deliver them in front of his church congregation in the small town of Cross Hill, S.C.

Over 40 years later, he still gets up every Sunday in front of his congregation, now as pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Asheville.

When he arrived in Asheville 15 years ago, Grant believed that as pastor he should devote much of his time to the problems of the church’s community, a once-thriving black business district and neighborhood known as “the Block” that had become dilapidated.

He founded three local nonprofits and was president and CEO of two of them still operating today that aim to redevelop neighborhood buildings and reduce local social and health problems.

Along with leaders from 25 other local churches in the early 1990s, Grant set up Community Outreach, a day camp and childcare center to help address the needs of local children.

He later helped create and run Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., which offers programs in job training, alcoholism recovery, food for the hungry and health counseling.

John H. Grant

Job: Pastor, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Asheville, N.C.

Born: 1954, Cross Hill, S.C.

Family: Wife, Belinda; daughter, Kontia, senior, UNC Charlotte; son, John Jr., senior, Asheville High School.

Education: B.A., religion and philosophy, Benedict College, Columbia, S.C.; M.Div., Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School; D.Min., Atlanta Theological Association, Erskine Theological Seminary

Hobbies: Jogging, bowling, basketball

Currently reading: “Restoring the Village: Solutions for the Black Family” by Jawanza Kunjufu

Most enjoys: Preaching and teaching, and building people up.

The nonprofit also plans to renovate historic buildings on roughly six acres of the Block, but the plan has stalled over a protracted battle with local opponents.

When the nonprofit was young, the church considered Grant’s work as part of his ministry, and donated his time and that of the church’s administrative staff.

The church still solicits annual contributions from the congregation for the third nonprofit that Grant set up and led, Mount Zion Community Development.

The church invested $1 million in the Mount Zion nonprofit to help buy three buildings in the Block for renovation as office space and market-rate housing.

The Mount Zion nonprofit also offers four programs, including a teen pregnancy prevention program and a pre-natal program for African-American women, funded by the state, Buncombe County, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Sisters of Mercy and Mission St. Joseph.

“I had to build consensus, resolve conflict, it was highly politicized,” Grant, now an unpaid consultant to the nonprofits, says of his brief foray into the nonprofit world. “I had to lobby for dollars before the city council, deal with their new agendas every two years, and deal with the press, because since I was using public funds I had to be transparent.”

Being a pastor is rewarding but difficult work, he says, keeping him on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Members of the congregation ask for his advice and help at all hours, he says, and he can be summoned during the night if a member has an emergency.

As he is helping with the problems of others, he says, he has to remember to address the needs of his own wife and two children.

Clergy members, he says, citing a recent statistic, have the highest divorce rate of people in a vocational field.

He says he has learned to firmly set aside a Saturday or Friday evening every week for time alone with his wife and children, including playing basketball with his son and showing that “he still has a few moves.”
Though his work as pastor is time-consuming, Grant says, he also must stay very involved with the local community and nonprofits.

“Some think the church should deal just with the spiritual — the Bible and God — but our position is that you can’t separate heaven and hell from housing, can’t separate regeneration from racism, can’t divorce salvation from starvation,” he says. “You don’t want to be stuck only in the spiritual.”

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