New SDOP chair is one of the ministry’s biggest fans

The Rev. Karen Brown’s first experience with Self-Development of People was in 1992; she co-chairs Youth Rising Coalition

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Karen Brown speaks with Presbyterian News Service at Grace Presbyterian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 18, 2020. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — The Rev. Karen Brown’s first encounter with the Presbyterian Committee on the Self Development of People was an unqualified success.

In 1992, just 10 years after a life-changing visit to the 194th General Assembly in Hartford, Connecticut, Brown was the youth pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore working with a group of youth to build a greeting card company in their neighborhood. With support including Self-Development of People (SDOP), they launched their student owned and directed business that made more than $100,000 over several years selling Christmas and Kwanzaa cards. In addition to business success, the project received local and national media coverage.

It was the first of several projects Brown helped get funded through SDOP, which she now serves as chair of its national committee.

“It’s amazing when we share with folks that there’s an opportunity to share your vision and make it a reality as a communal group,” Brown said. “People are so shocked, and they can’t believe it, because there seems to be no other place the disenfranchised can come together and be empowered, and all they have to do is show they own the project.”

Self-Development of People works for justice, stronger communities, and economic equity by partnering with community groups of low-income people to launch projects to help improve their and their community’s situations. The Compassion, Peace & Justice (CPJ) ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency works both at a national and international level and with local committees based at mid councils (synods and presbyteries). Brown has worked at and helped get projects funded through both levels of SDOP.


“SDOP is truly blessed to walk with Karen Brown in this journey of justice seeking and anti-poverty,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, SDOP coordinator. “Rev. Brown’s committed work and advocacy for communities has been guidance for all of us at SDOP to take a deeper dive in address issues, especially connected to COVID-19, that leave communities bereft of hope. We continue to look forward to those ways that Rev. Brown’s vision of hope and vital community transformation will lead SDOP to fuller and more engaged community partnership, we are excited to have a trailblazer like Rev. Dr. Karen Brown in leadership in our ministry. “

Being the chair seems to be a natural fit for Brown, who says her ministry has always had one foot in the church and one in the community. But it dovetailed with her involvement leading the Youth Rising Coalition, a major youth entrepreneurship initiative of the 224th Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly, and all of it has fallen in the unique days of COVID-19 and the uprising against systemic racism and police brutality, issues Baltimore is all too familiar with.

Brown started working on Youth Rising in 2019 with co-chair Susan Krehbiel, who works as the Social Justice Consultant for the Presbytery of Baltimore as well as the Associate for Refugees & Asylum for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, a fellow CPJ ministry. But everything came to a grinding halt, Brown said, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and decisions were being made about what would become of the General Assembly, originally planned as a live gathering in Baltimore.

When the decision came well into April that GA would be a virtual event, Brown went to work eight hours a day for a month creating the project as a primarily online presentation. It was a fast startup, but right in line with other work Brown has done with teens.

“It’s giving young people the opportunity other than the corner to become empowered, to become leaders, and to become great, even at a young age,” Brown said.

Nearly 3,000 people watched the Youth Rising presentation during GA. The initiative was selected by the moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann and Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, to receive the offering from the assembly’s opening worship service. Though GA ended a month ago, Brown said she is still receiving questions about how people can support Youth Rising, and word is spreading in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Brown is forging ahead helping lead the SDOP national committee into a very different world than the one it has been used to. Gone, at least for the moment, is the travel that has come with committee work — travel to regular committee meetings and to visit potential grant recipients. There was fun in meeting with colleagues and seeing projects in person, but Brown also sees advantages in the new realities.

Site visits that had to wait for committee members to be able to put them in their travel schedules are now quickly being done by Zoom, and projects are getting funded, which is critical at this time.

“Right now, everyone is addressing COVID-19,” Brown said. “That will be the case for the next two years.”

Simultaneously handling multiple projects is nothing new for Brown, who said, “I always have 50 balls in the air. I could never do traditional pastoral ministry. I’d be absolutely bored.”

Seeing SDOP through the next few years should give Brown plenty of interesting moments. Under her guidance, the work will be guided by a deep love for the ministry.

“I’ve got all these examples that I have seen: individuals, adults, returning citizens, and youth take control of their own lives and their destiny,” Brown said. “It has been a joy, and they all have been supported by SDOP, whether it’s on the national or the local level.”

Click here to see the Rev. Karen Brown talk about her work with SDOP.

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