Buffalo’s Black Billion– a powerful economic and community development force within the City of East Buffalo, known as the “Fruit Belt.”
By Sheila Durant
This story first appeared in MEA magazine
What do you say about a man who means so much to so many people in such an extraordinary place and time? Inextricably bound to his faith, no one can doubt that he has internalized his role as shepherd and, together with his soul mate of more than 44 years, has the God-given talent, intellect, energy, fortitude and vision to carry out his purpose on this earth.
Everyone has seen “it”, cheered “it” and sometimes roared over “it.” That “it” is what works in the “in-between” where, in a relay handoff, the baton is placed in the hand of the receiving runner who does not turn nor need to look back to receive it. In 2002, the “baton” was passed on to Overseer Michael Chapman who, like his two brilliant predecessors, Reverend Burnie C. McCarley, from 1927 until 1972, and Rev. Dr. Bennett W. Smith Sr. from 1972 until 2001, closed his eyes and let his faith and his soul mate, Rev. Ina R. Doss Chapman, become the wind beneath his wings….
Today, the pastoral seed of vision to create a vibrant church home has now, under his leadership, become a powerful economic and community development force within the City of East Buffalo, known as the “Fruit Belt.” That “it” that drives the St. John – Gethsemane village community is the faithfulness to a covenant to walk with the Almighty in all aspects of the lives of the church and its flock. To say that Rev. Chapman is a shepherd is no laughing matter. Under his leadership, extraordinary vision, and quiet charisma, Rev. Chapman has become a “driver for social economic justice” among its more than 500 African American Disciples. Because he “walks the walk”, no one doubts that he is able to “talk the talk”. He has an uncanny gift to seed a big vision in the face of incredible odds and the fortitude to make it happen.
In a short span of 17 years, under the God-driven and faith based leadership of Rev. Chapman, the now debt-free St. John – Gethsemane village community church, transparently working by and through its affiliate corporations with a mission driven organizational structure, can officially take its place as a “major player in the economic and community development initiatives and future of the City of Buffalo”. In the Western New York region, more than a billion dollars of redevelopment, construction, programs and ministries are planned over the next 10 years to be reinvested by St. John-Gethsemane in the City of Buffalo’s Urban Core. As a consequence, St. John-Gethsemane Church will be creating hundreds of jobs for minorities in construction, small businesses, health care, wellness, energy and entrepreneurial training.
In short, like Matthew recorded in the Gospel, Rev. Chapman teaches his “flock“ how to fish. Among the fruits of his teachings, which include the historic Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church, are a few accomplishments:
• McCarley Gardens 150 (2, 3 & 4 bedrooms) for $70 million total redevelopment and 47 new builds;
• St. John Tower for $30,000,000 total redevelopment of 150, 1 bedroom 9 story senior facility;
• St. John Townhomes II Housing Development for $16.3 million completed in 2015;
• St. John Baptist Hospice Buffalo House for $2.8 Million completed in 2008;
• Rev. Dr. Bennett W. Smith, Sr. Family Life Center for $3.8 million completed in 2001; and,
• The oldest Landmark in the Fruit Belt community is the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church which is under historical preservation at a cost of $1.8 million.
In August 2018, Overseer Pastor Chapman, who is also Pastor of St. John Baptist Church and Gethsemane Baptist Church, President and CEO of the Fruit Belt Community Development Corporation, Inc., President CEO of WE C God II and Developer and Author of the “Buffalo Black Billion Dollar Fruit Belt Eastside Buffalo New York Comprehensive Urban Development Model” (hereinafter “Comprehensive Model”), was recently appointed as the National Chair of Economic Development for the prestigious and powerful 2.5 million-member Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.. As National Chair, Rev. Chapman will oversee its’ economic development phase under the able direction of its’ President, Timothy Steward, of Nassau Bahama.
Just who is Rev. Chapman and why is he special? Well, he has been immersed in on-going education with Christ the King Seminary since 2001, where in 1991 – 1997 he earned his M.A.P.M. “Master of Arts Pastoral Ministry” and in 1997 – 2002 he earned his Master of Divinity. He also earned his Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Jesus the Liberator Seminary of Religious Justice in 2005 for the first Hospice by a church and palliative care facility. In 2002 – 2007 he earned his classroom Certification in Systematic Theology.
He is a Developer and Grant writer of more than $100 million dollars of grants. But is that all?
He is selfless enough to encourage the transparent reconstruction of all corporate boards of St John Baptist Church and Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church and to provide corporate enlightenment through board training and to encourage ongoing management, economic and community development training. Each step of enlightenment empowers its disciples. But is that all?
He is principled in how he does business having founded and successfully operated the Aloma D. Johnson Fruit Belt Community Charter School and the State certified Erma D. Robinson Day Care and the Century Life Style Health & Wellness Medical Facility. But is that all?
He is tech savvy and respectful of the benefit of having technology serve his flock by encouraging the use of cloud based IT systems to manage more efficient workflows. But is that all there is?
He is grounded spiritually in that he draws from his well of his strength his commitment to his 44 year old marriage and family of more than thirty grandchildren and six great grandchildren from five children. But is that all?
He allows himself to be flanked by trusted professionally strong Trustees who have been given permission to express their truths to power as well as carry out the oversight mission of St. John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist Church. But is that all?
How does anyone bear such responsibility and weight? In the building of St. John – Gethsemane, Rev Chapman has had to wrestle with the painful strategy of having demons among the politically blind, many of whom are of like color and background. To understand what drives Rev. Chapman, it is important to know something about the neighborhood called “Fruit Belt.”
Wikipedia describes St. John – Gethsemane Baptist Church as being “located within the East Side of Buffalo. The neighborhood is centered along High Street running west-east and Jefferson Avenue running north – south. It is enclosed along its eastern boundary by the Kensington Expressway and Michigan Avenue as its Western Boundary, separating the Fruit Belt from the Medical Campus.” At present, the Fruit Belt is a residential neighborhood in Buffalo, New York located adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
However, the original boundaries of the Fruit Belt was Main street on the west: North street on the North: Jefferson Ave on the East: Cherry Street on the South. Another fact is that the Medical Campus sits in the Fruit Belt. The decision of the University of Buffalo to move its medical school downtown on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus helped to redefine the residential boundaries and changed the nomenclature and public discourse when describing the geographical boundaries and relationship of the Fruit Belt and Medical Campus. The consensus in theory was that there cannot be a world class Medical Campus, without a world class community. Whether equity comes to fruition is yet to be determined.
In talking to some of the parishioners, after the white flight of the 1950’s, it was common knowledge prior to 2002 that the white community of Buffalo’s Medical Campus would not venture east of Michigan Avenue.
The design, implementation and execution of the Buffalo Black Billion Comprehensive Collaborative Urban development model under Rev. Chapman’s leadership has created a sense of community security and safety. Today, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus employees, patients and staff now confidently park without fear, 5-6 blocks east of Michigan in Fruit Belt. Doubtless, St. John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist Churches are “Two Churches, Two campuses and One village which (sic) have broken down the racial barrier over the last 17 years.”
Building on its success, the Comprehensive Model has been the urban frame for creating a 30,000 square foot life center with a full athletic program a sports initiative consisting of an International Boxing Team, Chess Ministry, Table Tennis Team, Golf Ministry, State Certified Charter School and a Full Day Care Facility.
This Comprehensive Model has been employed in the construction of 77 town homes consisting of Duplexes, Tri-plexes and Quads for low to moderate income subsidized families. Four hundred units of subsidized housing now exist as an alternative to market rate housing and the onslaught of gentrification.
This Comprehensive Model which was adopted from the John Hopkins and Community Development Model of Baltimore, Maryland has served as a research model which is the impetus for the success of the last 15 years and has become the largest residential community development model in the history of the City of Buffalo.
Today, St. John Baptist Church and Gethsemane Baptist Church over sees about 70% of private land in the Fruit Belt community. In fact, driving into East Buffalo is surprisingly unsettling as the St John Baptist Church pretty much sits adjacent to the main highway and within walking distance to the International Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. It does not take much imagination to grasp how intimate and integral St. John Baptist Church and Gethsemane Baptist Church is to the spirit, life, political power and influence of the City. When asked, proud young African American men and women, quickly tell you that “… most of the Fruit Belt is under the jurisdiction of St. John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist Churches: “Two Churches, Two Campuses and One Village”.
Fruit Belt’s civic pride did not come easy. Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is a sprawling medical facility which at one time considered the Fruit Belt as an answer to its’ need for accommodating the burgeoning needs for parking of staff and patients. Clearly, had the Medical Campus been successful, much of the solidarity of the Fruit Belt would have been drastically altered. Thanks to the strategic leadership of Rev. Chapman and St John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist Churches, Fruit Belt now stands as a civic force to be reckoned with as the City grows. It’s overseer, Pastor Michael Chapman, is the only African American developer represented during the University of Buffalo’s 20/20 conception, design, and community formulation of the four neighborhoods one community publication. The Comprehensive Development Model has an IT web-based data management system to manage workflow and multiple simultaneous projects worldwide.
Together, St. John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist Churches have 237 years of Spiritual presence in the downtown Fruit Belt Community. Both Churches are historically steeped in Social Justice and Civil Rights in the Buffalo and International community.
Overseer Pastor Michael Chapman’s “leadership” of St. John – Gethsemane Baptist Churches and affiliate corporations agreed to develop the Fruit Belt community by leveraging its assets for economic and community development on behalf of the statistically and demographically destitute underserved Fruit Belt community in 2003. Operating with the highest of moral and ethical standards, St John Baptist and Gethsemane Baptist build community wealth using biblical principles, eighteen years without any fiscal scandals, no misappropriation of funds and no embezzlements. Their consistent high commitment to moral and ethical standards in private and public cannot be ignored.
When asked about Government and funding streams, Overseer Pastor Michael Chapman responded that this model is “color” blind having received funding from Republicans, Democrats, Independents – all major local foundations and city, county, state and federal approved grant publications. “Our village has also provided private funding through investors for the national model. Our greatest asset, other than God’s favor, is the unique oneness of a 2400 staff of independent contractors, consultants, loan executives, employees, volunteers, and 500 church families.” In addition, we have an extensive development team and financial institution, which funds low moderate income housing and market rate housing at the national and international level.
With a charitable spirit, always one to share the surpluses and profits to build community wealth using biblical principles, Rev Chapman encourages those around him to respect their inner power by lifting their standards and pursuing their God given talents, skills and gifts.
This community development is a model on how communities in the inner-city can use church assets and infrastructure to complete, revitalize, restore and use the synergy of educational and medical institutions to prosper the community through work force development and economics that have a positive impact on disenfranchised communities.
Overseer Pastor Chapman says “I have been blessed with exemplary counselors and consultants throughout this marvelous journey. By God’s Grace, we have grown from $13 million in assets 17 years ago to an expected $150,000,000 million in assets on the ground over the next 12 months.” Working through a comprehensive collaborative urban national model development team in order to “pass the baton”, Rev Chapman is not shy about employing and attracting a host of attorneys, banking administrators, biblical scholars, business and leadership academy consultants, corporate counsel, public safety, concierge, corporate development council, corporate financial advisors, correspondence, director of operations, development corporation, educational consultants, executive administrative staff, executive scribe, finance department, human resources, international consultant, leadership council, librarian, liturgical ministers, health initiative, marketing, media production, music, social media, spiritual consultants, television production, ruling Elders, Trustee Chairs and a youth department.