When A. Glenn Brady became pastor of The New Bethel Church in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, in 2009, he had a vision of a congregation that did more than just meet for worship on Sundays. He imagined a church that would work to improve the quality of life for the people living in the surrounding community.
“My position is not just to have individuals prepared for heaven,” Brady says, “but, as the Scripture says, we’re supposed to have abundant life even on the way to heaven.”
Brady found an enthusiastic partner for his vision in Broderick Crawford, a longtime church member with more than 30 years of experience in community health. Before long – working within New Bethel’s ministries, but also beyond them – Crawford became known as a highly effective and seemingly ubiquitous community advocate.
Matt Kleinmann, director of community development at Vibrant Health, an organization that provides health care access in Kansas City, recalls that Crawford once said he belonged to 40 different coalitions. Kleinmann often joked that Crawford was the real mayor of Kansas City; he knew everyone, and he got things done.
Crawford, who served as the executive director of New Bethel’s Community Development Corp., seemed larger than life.
So, when the 61-year-old died in November 2022 following complications from a medical procedure, it left many people and organizations reeling. A year later, they are working to build ways to carry Crawford’s work without having it fall too heavily on any one person’s shoulders.
At New Bethel, Brady says other church members are working to fill some of the positions that Crawford once held, with five or six people now trying to do the work that he used to do solo. “But we still haven’t been able to accomplish all that he did by himself,” he says.
Through his myriad community leadership roles, Crawford worked on community health issues such as HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and safe housing. As a leader in the Kansas Community Health Workers Coalition, Crawford was instrumental in getting workers trained and hired in hospitals and clinics, a move that is known to improve access to health care services, decrease the need for emergency services and help people navigate health and social service systems.
In 2020, Crawford received the Kansas City National Cancer Survivors Day Community Impact Award for his work in addressing inequities in cancer care. In 2018, Crawford received the Community Health Leadership Award from U.S. News & World Report for his exemplary commitment to solving problems in population health.
Donna Young, executive director of the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, says Crawford had an inimitable ability to disarm entire rooms full of people and to make compelling calls to action. But there was much more to him than that. “It wasn’t just that people liked him as a leader,” she says. “It was because he was personally invested in those relationships in a way that was advantageous to everyone in his circle. Morning, noon and night, this work was his way of life.”
Young and Crawford first met in 2015 while on opposing sides of a local land acquisition dispute. But even then, Young says she could sense that Crawford’s ultimate goal was a positive outcome for everyone involved. Today, she regards Crawford as the single most important person of her professional life and one of her greatest friends.
“Broderick wasn’t just relentless in his pursuit of justice, he gave the same level of energy and focus to enjoying life to the fullest,” she says. When she was working late, Crawford, who had office space in the CHC building, would often stay – eating dinner at his desk or sleeping on the couch – until she was done, so he could ensure that she got to her car safely.
He was a man who loved his family, never thought he was doing enough in his work and who “worried about so much and so many,” Young adds.
‘A great challenge’
Crawford was a cradle Pentecostal. He joined The New Bethel Church in 1974, when he was 13 and, according to his family, was “filled with the Holy Ghost” by the time he was 15. New Bethel was founded as Holy Ghost, Pentecostal Church in 1948 by Rosie Summers, an Arkansas native. Though Brady would greatly expand New Bethel’s outreach efforts, the congregation had a missional posture from the start.
The church Crawford grew up in had a weekly radio broadcast and a prison ministry. The pastors who succeeded Summers, who retired the year Crawford joined the church, were said to be continuing her “great commission” – a nod to the lines in the Gospel of Matthew where the resurrected Jesus sends off his eleven remaining apostles, advising them to “make disciples of all nations.”
Formed in that tradition, Crawford saw his health advocacy work as “the call of God on his life,” Brady says. And he had plenty to keep him busy in Wyandotte County, where he lived and worshiped.
More than 17% of Wyandotte County residents live below the poverty level – the eighth-highest percentage in the state. Ten percent of Wyandotte County residents say they have no health insurance, compared with 8.3% of people nationally. And the county, the most racially diverse in the state, has some of the worst statistics in the nation for screenings for cervical and colon cancer, two diseases that kill Black people at disproportionate rates.
Meanwhile, Johnson County, next door, is 78% white and is both the wealthiest and healthiest county in Kansas – facts that did not go unnoticed by Crawford.
What makes these statistics all the more troubling, Brady says, is the fact that Wyandotte County is home to the University of Kansas Health System, which in addition to being the No. 1 hospital in the state, is nationally ranked in eight adult specialties, according to U.S. News & World Report.
“We saw that as a great challenge,” Brady says. “Why do we have the best hospital in the county that has the lowest health statistics among its residents?”
In 2018, the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County released a 60-page report, the culmination of three years of research, into why the county consistently ranks so low in the annual County Health Rankings Report from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. (In the most recent report, Wyandotte County had the worst health factors in the state – things that, if addressed, could improve residents’ length of life and its quality. It was third to last, outranking Meade and Edwards counties, for health outcomes.)
What the researchers found was evidence of historic and systematic disinvestment in certain KCK neighborhoods, the Northeast among them, through the discriminatory housing policy known as redlining. Beginning in the 1900s, state and federal regulatory agencies, along with private real estate agents nationwide, manipulated zoning policies to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods, while managing to situate noxious projects such as sewage treatment plants and incinerators where non-whites lived.
Today, those same redlined neighborhoods have the worst health outcomes in the county.
“Today’s inequitable health landscape did not emerge overnight,” the researchers wrote. “Enduring solutions will require taking a long view of incremental progress and a commitment of the community will that extends beyond election cycles and institutional turnover in all sectors.”
Leveraging trust to improve health
Enduring solutions were Crawford’s goal. For instance, in March 2020, Crawford co-founded the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force, a community-led response to the COVID-19 pandemic that sought to address inequalities in health care access. According to data from the Kansas Health Institute, Black and Latino Kansans were more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. One of the reasons was “known differences in access to health care between racial and ethnic groups.”
The Health Equity Task Force met people where they were at, setting up free, pop-up testing and vaccination sites, and distributing masks and tests to people’s homes. The task force also partnered with the county health department, Aetna Better Health of Kansas and Harvesters Community Food Network to provide culturally appropriate food boxes at neighborhood clinic events. The group’s website and materials were available in Arabic, Burmese, English, Spanish and Swahili.
Later, the task force would serve as the prototype in a $3.5 million grant project at the KU Health System aimed at addressing inequities in COVID-19 responses among the state’s underserved populations, a project Crawford also worked on as one of the four principal investigators.
One of the things Crawford did particularly well was leverage Black trust in the Black church to improve Black health. In his roles as head of New Bethel’s health and wellness ministry and president and executive director of the New Bethel’s Community Development Corp. – the church’s community outreach arm – Crawford brought health care resources to the church and, thus, directly to the people.
LaShone Releford, a member of the development corporation’s NBC CDC board, says some of the people who showed up at the biannual New Bethel health fairs that Crawford helped organize would never voluntarily go to a hospital. But they would come to a church, and on more than one occasion, a lifesaving detection was made. The church was also able to sign people up for health insurance so they could get essential health care such as knee replacements.
To increase awareness about heart disease (another condition that disproportionately kills Black people in the U.S.) and certain cancers, Crawford invited health specialists to speak at New Bethel. As a consultant to the Every Baby to 1 program, Crawford supported education aimed at addressing local infant mortality rates. And, according to Releford, Crawford helped New Bethel become one of the first churches in the area to not only employ community health workers but to train them as well.
A vision for Jersey Creek
The goal now is not to find the next Broderick Crawford but rather to find the funding that makes the level of self-sacrificial volunteering that he did obsolete. Both Releford and Kleinmann agree that Wyandotte County already has the right people with the right skills to take on the effects of six decades of systemic disinvestment – the real problem is the inability to pay those people and to agree upon priorities.“Broderick was tremendous but spent countless unpaid hours building a rapport with people and becoming an organizational networking guru,” Releford says. “Are there enough people to carry Broderick’s work forward? Yes. Is there enough funding to do so? No.”
But, in the meantime, there are ways for Kansas City residents to volunteer at a sustainable level. A willingness to work – and not just post on social media – goes a long way, Klienmann says. As an entry point to community work, Kleinmann suggests making it a point to show up at or watch recordings of the meetings for groups such as neighborhood associations, the board of public utilities, or the nonprofit Liveable Neighborhoods. He also recommends setting deliberate, realistic goals for the change they’d like to see.
“I tell most people to start small, with achievable goals that they can accomplish with what they already have,” he says. “If money is the issue, figure out how to do something similar in a creative way without any money. Oftentimes it starts by organizing your neighbors who you already have a trusted relationship with.”
One of Crawford’s long-standing passion projects was improving the area around Jersey Creek, a 3.5 mile stream (veritably an open sewer) a block away from The New Bethel Church. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he persuaded the parks and recreation department of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, to use CARES Act funding to repave the entirety of the trail along Jersey Creek.
It was necessary, he argued, in order to help people remain physically active while indoor recreation centers were closed.
“That was one of his biggest signature wins, and he didn’t get nearly as much credit as he deserved for it,” Kleinmann says. One of the last projects Crawford was working on before he died was renovating a dilapidated basketball court along the Jersey Creek Trail – a project that remains unfinished.
Crawford’s legacy is at once inspiring and daunting in its scope. Releford says replacing him would be an impossible task because Crawford was “a unicorn” who needed neither a paycheck nor a mandate from any agency or group to make things happen.
Brady is not sure any one individual should even try to do what Crawford did.
“I, in fact, as his pastor tried to slow him down, counsel him and share with him, ‘Look, you can’t do it all. You’ve got to take some time and rest,’” he says.
The people who worked with and loved Crawford are trying to honor him through a continued commitment to the issues he cared about, replicating his work in their own ways.
Among the various ministries Crawford championed at New Bethel, “We’ve not really let anything down,” Brady says.
Kleinmann hopes to honor Crawford by finishing the Jersey Creek basketball court renovation. He knows, perhaps better than most, that park projects in Wyandotte County don’t go unfunded for lack of interest. Rather, the lasting economic effects of redlining and disinvestment have made the maintenance of public amenities a lower priority in the unified government’s budget.
“It does take advocates like Broderick to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is an underutilized amenity that would mean a lot if we could just make it special’” Kleinmann says. He’s planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign to secure funding, and he’s in talks to determine whether the court can be named after Crawford.
“I think the vision that he laid out was that Jersey Creek is a special place, and it has a lot of opportunity,” Kleinmann says. “He spent a good portion of the last years of his life trying to be a champion for anything and everything along Jersey Creek.”
Leaving a tremendous hole
Releford says that since Crawford’s death, New Bethel’s community development board has revamped its mission to focus on health issues, work that Crawford had started. Additionally, the board is also now meeting biweekly rather than quarterly in an effort to keep up with the pace Crawford maintained.
“The hole that is left is tremendous,” he says. “For many people, he was the Community Development Corporation. That’s the face, that’s the name. He was the one. We’re trying to maintain those connections without him there, which is a very tough thing to do.”
Releford thinks the new interim president, Jill Peltzer, an associate professor of nursing at the KU Health System, will be a key asset in that mission. “She’s very instrumental in trying to bridge those gaps and hold things together,” he says.
At least two awards have been created in Crawford’s honor over the past year. In 2022, the regional Heartland Conference on Health Equity and Patient Centered Care launched the Broderick Crawford Community, Faith and Fortitude Award to honor those who “have faith in people and their communities.”
In June 2023, the Frontiers Clinical & Translational Science Institute at KU, Crawford’s alma mater, announced the creation of the Broderick Crawford Community-Research Partnership Award, which will fund projects that build or strengthen relationships between researchers and community members.
Cherayla Haynes, the program administrator for the award, says it was named after Crawford because of his long-standing commitment to community advocacy. His influence extended beyond Kansas City and Wyandotte County, she says. He was, really, “a national leader for a community voice in research.”
The Community Health Council of Wyandotte County commissioned local artist JT Daniels to paint a mural of Crawford, unveiled this fall, that includes a portrait and the phrase “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Crawford had a number of sayings he was known for, and Young says this catchphrase was his response anytime someone shared good news. She heard it daily, either in coalition meetings with Crawford or while he paced the halls on his phone.
“The silence left behind is the hardest,” Young says.
Despite the mythology that has evolved around him, Crawford was human, Kleinmann says; he certainly had flaws, and he didn’t have a magical solution to every problem. But if community health was his primary ministry, his second was bringing people together to, at least, get started on a solution. And that was almost magical.
“It was him preaching to us about how to be in collaboration and how to set aside our egos,” Kleinmann says. And the target audience for this ministry was everyone Crawford worked with.
“I carry that with me now,” Kleinmann adds. “You have to bring people together in spaces where we can have a dialogue. And sometimes it’s not what you want to hear, but it helps you be a better advocate.”
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.