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LAST YEAR, STANDING at a microphone in front of our city council at a town-hall meeting, I came to a stark realization: I needed a theology of gentrification.
There I was, shakily demanding that the city not tear down our neighborhood’s one and only park to build a “revitalization” project complete with brew pubs and shared workspaces. I looked at the row of people seated at the city council table, frowning slightly at me, and worked up my courage, pretending I was channeling the tiniest bit of the pope.
“We have a moral responsibility to consider those who don’t have resources and how we can best serve them,” I said, my cheeks flushed. The architect talked about the need for income-generating elements, the secretary entered my remarks in the meeting record, and the developers changed none of their plans. As helplessness crept up into my heart, it became clear that I had no idea what I was doing and needed some instruction.
The irony was not lost on me. I had spent years studying how to do good and how to spread the good news. I got my degree in Bible and theology with a minor in intercultural studies; I volunteered with refugee resettlement agencies for more than a decade and joined a mission order among the urban poor for three years. I can quote the Bible and recite a theology of cultural engagement frontward and backward; I can wax poetic about God’s preferential option for the poor. And yet, in my 13th year of residing in a neighborhood mostly inhabited by people on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, I feel lost in the face of the most pressing realities confronting my neighbors.
Gentrification is at our doorstep, and I do not know what to do. I can love my neighbors with my entire heart and soul, but what does that mean when every month more are driven away by increasing rents? How is our gospel good news for anyone but the gentrifiers themselves?
White do-gooders and inadequate theology
I’ve come to realize that people like myself—white do-gooders, to be more precise—have not been taught adequate theology for our times. My neighbors do not care if you have a robust urban missiology. They would like secure, affordable housing and good schools for their children. They have practical, tangible needs that are altogether forgotten in a capitalistic, consumeristic society where those with plenty ignore the realities of others who would never buy a latte at the new corner coffee shop.
In the few spaces where the ideas of theology and urban renewal are brought together, something is missing. The overarching themes of American exceptionalism and triumphalism, tinged with colonialism, have made it nearly impossible to adequately engage with an economic and social reality as complex as gentrification.
I was taught to “go out and preach the good news.” People today who listen to prominent pastors such as John Piper and Tim Keller are being urged to move back into the city and become part of its transformation, with Jeremiah 29:4-7 as their guide, especially verse 7: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” There is a flood of interest in urban churches in major metropolitan cities such as New York and San Francisco and my own town of Portland, Ore.
These theologies talk a lot about moving in and contributing to the flourishing of a city, but say little on the negative disruption that these moves can make in the existing community. For instance, in his large book on urban church planting, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City , Keller has nearly 400 pages describing right doctrine and theology but only a few paragraphs about gentrification. Even more troubling is the lack of emphasis on the importance of learning from those Christians already at work in churches in the neighborhood (including people of color who’ve been there for decades). The unspoken assumption in the books, sermons, and conferences targeting missional-minded evangelicals is that the city—prior to white, hip church planters—is a foreign mission field, pristine and untouched by the work of the Lord.
When gentrification is addressed in these spaces, it is often in unsatisfactory ways. In the few works published on urban missiology and gentrification, writers (many of whom are white and male) tend to err on the side of a benevolent fatalism about the entire phenomenon—yes, gentrification is like a slow train coming. It will happen, regardless of what we do. Therefore, love God and love people, and try not to feel too bad.
The problem with these approaches is that they fail to look critically at the history of race and church involvement. As Cole Brown, a white pastor in a historically black neighborhood in Portland, says in a Humble Beast 101 video (“Trading Spaces”): “White evangelicals were not telling us to love and serve the city when it was predominantly occupied by lower-income minorities. We were fleeing from it. … We didn’t seek its peace and prosperity. We didn’t pray for its good. White evangelicals started wanting to plant churches in the city and move to the city when? When the city started to become more white.”
Writer Nate J. Lee, responding to a video put out by Hillsong church to announce their intention to plant a church in San Francisco (including the phrases “God has great plans for this city” and “San Fran, the best is yet to come!”), wrote this: “Any kind of language that implies that God’s work or God’s plan starts when we arrive … is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind salvation and healing can only be facilitated through us, on our terms with our methods—and us always happens to be white missionaries, white pastors, and white churches.”
The same critiques can be said of gentrification in general. The problem is not an influx of resources or more diversity (both of which can be very beneficial to everyone, including long-term residents). The problem is the belief that dominant culture is best—so that people move in and change a neighborhood to look just like the last one they left.
Church plants for whom?
In church planting circles, Portland (and the entire Pacific Northwest corridor) has become an increasingly desirable place to live. The aesthetics are pleasing, and due to a long history of discrimination and criminalization of African Americans, Portland itself has never had a large population of minorities. To drum up support for church plants, many people focus on how “un-churched” the area is (I used to hear constantly about how there were more breweries and strip clubs per capita than churches). Conservative organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention focus on the widespread acceptance of homosexuality, talking about how hard it is for families who “must” raise their children in this environment, and how there is only one SBC church for every 27,399 urban metro residents.
More people are being “called” to plant churches here, yet very few are being planted in the last few areas where true economic and racial diversity exist. I live on the very outskirts of the city, a neighborhood originally born out of “white flight.” Now, with the urban core being so desirable, it is the only place with affordable rents in the city. On the street corner across from our neighborhood’s single park are three large apartment complexes that together house one of the highest concentration of low-income families in the entire state of Oregon. But so far, Hillsong has not come knocking—even though a church within walking distance that provides services to families would be greatly appreciated and needed. Perhaps they will come when a brew pub opens in two years, when many of the residents are forced out of their apartments and test scores start to rise in the local schools. Maybe then God will tell them to plant a church out here.
If this sounds harsh, it is because we are in a dire moment. People are being exiled from their homes and communities while Christians attend conferences on church planting. We are centering the wrong people in these conversations, and we have misapplied scripture egregiously. As Cole Brown says, Jeremiah 29:4-7 was written originally to people in exile, to the displaced, not people with power who are moving into a space of their own volition. This seems more suited to be God’s message of love and care for those brutalized and uprooted by gentrification, not a theological command to go out and conquer a new space.
What we talk about when we talk about gentrifiers
I can’t be a gentrifier, because I am a “good” person. People involved in urban ministry often reflexively defend themselves. As social psychologist Christena Cleveland told me, “There is this aura of shame around gentrification that … stifles the conversation so there is zero creativity for dealing with the issues.” This shame has many sources—our privilege being exposed, ambivalence about our social standings in comparison to our neighbors, guilt over being a part of an unjust and unequal society. For me, moving into low-income housing first opened my eyes to the very different realities in America. As I learned about systemic oppression, racism, and the dehumanizing crush of capitalism, I was overwhelmed with guilt. First, because this was all new information to me. And second, I knew I had benefited from these systems that had so obviously harmed my neighbors.
Closely tied to feelings of guilt and shame around privilege is our relationship to money. “We don’t have a theology of money in the west,” Cleveland said. “These neighborhoods are gentrifying because they are attractive places to live. It’s consumerism.” Cleveland echoes scholars such as Walter Brueggemann, who point out that the Hebrew scriptures are obsessed with neighbor-love and constantly warning Israel against falling into the norm of predatory economics that marked all the cultures around them.
To deal with our shame, white Christians must be willing to dive into relationships with those who are most at risk for displacement and seek to understand their suffering, if only on a peripheral level. Because the truth is, it is normal to feel bad about unequal access to housing, about the unchecked lust for profits by developers, or about how the wealth of our country was built upon the dehumanization of Native Americans and on the backs of slave labor. As Mark Charles, a theologian and activist, says, there is no house deed that is not rooted in the U.S. government selling out the original caretakers of this land.
I think about my own house, which I bought a few months ago. I had the good sense to feel uneasy, to wonder why I got a loan while others were denied, to think about the Indigenous tribes that originally lived here, to consider the white families in the 1950s who, fleeing diversity, settled here, hoping for an enclave of whiteness. The history is troubling from every angle.
And yet triumphalist, traditional evangelical theologies had taught me only to rejoice in my good fortune of a house, to praise God for the blessing, and to tell everyone that I planned to use it as a blessing for others. No one ever taught me that one person’s blessing can look and feel like another’s curse.
Perhaps more than anything else, we need to develop a theology of lament and co-suffering for gentrifying places. As David P. Leong writes in his book Race and Place, “compassionate lament … lays the groundwork for solidarity, trust, and action.” He continues, “Only when we are truly present to our neighbors in a place, committed to authentic listening, and moving toward shared suffering can we enter into the seemingly strange and unfamiliar space of lament.” It is key to avoiding “inadvertent ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism.”
Calling out the inequalities in the world is of course biblical: The call to repent for communal sin, asking God to forgive us for neglecting and forgetting the poor, is found again and again in scripture. I have learned the importance of lament, of giving voice to all the systems that are wrong in my country, my state, my neighborhood, and my religion. I have learned the importance of asking for forgiveness, of repenting to move forward into repair.
But conversations around gentrification have also been too few or too superficial to be of practical use because there are no simple solutions, and each neighborhood and city is unique in both perils and assets. Combating gentrification is a long game, focused on grassroots and collaborative effort by the people who are the most at risk of displacement and, ideally, committed allies. It is not stopped by one person with good intentions, or 10.
But on the other side of self-interrogation, lament, and repentance, there is hope. I don’t believe the ravages of gentrification are inevitable.
I went from being a starry-eyed do-gooder to a depressed bystander and am now somewhere in between—watchful, curious, and trying to pay attention to my neighborhood. I am trying to work toward true proximity, as Bryan Stevenson, an advocate for racial justice in the legal system, terms it. This happens when the people coming into a neighborhood get close enough to become burdened by injustice themselves. When that happens, Stevenson says, we will not feel free until everyone in our neighborhood is liberated. Until we see ourselves as the Babylonians, we will continue to conquer and displace the people who are beloved by God.
The city will be taking out our park in a few months, and I am not sure what will happen next. But I won’t stop showing up, both to my neighbors’ apartments and to city council meetings. I won’t stop assessing my own role in gentrification. I won’t stop lamenting the moral crisis of our times. I won’t stop searching for signs of resurrection and renewal that start from the smallest of seeds.