D.L. Mayfield’s article (“Church Planting and The Gospel of Gentrification,” July 2017) hit home and is an important conversation. Out of economic necessity after a bout of homelessness, I moved into a neighborhood jokingly referred to as “meth alley” by the uptown people. Our neighborhood health statistics were dismal because of poor access to anything resembling fresh food. When we became the object of “saving” by some churches from the other side of town that wanted to be missional, they didn’t ask us what we needed. We became the project of outreach by young, white, educated, privileged religionists intoxicated by their specialness. The exuberant youths were quite clueless that we had some wisdom about what our neighborhood could use. Most were from two local Bible colleges and had grand ideas about urban outreach.
They planned a hipster coffee shop that the evangelical whites with privilege would use as a base of operation, providing tutoring to our youth. They believed they would open their doors to the unfortunate of my dismal neighborhood and we would come flooding in to be saved by their great goodness from our great need.
I just wanted to recover and get a job. What my saviors failed to see without exception were my strengths—my resilience, the gifts I wanted to bring to my community, and my long experience with making do in the most hostile of circumstances. They could have asked, and I would have told them patiently, but they weren’t listening because they knew all there was to know about poverty and how to fix it.
I didn’t have the gas money to get to church; they were going to Hawaii for a break from us.
My suggestion: If any church or Bible college wants to be missional, ask the community what they most need. Ask who the community leaders already are and help them! Jobs and microloans to small neighborhood businesses are a place to start. Transportation opportunities to those jobs and access to good food are tangible helps. Without giving neighbors the dignity of being understood as people that have much to contribute to our own communities, being “missional” alienates and harms.
Thanks to Danny Duncan Collum for introducing me to Jessi Colter’s album The Psalms (“Strange and Beautiful Psalms,” July 2017). It is a balm to me during this summer’s heat. Once you hear it, there’s no turning back.
New Language Needed
Regarding Leslie Copeland-Tune’s article “What Are Block Grants” in the June 2017 issue: I am frustrated when Medicare and Social Security are called “entitlement” programs. Of course, all who have contributed into each fund during their working lives are entitled to the benefits we receive, but Medicare is a federal health insurance program and Social Security is a federal retirement program. Unfortunately, both funds have been raided by Congress for other purposes and are now in some jeopardy. Perhaps if we used language other than “entitlements,” which gives the impression of being undeserved, these programs would be held in higher regard and protected.
The church’s predominately black congregation once mirrored the neighborhood’s demographics. But today hip and eclectic East Nashville, with its rising property values and trendy restaurants, draws white millennials, said the Rev. Morris Tipton Jr., the church’s pastor.
Given the neighborhood’s shift, is Tipton worried about the church’s future?
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.
“SEEK THE WELFARE of the city.” In recent years, Jeremiah 29:7 has been the mantra of urban church planters. Yet, as D.L. Mayfield points out in our cover story, these mostly white, missional-minded Christians “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.” Ask a church planter to share their theology of gentrification, says Mayfield, and you’ll likely get blank stares.
It’s a personal story for Mayfield. Despite her missionary training and experience living among the urban poor, Mayfield felt helpless when gentrification hit her low-income neighborhood. “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?” she writes. “How is our gospel good news for anyone but the gentrifiers themselves?”
And it’s a personal story for us, too. In 1975, the Sojourners community moved from Chicago to Columbia Heights, then one of the poorer neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. For the next three decades, we loved the neighborhood as best we could: We opened a daycare center, engaged in tenant organizing, and ran “freedom schools” with our low-income neighbors. And we tried to learn from those who’d been there long before we showed up.
But when developers began eyeing the neighborhood in the early 2000s, we realized our good intentions couldn’t protect our most vulnerable neighbors. Our mere presence—a couple dozen mainly white, middle-class people—gave the appearance of a neighborhood already “safe” for those with higher incomes. Property values rose, Starbucks moved in, and long-term residents were pushed out.
Mayfield’s article is a challenge to Christians making new church homes in urban areas. As we know well, trying to walk humbly and do justice in the city is a long, often-difficult journey.
WHEN WE chose the name “Sojourners,” we didn’t realize how often we would end up earning that brand. We’re on the move again. Sojourners is moving our office to the Stanton Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol.
A move like this always makes me reflect deeply about our vocation in reference to our location.
When Sojourners moved to D.C. from Chicago in 1975, we deliberately moved to one of the poorest parts of the city and consciously compared our new location to the “catacombs,” which were the poorest sections in Rome. We would move to the outside of power, “the other Washington,” and from there seek to relate to the insiders of political power in official Washington.
Right away, we got very involved in those poor neighborhoods with our new neighbors, whose needs and voices directly shaped our work. We also traveled all over the country and around the world to places where people were asking for help in putting their faith into action, especially in the many places where marginal people had been left out, forgotten, and oppressed. Both locally and globally, it was the poor and vulnerable and those working alongside them whose “voices in the wilderness” filled the pages of Sojourners magazine and, eventually, our digital spaces.
During those years, our voice became increasingly heard in the public square, regularly listened to by millions of people in the media and those in Washington, both in Congress and the White House. This has now become an important expression of our mission.
The altar is set with a drum kit, a keyboard, a saxophone, and, most importantly, a much-loved vinyl rendering of a jazz classic, complete with liner notes. When this church and its 70 members are forced to leave their storefront location at the end of next month, they will pack those instruments as lovingly as they will the shiny brass tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the brass cross, and the scarlet and gold icons that grace all the walls.
THE BRIGHT LIGHT of a full moon cast long shadows on the snow as the firefighters walked up to my home. It was 2:30 a.m., and they tramped single file through the narrow trench I had dug, the exact width of a single snow-shovel blade. (I’m familiar with my sidewalk. I know what it looks like, and felt no need to uncover all of it from the two feet of snow that fell in late January. It was called “snowzilla” or “snowmaggedon,” but I preferred to identify this monster snow as a “snonster.” But that sounds like a head cold, and it never really caught on.)
The firefighters were responding to a call I made after awakening to the strong odor of burning. It smelled like leftover barbecue, which is an utter impossibility in my household because when we have barbecue, we eat it greedily while emitting animal-like growls to warn away other family members, then lick the empty plates clean in a state of giddy delirium. There are never leftovers.
(Editor’s note: Okay, we get it. It wasn’t barbecue.)
I rushed outside to see if a nearby home was on fire, and I saw nothing. But the smell was still strong, so I felt I had to notify the authorities. Figuring my editor was still asleep, I dialed 911 instead.
I have spent much time blogging out of frustration with the church, gnashing my teeth over the church’s shortcomings. Some have called this negativity. Some have asked me to be more specific about what I want the church to do. I could not do this before. First, I needed to pinpoint my frustrations and disassemble my previous understanding of church. Out of the rubble of my own disillusionment a vision of something new is beginning to emerge. It is time to share this vision however blurry it may be.
This something new looks like congregations so committed to following Jesus by loving all of God's children that they will pour over their current budget and activities to see what can be altered to make room for greater service to the poor and the outcast. Such churches might come to the conclusion it is unconscionable to pay for the upkeep of a building for the sake of its use a few times a week.
This is a tension-filled topic. As Bergthal made public their intent to disassemble and ultimately tear down their building, many could not understand. For some, there is such a deep attachment to our church building, we would rather it be turned into a house or a barn or just anything as long as it can be saved. I have read the upcoming generation is not as sentimental when it comes to material things. I think this is a good and necessary movement but is sure to bring some tension. Finally, we must realize the church is not about buildings, but about people.
Annie Lowrey's recent New York Times magazine article "Washington's Economic Boom, Financed by You" provides a stimulating look into Washington, D.C.'s "economic boom" of the last few years. As D.C. residents, many of us encounter the ongoing transformation of our city every day. We know the area's economy has grown about three times as much since 2007 as the country — largely a result of expanded government spending (primarily in the form of two foreign wars). We also know that the greater metropolitan region is one of the richest in the country. As Lowrey noted, the Washington metro area has seven out of the top 10 highest-income counties in the U.S., including the three highest.
However, Lowrey only tells one side of the story — the rich side. The "economic boom" has largely passed by D.C.'s poor and working people. By not mentioning D.C.'s grossly high poverty rates, the article is misleading.
Amid Washington's economic boom, there is also massive economic displacement, increased economic inequality, and higher rates of poverty.
Being a socialentrepreneur used to be a lonely endeavor. I grew up believing that to be in business meant leaving your soul at the front door -- being ruthless, shrewd, and above all focused on profitability at any cost. But as a businessman, I found myself less interested in the bottom line of profit than in the bottom line of community impact. For example, I started Busboys and Poets as a restaurant and gathering place, but also a social enterprise -- a business with a conscience -- in Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood.
Having grown up in D.C., I was amazed at the dramatic changes that swept various neighborhoods in the 1990s. The U Street corridor in particular was undergoing some of the most vivid transformation.