A Theology of Gentrification
The people of the Kingdom have a unique mandate to care for the needs of the vulnerable and the voiceless. Our scriptures are quite clear about this. It has been from antiquity both our birthright and our responsibility. We cannot rightly take joy in the rebirth of the city if no provision is being made to include the poor as co-participants. It will not be enough to offer food baskets at Christmas to migrating masses of needy people who are being driven by market forces away from the vital services of the city. Nor will our well-intentioned programs and ministries suffice for those being scattered to unwelcoming edge cities. We must be more intelligent than this. More strategic.
While we remain committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, there is a prior command the followers of Christ are called to—the Great Command. Loving God and its inseparable companion—loving neighbor—form the bedrock of our faith. All the Law and Prophets are built upon this foundation, our Lord said. The prophet Micah captured its essence: He has told you, oh man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, that you do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8) The Body of Christ is amply resourced with the very talents needed to bring about both mercy and justice in our changing cities. In addition to those more spiritual sounding gifts—those we have heard sermons about—there is a vast untapped reservoir of giftedness ready to channel into the work of the Kingdom—secular sounding gifts like deal-making, lending, insuring, lawyering, marketing, architecture, real estate developing to name but a few. Under the Lordship of Christ, these become spiritual gifts ideally designed for the work of Biblical justice.
The “Christ-ones” who believe that their highest calling is to love God and love their neighbor are the very ones equipped to infuse into our culture both values and actions that will have redemptive outcomes. We can buy crack houses and renovate them for residences for mission-minded couples. We can structure deals to develop mixed-income housing. We can create innovative housing policies that will induce developers to include lower-income residents in their plans. We can pass ordinances that that will give tax relief to seniors on fixed incomes so they can remain in their homes. We can establish loan funds to give down payment assistance to lower-income home buyers. If we are both caring and thinking people, we can use our influence and resources to develop the means by which “the least of these” can share in the benefits of a reviving city—and foster healthy growth at the same time. We can harness the growing tide of gentrification so it becomes a redemptive force in our cities. In a word, we can bring about gentrification with justice.
New Paradigms for Ministry
Resisting gentrification is like trying to hold back the rising ocean tide. It is surely coming, relentlessly, with power and growing momentum. Young professionals as well as empty nesters are flooding into our cities, buying up lofts and condos and dilapidated historic residences, opening avant-garde artist studios and gourmet eateries. If market forces alone are allowed to rule the day, the poor will be gradually, silently displaced, for the market has no conscience. But those who do understand God’s heart for the poor have a historic challenge to infuse the values of compassion and justice into the process. But it will require altogether new paradigms of ministry.
The urban church that seeks to minister in disadvantaged areas faces the eventual disappearance of lower-income renters from their communities. Such urban ministries are approaching an inevitable T in the road. If they remain committed to the poor, they must decide to either follow the migration streams as they gravitate to the periphery of the city, or get involved in real estate to capture affordable property in their neighborhood to ensure that their low-income neighbors retain a permanent place. “Migrant ministries” move with the people, establish ministry centers in the affordable suburban apartments, remain flexible. “Community development ministries” on the other hand remain rooted in the parish, purchase housing and land, form partnerships with builders and developers that enable their members (neighbors) to remain in a reviving community that has a healthy mix of incomes. Either strategy is legitimate. Both require significant retooling.
Gentrification brings to the suburban church an altogether different challenge. The poor are now showing up in the classrooms and bus stops and grocery stores of homogenous neighborhoods once thought to be safely beyond the reach of inner-city troubles. Mission-minded churches that for years have been journeying down to the ghetto to serve those in need now find these needs at their own door step. The new hues, the unfamiliar languages, the unintelligible signs on new businesses in the strip malls—these are the sure indicators that gentrification is reaching the suburbs. They also signal a new era of opportunity for the suburban church. It is a divine invitation to the church to extend a welcoming hand, to start new congregations, to share facilities, to hire new workers, to teach ESL classes, to acquire and manage housing that insures a hospitable environment. It is a unique time in history to “let your light so shine before others [in your neighborhood] that when they see your good works they will glorify your Father who is in heaven.”