D.L. Mayfield lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two small children. She is the author of Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (HarperOne).
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3 Ways Christians Can Address Gentrification
IT IS EASY to feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by the systemic nature of how money and development works, or—if you are a gentrifier yourself—to feel guilty to the point of inaction. While each neighborhood and context may differ, individual Christians and congregations can live into beliefs and practices that help address the crisis of mass displacement in the U.S.
1. Be Your Neighbor’s Keeper
Pastor Mark Strong believes the best thing Christians in a gentrifying city can do is to hear and understand the stories of their neighbors. In Portland, he says, most of the African-American churches have suffered in silence. White Christians have not been aware of the crisis taking place next door to them. Intentional relationships and active listening can begin to remedy this.
Finding and investing in ongoing relationships with people most at risk of displacement is vital. There are myriad ways to do this: living in lower income apartments, investing in the public schools, seeking out community organizers and grassroots nonprofits—and learning from local churches with long-term roots in the community.
2. Know the Plan
Tim Keller advises people moving into a neighborhood at risk of gentrifying to see if a plan is in place to minimize displacement, and if not, to ask how one could be created. This plan—put together by the local government, nonprofit agencies, developers, and businesses, along with churches and community leaders—is vital to understanding both the issues specific to the neighborhood and ways to hold all accountable. Without a plan in place to shield properties and families from the market, middle-class and wealthier individuals will be directly contributing to gentrification.
How Churches Are Confronting Gentrification
GENTRIFICATION DOESN'T look the same everywhere, but it is happening in most major cities in the U.S. And this isn’t just about the brewpubs, the coffee shops, or even the “cash for houses” signs. As Peter Moskowitz writes in his book How to Kill a City: “Gentrification is the most transformative urban phenomenon of the last half century, yet we talk about it nearly always on the level of minutiae.”
The underlying connection is the economic reality: “Gentrification is a system that places the needs of capital (both in terms of a city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of the people,” Moskowitz writes. This came up often as I talked with people involved in the complex world of housing and development.
Christian theology offers compelling reasons why individuals and communities can and must care about this dynamic. At the core of Christianity is the call toward love of neighbor. When the poorest of your neighbors continually face the brunt of a system designed not to care about them, gentrification becomes a church issue.
What ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ Has Meant to Me
Five Christian leaders on the influence of Walter Brueggemann’s classic book in their life and ministry.
9 Books for Confronting the World's Disparities
BOOKS ARE WINDOWS into other worlds and glimpses of experiences not our own. One of the most powerful ways books have worked in my life is to illuminate the truth that the world is a very unequal place. It started at a young age for me, my childish mind consumed with stories such as that of Helen Keller (and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who for several years lived in a “poorhouse”) and missionary biographies of people such as Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward, who worked with children who had been trafficked or orphaned in other countries.
Even as a child I puzzled over why some children suffered so greatly and others didn’t. It wasn’t fair.
As much as I loved stories with fairy-tale endings, such as The Secret Garden or The Little Princess, I returned constantly to narrative nonfiction that exposed me to a wider, morally complex world. And this drive never left me.
Today, there are many books that address the topic of inequality in fresh, insightful, and provoking ways.
Church Planting and the Gospel of Gentrification
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.