After an ad for a new church on the west side of Chicago popped up in my Instagram feed the other day, I posted this:
A handful of folks took issue with my snark; some suggested that I could be misreading the ad, misrepresenting the church’s intentions, or that I could reach out the church as a bridge builder. These suggestions all came from white people.
I understand these suggestions and I should probably tone down the sarcasm. But what I think these well-intentioned friends might be missing is the context wherein a white, suburban church starts a new church in an urban neighborhood which has been predominately black for many years. This is a neighborhood that saw white flight and institutional disinvestment when African Americans began moving in. For many years it was host to a high-concentration of public housing before those complexes where destroyed to make room for mixed-income housing which precipitated massive development, gentrification, and skyrocketing housing prices.
Over the generations, this neighborhood has been anchored by black churches – “gospel-centered, bible-believing” – churches. Yet now, as long-time residents are being pushed out, this suburban church enters the neighborhood.
I have no reason to doubt this church’s motives. I’m sure their pastors and leaders are capable and godly people – I really mean this! – who are willing to sacrifice much for this new ministry. But regardless of intentions, this common move for white churches to begin ministries in gentrifying neighborhoods, and to then describe themselves in a way that sounds as though the gospel has not been faithfully proclaimed and embodied for generations, this is what is frustrating to me. And, I think, sort of demeaning to those Christians who ministered faithfully long before we white folks would have ever considered coming to that particular neighborhood.
I’m not saying anything new here; Christena Cleveland and Soong-Chan Rah have both said similar things more precisely before. And yes, I suppose I could be more of a bridge-builder in these situations. It’s just that it happens so regularly in a city like ours that it’s hard to muster up the energy for yet another awkward conversation.
4 thoughts on “Gentrified Church-planting”
Your original tweet wasn’t in the least offensive. I read it as the pique of a faithful inner-city pastor reacting to the irresponsible self-importance and assumed rectitude of people outside your much-loved community inserting their presumptions in a tasteless ad. I understand your frustration, even your anger, sadness, uncertainty as people you’ve served and care for are forced to leave by exorbitant costs and forced changes wrought by big money and political maneuvering that’s destroying an existing community in the name of progress and higher taxes. It’s not at all uplifting to see suburban churches taking that same sort of advantage. In fact, it’s travesty. I’m with you. I grieve the impact on vulnerable people, as usual treated as expendable. Hang in there, my friend. Speak truth!
Thanks very much!
I so admire and appreciate the bold way that you have turned privilege on its head and use your voice to challenge us all. Thank you for this. I am involved in a new church plant now and this is something that we are definitely taking quite seriously and we take to heart the advice that you and Shaun Marshall offered us some months ago about engaging those already present in the community.
Thank you sir! I’m so hopeful about your new congregation.