“I don’t know how to define gentrification, but I tend to know it when I see it.” As our family has begun ministry in a long-neglected urban neighborhood of Indianapolis, we have had countless conversations that begin with comments like the one above. Many people have heard that gentrification is an issue, know that it is likely a problem for urban ministry, but have difficulty even defining the word.
The challenge is understandable. After all, when a complex term like gentrification can be applied from everything to economics, housing, and even food, it is no wonder that common definitions or concepts might evade us.
When gentrification takes place in a neighborhood or community, there are at least two negative forces are at play. First, there is the displacement of existing residents. The term gentrification first emerged in mid-twentieth century London, when a sociologist and city planner named Ruth Glass observed the displacement of poor working-class residents as “the gentry” – middle- or upper-class residents – moved into a redeveloped community. As is often the case today, when gentrifiers move into a neighborhood, property taxes and rent increases price existing residents out of their homes.
Second, and as a result, outsiders benefit at the expense of insiders. In one famous scene from the 1991 film Boys N the Hood, Furious Styles (played by Laurence Fishburne) educates his son and several members of the community on these mechanics. He describes the ways in which outside forces will intentionally drive down the economic value of homes in a community in order to drive residents out, then subsequently buy those same homes in order to resell them at a much higher price. Outsiders profit at the expense of individuals and families who have lived in a community for generations.
It is not difficult to see why P.E. Moskowitz described gentrification in this way:
“[Gentrification is] a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In that way, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake…Gentrification cannot happen without this deeply rooted inequality; if we were all equal, there could be no gentrifier and no gentrified, no perpetrator or victim.” (How to Kill a City)
When gentrification is defined by these two concepts – displacement and outsider benefits at insider expense – then we can carefully apply gentrification to several concepts, including housing, economics, food, retail, and vocabulary (i.e., the appropriation of “woke” as pejorative by conservatives is verbal gentrification).
At the risk of further complicating our definitions, I believe gentrification can be a helpful word to describe the way many Christians spiritually relate to their neighbors.
I used to be someone who could easily get sucked into the latest debates, failures, and juicy gossip of White Evangelicalism. I have lost countless hours of sleep to the current issues within churches and Christian organizations that I do not even belong to. The many significant debates within my own denomination (the PCA), as important as they could be, have sucked immense spiritual energy from me for days or weeks on end.
For many years, I believed I had a responsibility and obligation to invest myself in these matters to such an extent that I would have little energy left to give anyone but my wife and children. To be a pastor, to be a Christian at all, meant investing deeply in the cares and concerns of White Evangelicalism.
It only took a few months of living in our new neighborhood for my perspective to drastically change. As the immediate, pressing needs of my neighbors became known to me, I found myself weighed down with an exhaustion that was impossible to carry. I was depressed, tired, unable to focus or act on what was right in front of me. That is when it hit me: I simply cannot carry both the weight of my neighbors and White Evangelicalism. I had to choose.
The choice was an obvious one.
In that moment, it became clear to me that my neighbors care little about the latest debates and issues within my denomination, or even the broader White Evangelical church. They do not care about our semantic debates around sexuality; they are concerned over the rise in gun violence over the last six months. They care little about who said what at the latest big Evangelical something-or-other; they must worry about the impact of economic redevelopment when our eviction rate is nearing thirty percent already. They don’t have time to listen to your debates about racism and CRT; they are trying to fight for better access to education in a neighborhood which the city has neglected for decades.
Here’s the thing: I’m not saying some of these pressing debates and concerns don’t matter. They do. Our churches and denominations should have (some of) these conversations. But shouldn’t they also address the gun violence, economic vulnerability, and systemic injustice facing my neighbors? When White Evangelicalism demands I care about its issues while it ignores the needs of my neighbor, it is effectively asking me to exploit my neighbor by taking my best spiritual resources away from them.
For that matter, when the degree to which I care about the issues of White Evangelicalism comes at the expense of my immediate neighbor, I am in danger of becoming a spiritual gentrifier. If I invest all my spiritual and emotional energy in the issues on the latest Christian blogs rather than giving my best to my immediate neighbor, I have effectively minimized and displaced my neighbor’s spiritual importance. If I make more time for debates with other Christians, the latest issues on Christian Twitter, or the infighting within my denomination than I do for the concerns of my vulnerable neighbor next door, I am allowing outsiders to benefit more from me than my neighbors do.
I am a finite person, and you are too. We only have so much spiritual and emotional energy to give away to others before we come to the end of ourselves. When Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-34), he at least intended for us to prioritize the needs of our vulnerable neighbors next door.
Our neighbors deserve our best: our best attention, our best prayers, our best anger, our best sorrow, our best joy. Our neighbors lose when we live as spiritual gentrifiers who give our best away to outsiders and neglect the image bearers next door. We are at our best as neighbors when we learn to prioritize their concerns and place the many demands of outsiders – whether of White Evangelicalism or anything else – in their proper place.