Christians Need a More Nuanced Understanding of Gentrification

Last week, lawyers for Breonna Taylor’s family said that her death was the botched result of a sweeping Louisville plan to gentrify her neighborhood — a plan that involved kicking people like Breonna out. City officials denied the allegations, but the lawsuit has dragged America’s old struggle with gentrification back into the spotlight.

Dr. David Docusen is a speaker and teacher who’s keenly interested in a Christian perspective on gentrification. For him, gentrifying is about neighbors, and neighbors are near and dear to the heart of the Gospel. His book Neighborliness: Finding the Beauty of God Across Dividing Lines addresses all the ways America has often been lazy, exploitive and predatory when it comes to gentrifying neighborhoods, and how Christians can champion a better approach by partnering together to lift all communities up for the common good. Docusen (full disclosure: Docusen sits on RELEVANT’s Executive Board) talked to RELEVANT Senior Editor Tyler Huckabee about gentrification and what a better future for unity might look like.

Just to get us on the same page: What is gentrification?

Yeah. I think that gentrification has a lot of different connotations. The way that I look at it, if we take the emotion out of it, is the investment of new money and new residents into historically high poverty communities.

A lot of people tend to think of gentrification as moving pieces around on a board but the accusations about Taylor’s death are a reminder that the stakes here can often be people’s wellbeing, future and even their lives.

The motivation of the people who are in positions of power within a community and their attitude toward the longtime residents of high poverty communities is going to dictate the way that they treat people. If they don’t see people as equal, made in the image of God, brothers and sisters of the same family, then because of their world view, they’re going to do whatever is necessary to remove them from the community. If somebody were to literally view folks that are living in these communities as their brother or sister, it would deeply impact their interaction with them.

What would you say to people who argue that gentrification makes these communities better? 

What is your definition of better? Many of the friends I have that are living in high poverty communities love their neighborhood and they wish that crime would go down as well. But the bottom line is that when new money and new residents start to move into a neighborhood, taxes go up and people are pushed out. I have a friend of mine that said to me, “I want a nice store in my neighborhood or a shopping center or a grocery store or a safer neighborhood, but I also want to be able to stay here when it happens.”

We’re lacking nuance in the body of Christ when we talk about gentrification. New investment into an area that’s been disinvested over time is not a bad thing. It’s when we don’t have a view of equal treatment of the neighbors who are already living there. Instead of looking past them to the economic impact of the neighborhood rising, we should look to them to say, “Hey, how can we work with you so that all of us can enjoy this neighborhood together?”

I think that gentrification is something that could use a different word sometimes. It’s like every other part of our lives. The heart of the people that hold the keys of power is going to impact neighbors adversely or equitably.

Have you seen examples of churches or Christian communities doing this well? 

There’s an organization that we started in Charlotte called Freedom Communities that holistically looks at education, employment, healthcare, and housing, tapping into the gifts and the talents of people, asking, “How do we give equitable access to neighbors and residents that are living in poverty?” That’s been a really beautiful thing. Also the Christian Community Developers Association. There’s a great example of that in North Lawndale, Chicago, where for 30 years they’ve been partnering with churches and nonprofits and Christian organizations.

I want people to understand that education is action. Taking time to learn about gentrification, taking time to learn about the cyclical patterns of poverty, the impact that the prison systems had on high poverty communities and the male population of high poverty communities — all of those things play into it.

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It’s just like every other part of our life. What do we all bring to the table? And are we behaving like Ephesians chapter four, where the Body of Christ comes together, where Jesus is at the head? We’re all using our gifts and talents, including the residents of high poverty communities. Because who better knows what their community needs than the people that have been living there for generations? But many times we just overlook the very people that live there.

So you’re saying sometimes it might be as simple as calling people in that community up and saying, “How can we be helpful?”

I think that every church would do well to have an asset map of what has already been happening for a long time. That works for any community — high-poverty or upper economic areas — just so you can understand what’s already going on. Because what happens when you try and do relief work is you find that nobody wants to be anybody’s charity. So you have a big church that comes in, they’re trying to fix something but that’s not even what the neighborhood wants to be fixed. They may say, “Hey, what we really need is we need this daycare up and running again so we can get back to work.”

So understanding who the community leaders are — not just by elected position or even the big churches; actually finding the neighborhood leaders – and then asking them “would our presence be helpful?” instead of saying “we’re going to bring 50 people.” Ask better questions instead of trying to bring the answers from the outside in.

Last question: we’ve heard from lots of Christian leaders who equivocate on Black Lives Matter. It seems like Christians are hesitant about being perceived as political. 

We need to be OK with saying “Black lives matter,” period. How people try to pigeonhole you politically is out of your control. Our lives are going to show if we truly believe that Black lives matter, right? And so with that, I would say don’t be afraid to say the phrase just because politics can hijack it. If we’re afraid to engage with that phrase, we’re going to either intentionally or unintentionally push away a whole group of people that are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters. I can’t live in fear that somebody is going to think something negative about me. I’ve met with my Black brothers and sisters who are lamenting, discouraged and exasperated right now. The phrase itself doesn’t bother me at all. We just need to not be so fearful of what people are going to do if we say it.

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