Incarnation vs. Gentrification
Inspired by the incarnation of Jesus, Derek, SP staff in Pomona, reflects on the incarnational approach to ministry and its relationship to the forces of gentrification in the city.
The incarnational approach to ministry has always been controversial. I have recently heard some speculation that this approach to ministry in urban poor communities might even be exacerbating gentrification. Is it possible that the relocation of a small number of middle-class people (particularly, but not exclusively, white middle-class people) could actually lead to the displacement of poorer people by drawing in other middle-class people who then raise the cost of living? It is possible that there are places this has happened, but it has not been my experience.
I have lived in the same neighborhood for 17 years and, although it has improved, it is still nowhere close to gentrifying. This past week, a 22 year-old young man who spent a good deal of time in our home when he was in elementary school dropped by for a visit. He was moving back into the neighborhood after having been gone for several years. Obviously high on something, he confessed he had a warrant out for his arrest because of probation violations due to gang activity. He was staying with his extended family across the street that still has gang connections. Federal marshals arrested his older brother there a few months ago. He remembered us as people who had accepted him and tried to encourage the best in him. He wanted help getting his life back on track. After 17 years, our presence has displaced no one, and many of our neighbors have passed on their struggles to the next generation. We keep praying for a break in the cycle.
Undoubtedly if we succeed in helping our communities climb out of violence and poverty, they will become more attractive places for people with visions of micro-brews dancing in their heads. But what’s the alternative? Should we leave school systems broken and neighborhoods gang ridden so that middle-class people stay away? In Southern California this issue is complicated by the fact that many gentrifiers are Latino (a movement some have dubbed “gentefication,” “gente” being the Spanish word for people). In our downtown area, the trendy coffee shop and the progressive bookstore are Latino owned. The nano-brewery attracts mainly “Chipsters” (Chicano hipsters). It’s commendable that people who grew up in poverty want to stay and invest in their communities. And at the same time that investment will likely end up displacing some poorer people.
Gentrification is not a simple issue. It is caused mostly by larger economic forces like housing prices and developers looking to maximize profits. In our modern economy these forces are impossible to completely stop. That does not mean, however, that they cannot be shaped. We can establish zoning laws and ordinances that require the building of affordable housing or public spaces that everyone in the community can enjoy. We can encourage the establishment of businesses that serve the existing community. We can work with property owners and developers who desire to improve the community by lifting it up not by pushing poor people out.
This is where an incarnational approach to ministry is an asset. Very rarely do poorer people get a voice in shaping development in their communities. But those of us who choose to live in poor communities can help our neighbors make their voices heard. Together we can influence zoning and negotiate with developers. Together we can determine what kind of changes we want in our city. My wife, Lisa, and I are helping lead an effort to redevelop our civic plaza which has fallen into humiliating disrepair. I walk through it regularly on the short commute to my office. Normally such redevelopment decisions would be made by developers, city staff and the city council, but because we have relationships with neighbors, we can make sure our community shapes the space into something it wants to use. The broken space has great potential for collective good. But it also has great potential to be alienating and dislocating if the community has no voice in its redevelopment.
Every Christmas we remember Jesus’ incarnation, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. When we talk about an incarnational approach to ministry, we do not mean that we believe that we are Jesus or even that we are bringing Jesus into a community as if he were not already there. But we do believe his model of involving himself in the lives and the society of those he loved is one we should replicate. True incarnation should not displace people but empower them. We may not be able to stop gentrification but if we walk alongside our poorer neighbors and listen to them, we might be able to help them speak into the larger changes that so affect their lives.