Straight out the gate, I’m asking you to allow me to dream a bit as I write. Please roll with me.
What if the plight of the poor, urban minority neighborhood is alleviated by middle-class missional minorities? What if we, the not-so-poor minority, take ownership in the blighted areas as a measure of protection? What if our economic contributions of ownership and creative spins on community development inspire and empower urban communities toward wholistic change? What if we weren’t shy about this mission?
Once upon a time, I personally would’ve thought this kind of dreaming was crazy. Why would I ever want to consider living in the hood? Why would I put my family through that? What is the point of living in a food desert surrounded by potential danger?
Many have contributed scholarly commentary about white flight and redlining as direct causes of impoverished neighborhoods. There are also several recent articles outlining the wealth disparities between blacks and whites. I’m not here to refute any of that.
I’m only wondering whether we can also acknowledge the tension-filled, lesser-discussed notion of “black flight.” This is the exodus of black people from urban communities who are wary of the “hood experience.” Black intellectuals will comment on inner-city norms like drug activity, violence, trash-filled streets, theft, and panhandling, but are often less enthusiastic about actually living in said communities. Black folk buy into the not-so-subtle part of the American dream that looks like pursuing suburban comfort and finding a way to remove ourselves far from the hood.
The subtlety involved in this pursuit often leaves us looking to primarily white-owned/white-occupied communities as the promised land. If you allow me to be real and also speak in generalities (similar to Pauline hyperbole found in 2 Corinthians 11), many black people would rather live next to Ted the dentist than Deandre the hustler.
We have been conditioned to think the demographic of safety and security takes on a lighter pigment shade. We go to the white movie theater or enjoy the white church service amenities. Sadly, the conversation around identity and empowerment often falls short when we find ourselves in the familiar quandary of seeking white validation as a means of defining our successes.
For the Culture?
An answer to these internal cultural complexities is mission. What are we told throughout our Western-minded cultural experience? Get money and go places. Establish your lot in life and pursue your ideality. Find your comfort zone and hold onto it for dear life. Taking a closer look at what scripture teaches, we find that all of these embedded cultural traits are actually counter-missional and opposed to the teachings of Jesus.
As we continue to hear and investigate the story of gentrification in our country, we keep hearing that familiar ring of hopelessness. What can be done? Politicians and pastors alike don’t seem to care. Despite the best mobilization efforts in social justice circles, the undertone seems to keep getting louder: poor and black are always going to be poor and black.
In recent years, my wife and I have been praying and seeking a new outlook to push against this hopelessness. This culminated last year when we moved into a poor, black inner-city neighborhood with our two young children.
The house was cheap. The nearest attempt at a “grocery store” is the extended corner store up the block. We put our son in the nearby poor city school. We hear the regular gunshots. We navigate the delicate dance of giving to individuals who ask for different types of assistance. We acutely feel the reality of the social circumstances around us.
Still, we moved here with a mission. We want to make home improvements and additions to contribute to neighborhood property values. We want the neighbors to be nosy about how we come and go. We want to be present as a husband, wife, mother, father.
My wife has enthusiastically taken the concept of urban farming from community garden to our backyard. I’m on a first name basis with neighbors who know I’m a pastor, yet will simply see me as just another member of the community.
We want our neighbors to see a nuclear black family so they don’t have to think it’s a fairy tale. We want to show nearby churches that we aren’t just present for the church picnic at the park, but that we walk home afterwards—and we’re black. We want to reverse black flight.
We want to be known as the peaceable black neighbors who connect widely with others. We don’t have a banner in our front yards saying, “We are on mission,” but this is a purposeful move for us. If we don’t want gentrifiers to come through to level abandoned homes and displace families, “we” should be in place to give them a reason to think twice. What we hope to do is exchange ideas about what the community is—not bulldoze it with our “theology.”
The film “Black Panther” concluded with T’Challa telling his sister Shuri about the Wakanda Outreach Centers, several facilities she would run in an Oakland, CA neighborhood.
The scene could be viewed a number of different ways, but I propose we look at it as an opportunity to be imaginative about solutions to gentrification. If we, the black and economically “better off” (if not “well off”) set up shop in these communities with a humble purposefulness, we can reshape the gentrification discussion. Who better to house conversations about cultural preservation and advocate against displacement?
I know many amazing black scholars, black family leaders, and black accomplished business professionals who could turn an entire neighborhood upside down simply by being present. I also know a lot of black people who are living beyond their means, fronting in public by trying to keep up with an unaffordable lifestyle. I often think—what if they saved money and just became my neighbor? How much could they help this community?
This is an evolving perspective, so I pray you offer me some grace. What I fear is that I venture into a sort of afro-paternalism, but that is not the motive. I love my people and I’d rather seek solutions than pine over intellectualized apathy. I feel like black people of all economic persuasions can participate. We abandon keeping up with the Jones’ by living beneath our means and being present with missional opportunity. What if we build something together?
I want to soak in the complexity of my ethnic community as an active participant in economic progress. I want to empower us to move forward in society, and if we don’t quite get there, I want us to sit on each other’s porches and reflect on the reasons.
Above all, I want poor [black] people to know that they are made in the image of God and abandon the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality that often wrecks our community. I can’t do that if I’m not present. I ask you—does that make me a black gentrifier? I’m not sure, but wherever the category, I hope it lands squarely as missional.