In the summer of 2013, I conducted one of the Net New York ’13 evangelistic series planned for New York City. For me, it was a homecoming because I am a native New Yorker. As I drove to “The City” through the Holland Tunnel to lower Manhattan and then took the Manhattan Bridge into downtown Brooklyn, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I decided to take a drive to reacquaint myself with my city. As I drove the streets of Williamsburg into down-town Brooklyn, on block after block I saw something that startled me: the facilities had been improved, and the inhabitants had been removed. “Where have all the black people gone?” I asked myself. Were they actually there but had become invisible?
No, they were not invisible, but in some ways, at least metaphorically, perhaps they were. The reason for their stark absence from an area of Brooklyn where they once thrived was because of gentrification. “Gentrification is the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.”1 Downtown Brooklyn had indeed been transformed. The streets were clean and refined with bike lanes. There were outdoor sidewalk cafés. The basketball and hockey arena had been relocated to downtown Brooklyn, and several other mainstays had been renovated and/or completely rebuilt. The transformation was stunning. Everything had been altered—including the inhabitants.
It seemed to me somewhat immoral that, after all of these years, when the city finally decided to invest billions of dollars to transform downtown Brooklyn, those who spent the bulk of their lives in that section of the borough would not be the beneficiaries of the investment. The same brownstones that were once dilapidated were now overhauled for the new inhabitants. It was like an act of Robin Hood in reverse. The poor were robbed and displaced to benefit the rich, and the once-abandoned area of the city had now come alive with activity, entertainment, opportunity, and excitement.2
As we think about the church and its ministry to the urban centers of the world where gentrification is a growing economic strategy, what should be our response? Peter Moskowitz maintains that gentrification brings “changes to the city’s basic services, particularly its school system, and disadvantages poorer families.”3 In the case of New Orleans, after the devastating floods of Katrina, the city “dismantled the teacher’s union, which had helped to build part of New Orleans’s black middle class” of the city.4 Does the church have a responsibility to speak for those who have been displaced and overlooked by their society?
God has always placed Himself in allegiance with those who have been made invisible by the inequities of the social structures. The psalmist writes, “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Ps. 140:12, NIV). Ron Sider devotes almost two hundred pages to biblical passages expressing God’s love for and commitment to the poor.5
Jesus directed His ministry to the invisible of society. When He announced His ministry in Nazareth, He reaffirmed the commitment to the oppressed established by God the Father (Luke 4:18). He focused on the oppressed and forgotten of society. He identified with the plight and concerns of the marginalized and the disenfranchised. As Christ’s disciples, Christians must join Him in representing those who cannot speak for themselves. James Cone writes, “In view of the biblical emphasis on liberation, it seems not only appropriate but necessary to define the Christian community as the community . . . which joins Jesus Christ in His fight for the liberation of humankind.”6
In order for the seed of the everlasting gospel to take root in our great urban centers, the church cannot disengage from the issues of inequality, poverty, injustice, and economic oppression. After all, is that not what the ministry of Jesus was about? When asked why He spent so much time with the outcast and the destitute, Jesus said, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17, KJV). Urban ministry requires us to face the power structures of society and stand with the voiceless and the powerless—the invisible people.
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1 “Gentrification and It’s Effect in Housing,” NewsChannel5 Network, Mar. 29, 2018, www. newschannel5.com/plus/openline/gentrification-and-its-effect-on-housing.
2 Spike Lee famously asked the question, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?” in Richard Florida, “The Complicated Link Between Gentrification and Displacement,” Citylab, Sept. 8, 2015, citylab.com/equity/2015/09/the-complicated-link-between-gentrification-and-displacement/404161/.
3 Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood (NewYork, NY: Nation Books, 2017).
4 Gillian B. White, “The Steady Destruction of America’s Cities,” The Atlantic, Mar. 9, 2017, theatlantic.com/ business/archive/2017/03/gentrification-moskowitz/519057/.
5 Ronald J. Sider, Cry Justice: The Bible Speaks on Hunger and Poverty (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,1980).
6 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 3.