This world is not my home— or is it? Urban ministry and the crisis of city housing
When I walked into the room for one of my regular pastoral visits, the man of the house, Casey, said, “Pastor, I’m glad you’re here. Anika needs your help. She needs a place to live.” Anika was the younger sister of Casey’s long-time live-in girlfriend, Danika. Slowly I approached her and asked what was going on. She began to cry. Between the sobs, she muttered something about trash cans and dumpsters and being accused of having her trash strewn all over the property. What was clear was that neither she nor I knew what to do next. After a few phone calls to the landowner and others, I reached a local legal aid office that processed the request for services and almost immediately began to offer counsel.
During the following weeks, I carted Anika back and forth from the legal aid office to hearing after hearing as the opposing attorney filed petitions and continuances ad nauseam. What amazed me was the way in which the property manager used the legal system to restrict or take away a basic necessity from an innocent person. It reminded me of the passage in Revelation 13 that tells us that the government will ultimately remove innocent people’s right to buy and sell and receive basic necessities and services. The law sometimes works to deny people basic rights.
Assessing the issue
This was the very first of many cases in which someone requested my aid for a housing issue. As a matter of fact, it seemed while pastoring there that I had more requests for help with housing issues than for all other matters combined. Through those experiences, I have come to believe that access to affordable, quality housing is the single most important issue facing urban centers in our generation. With so many disparities facing urban residents, the church can serve as the buffer between corporate and political interests and people’s needs.
Years later, serving in a different neighborhood in the same city, the church I pastored found itself in the middle of a major community revitalization project. City officials, community development organizations, and private developers formulated plans and negotiated deals for a revitalized business corridor, and the city applied for a $30 million federal housing development grant to replace a large group of public housing units in the neighborhood. All of this was happening around our church. The business corridor was two blocks away in one direction—and the public housing project two blocks away in the opposite direction. It was certain that new housing units were coming to our street. Our church was caught right in the middle.
The housing program required the public housing units to be replaced on a one-for-one ratio. However, the new housing units would not all be low-income housing.1 Rather, the new developments would be “mixed-income,” and such a plan could materialize in a variety of ways. It could be one-third low income, one-third affordable income, and one-third market rate, yet this formula was not set in concrete.2 Nevertheless, at best, it could displace up to two-thirds of the residents from the public housing units. This was a classic case of gentrification that would price long-term residents out of the place that they had always called home.
During the planning phase in the more recent case, grassroots community development professionals organized community faith leaders to shore up community services and entities and to plan among ourselves for what was coming. They encouraged us to assist in the planning process to help influence the new housing plans in a way that would ensure that the project would ultimately displace the least number of local residents. In addition, they encouraged churches and faith-based organizations to buy properties, educate church members, and establish service organizations to create more opportunities to improve the quality of life for community residents.
In faith communities, we constantly speak of believers as pilgrims, aliens, and sojourners. We say, “This world is not my home. I’m just passing through.” We have songs which proclaim, “I got a home up in that kingdom, ain’t that good news?” Yet we dare not see social and political engagement with secular society as a distraction from our mission to seek and save the lost.3 Failing to engage with the issues that directly affect the well-being and overall quality of life of city residents, puts in question the church’s relevancy to the community and jeopardizes its viability and growth.4
Grassroots community development professionals sought to prevent the kind of unfortunate incidents that had happened in the past and to keep the neighborhood safe from anyone lacking a real commitment to the community’s well-being. Churches that do not care for the economic needs of community members guarantee that future members will not be able to make significant and systematic financial contributions. Also, when residents get displaced, the local congregation loses potential members. It is important to note that an increase in local crime and changes in property values and zoning designations could make it difficult for a church to maintain its place in the community. Churches that do not engage with pressing civic issues threaten their own survival.
Biblical commands and warnings
Scripture teaches us that God is always on the side of the oppressed (Pss. 9:9; 10:18; 82:3; 103:6; 146:7). God declared through the prophets that we ought to champion the cause of the oppressed (Jer. 9:23, 24; Isa. 1:17; 56:1; Mic. 6:8). Jesus said His ministry was to “‘set free those who are oppressed’ ” (Luke 4:18, NASB). We have preached countless sermons on His command to His disciples to care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).5 The very heart of the story of salvation history is that of God liberating His children from the oppressive power of sin. For “ ‘anyone who sins is a slave of sin’ ” (John 8:34, CEV). That work must pervade everything that we do as an active embodiment of the gospel. Furthermore, we find apocalyptic implications here as well.
The second angel in Revelation 14 announces that Babylon is fallen. When we get additional details in Revelation 17, the passage describes Babylon as “the mother of harlots” and “drunk with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (Rev. 17:5, 6, NASB). From this perspective, the conflict might appear primarily spiritual. She has martyred God’s faithful followers. However, Revelation 18 gives a much wider perspective. The chapter features a lament for the political and economic partnerships that will fail now that Babylon has lost her stranglehold on the masses.
Revelation 18:3 implicates political and economic leaders in Babylon’s drunkenness, for “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth” (v. 24, NASB; emphasis added). These leaders mourn not only for her (Babylon) but also for their own losses, because they have depended on her oppressive power to help them in their quest for prosperity (vv. 11, 19). The reality is that innocent people are often collateral victims in the quest for political and economic power.
The question we have to ask is, Have we been faithful to identify systems of oppression as part and parcel of Babylon’s league of predators? Have we sought to speak truth to power and to defend the weak? Or have we been complicit with such unjust forces through our silence and own brand of ecclesial capitalism? We must learn to recognize institutions that defraud and exploit— and commit ourselves to setting the captives free. After all, Jesus gave us the power to overcome every machination of the enemy (Mark 3:15; Luke 10:19; 2 Cor. 10:4).
A legacy of discriminatory policies
While the founders of the United States proclaimed that all were created equal, society often perpetuated freedom for one segment of the population and a subhuman existence for another. This has always presented Americans with a stark dilemma.6
Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz explore how the industrial revolution required a global shift as cities found themselves forced to open their doors to immigrants to meet the demands of the assembly line. A global pattern of urban expansion toward ethnic and cultural diversity began to explode, even though cities were reluctant to accept the new reality.7
Richard Rothstein tells how in the 1930s Midwest factories posted signs warning minorities that their labor and services were not welcome. By the end of World War II, however, those very same companies had no choice but to accommodate an expanding labor force.8 Nevertheless, despite the benefits to the workforce and the economy, financial institutions were reluctant to provide mortgage loans for minorities and forced them to live in rental properties in neighboring towns. A concerted effort to keep minorities out of certain neighborhoods denied them housing purchases, resulting in segregated neighborhoods and cities under the guise of “respecting local attitudes.”9
From all quarters there were persons of goodwill who pressed for multicultural integration to move society forward. Local attitudes, however, often ensured that diversity would not gain a strong foothold in mainstream society. Such practices have perpetuated themselves in a myriad of ways.10 The war on drugs in urban communities, the explosive growth of prisons, and the limited availablity of quality housing for released prisoners, have rendered the plight of many nothing short of drastic.11
At the outset, I was careful not to identify the city to which I was referring, but rather to draw attention to issues that are pervasive in the major cities of America. To hear a story about my city is to hear one about yours. What is needed are churches that are willing to become centers for advocacy and engagement and that will help provide solutions to this crisis. I am embarrassed to admit that when informational meetings took place just blocks away from my church during the housing redevelopment planning process, only two members of our church attended, myself and a visiting professor from Europe who was researching urban redevelopment. As a church, we were not nearly as involved as we should have been.
How can believers, in the context where they serve, help to care for the needs of people?12
1. Host community development and community engagement events. Midsize and large churches can really thrive by offering their facility for com-munity events. Community leaders are constantly trying to enlist the support of clergy because they know that clergy persons have regular contact with the people they are trying to reach. They love to see us at meetings and are thrilled when we offer to host such gatherings.
Also, banks are required to invest in their local communities. If invited to facilitate a first-time home buyers class or a personal finance program of some sort, they would be happy to do so. Another strategy is to organize a panel of community leaders to address housing issues. It was one of the approaches I used. My members would not go to the meetings, so I brought the meetings to them. We held town hall sessions in which members could hear directly from activists, political leaders, bankers, and developers about the issues pressing around them.
2. Adopt a family. Maybe your resources for drawing a crowd or organizing the community are meager. However, God always positions us to help people. Adopting a family is a prime strategy for a small church. As a young pastor, I heard stories of clergy who had adopted a family to provide them with extra care and support and to help them navigate the complex financial and legal systems of the city. If we can make ourselves a resource for at least one family (your church might be able to adopt two or three) at a time, we can make a difference in helping them climb out of the devastating poverty that would otherwise prevent them from having a decent quality of life.
3. Buy back the block. Churches with larger congregations and greater access to resources are more likely to have success here. Maybe the church can afford only one house. And perhaps that one house can serve as a rental property to support the family that the church decided to adopt, disciple, and nurture. But maybe your church can do what Minnie McNeal inspired the Coatesville, Pennsylvania, church to do in buying an entire block of row houses and renovating them to provide housing for low-income families and people in transition.13
Stories abound of churches that had an opportunity to purchase property near their building but failed to act. They either lacked faith, worried about the cost to maintain the property, or suffered from some other internal dysfunction or bureaucratic matter that prevented them from moving forward. Such instances usually result in collective regret. I would much rather err on the side of taking action for the sake of service rather than inaction because of fear.
It is true that this level of engagement requires a great deal of organization and commitment. While there may be financial resources for nonprofits to help these plans materialize, it still requires resources to execute efficiently. Nevertheless, we have seen that it can be done.
A seat at the table
I mentioned that I transported Anika back and forth to the legal aid office and for hearings. After what seemed months, she won her case! The sad news is that she still ended up losing the apartment for some other reason later on. Such work is never finished. For me, it was the first case where I realized that my work had just begun. The organization that owned the properties got so tired of my calling and visiting their office to advocate for tenants that one day they asked me to serve as a member of their advisory board. I then committed myself to help people sort through legal and financial complexities to help them survive life in the city.
I am often reminded of the promise Jesus made that He will cause His faithful servants to recline in the kingdom while He serves them (see Luke 12:37). That promise always makes me think about the questions in Matthew 25:37–39. We will ask him, “Lord what did we do to deserve such lavish treatment?” To which He will reply, “‘“Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me” ’ ” (Matt. 25:40, GW). I want to recline at that table. But I am always mindful that although I have the promise to recline at God’s table in heaven, many do not have “a seat at the table” here on earth. Here’s to our helping them find a seat. And if there are no additional seats, we will bring them a folding chair.
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1 Urban Institute and Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, Choice Neighborhoods: Baseline Conditions and Early Progress (Washington, DC: U.S. Department ofHousing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research, 2015), 12–19, accessed May 20, 2018, www.huduser.gov/portal/sites/default /files/pdf/Baseline-Conditions-Early-Progress.pdf.
2 Urban Institute and Manpower Demonstration, Choice Neighborhoods, 12–19.
3 “Social action is a living witness to our soon-returning Lord. When we take a stand for justice, compassion, and healing, we demonstrate the values of the coming Kingdom.” In Adventist Community Services International, Keys to Adventist Community Services (Lincoln, NE: AdventSource, 2008), 6.
4 “The churches that were dying or had already died disconnected from and stopped serving their communities. Their inward focus and self-serving killed them.” In May-Ellen Colón and Gasper Colón, Adventist Churches that Make a Difference (Nampa, ID: Pacific PressPub. Assn., 2016), 126.
5 “No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these’. ” Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York,NY: Warner, 2001); Christopher Thompson, “The Least of These: Revisiting Our Ministry Mandate to Forgotten Groups,” Ministry, Mar. 2015, 13–16.
6 James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 4.
7 Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 70–74.
8 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York:Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 8.
9 Rothstein, The Color of Law, 37.
10 Taylor Gordon, “8 Major American Banks That Got Caught Discriminating Against Black People,” Atlanta Black Star, Mar. 3, 2015, atlantablackstar.com/2015/03/03/8-major-american-banks-that-got-caught -discriminating-against-black-people.
11 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY:New Press, 2010), 144–148. See also www.npr.org/2016/12/17/505996792/documentary-13th-argues-mass-incarceration-is-an-extension-of-slavery.
12 To read additional strategies for addressing the displacement of urban residents, see Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry, 291–294.
13 Celeste Ryan-Blyden, “2016 Notable Persons of Honor Recognized,” Visitor, November 17, 2016, accessed May 20, 2018, columbiaunionvisitor.com/2016/2016-notable-persons-honor-recognized.