Gentrification, Powerlessness, and the Invitation to Lament

The neighborhood is changing. Gentrifying. It’s happening. Whether we like it or not.

My church moved to the edge of English Avenue about four years ago. I was ecstatic to finally have a real-life opportunity to put my asset-based community development theories to work. Yes, it was a low-income Black neighborhood and yes, my church was a large predominately White congregation. But who cares – this was God’s plan for us right?!

(Never mind those echoes of Manifest Destiny– they’ll eventually be drowned out by sounds of cheering Falcons fans at the new stadium being built down the street.)

My eagerness to “serve” this community led me to move-in. Once there, I set up a meeting with a White pastor who’d been in the neighborhood for a few years. He told me that oftentimes, when young urban missionaries move into communities like English Avenue to “serve” they don’t realize how much time it actually takes to be a good neighbor. Residents of neighborhoods like English Avenue live hyper-local lives. They walk to work and to bus stops. They sit on their porches and hang out on their corners. It’s really a beautiful thing. But I wasn’t ready to hyper-localize my life enough to be present with them. And it kept me from building relationships with my neighbors.

I struggled in anxiety over this for two years. I knew what was required of me - to be the kind of neighbor who answered the door when people knocked and to know the names of the people who walked by everyday. I knew what it would take to invest deeply, authentically and sacrificially. But it wasn’t a way, pace or rhythm of life to which I was ready to commit. So after my two years of pseudo-residency in the hood, I moved out. Honestly, I don’t have regrets about that, but I do have some thoughts.

Firstly, in retrospect, I’ve realized that one of the most challenging aspects of living in English Avenue was the sense of powerlessness I constantly felt in the face of large foundations, rich corporations, wealthy landowners simply sitting on their properties and indigenous community leaders who were closed-off to cooperation with anyone from the outside. That powerlessness was draining. I know that in part, my desire to be and to feel powerful was a function of my privilege. As an upwardly mobile, formally-educated and confident young woman, I was not used to being in situations where I felt too small to make a difference.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago in discussing the challenges of “re-neighboring” a community that a mentor put my feelings in perspective. He gently pointed out that feeling powerless in those moments is a small glimpse of what my neighbors lived in every day: the uncertainty, the fear and the constant awareness that you don’t have what it takes to turn over this age-old system. Perhaps being a Jesus-presence in this sort of neighborhood isn’t about fighting the big powers at be, but about building solidarity with those in the powerless places. Maybe its about being there anyway, tutoring kids anyway, planting gardens and attending neighborhood meetings anyway. Maybe neighborliness is really just about presence.

Perhaps being a Jesus-presence in this sort of neighborhood isn’t about fighting the big powers at be, but about building solidarity with those in the powerless places.

My second reflection dawned on me a few hours ago after grabbing a late lunch with a friend who is thinking about buying a piece of land in the English Avenue. She is aware of the politics of the decision and wanted my honest feedback. My honest feedback, though not as boldly stated, was, “Buying a lot in this neighborhood is a smart financial move but unless you’re willing to actually integrate yourself into the fabric of the community as it currently is, then that would be a pretty selfish decision.” She received it well and we had a great conversation about the neighborhood, racial tension and about whether or not there are “good” ways to gentrify a community. But I left the conversation feeling a little sad. The powerlessness was back. How many young urban professionals are going to “get in on the ground floor” and buy a piece of land in this community with no reverence for the history of that land and with no respect for the people who have lived there for decades? All I wanted to do was cry. And I was reminded of the spiritual discipline of lament.

Now I am wondering, as I write this blog post from my cushy home in Grant Park, if I would have been able to stay in English Avenue longer had I learned how to lament. What if I’d learned how to enter into that powerlessness with my neighbors? What if I’d grieved more? What if I’d focused less on what I could do or should do to “fix” things and focused more on just being present with the people around me?

This isn’t to say that I would have stayed forever. But I do think that lament unlocks a godly power within us to push through it all.

May we take honest stock of the kinds of neighbors that we are and may we think critically about the kinds of neighbors we’re called to be.