Lament and Gentrification - The Wrestling Match

Have you ever heard of a funeral dirge? I didn’t know what it was until I was sitting in a CCDA workshop on lament with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Charles.

Apparently, the “laments” that we read in the book of Lamentations are like funeral dirges. This is as compared to the “Psalms of Lament,” which are more like hospital visits. Often people are crying out because things are broken or “sick” but through God’s action, those broken things might be made new. Conversely, the laments from Lamentations, these “funeral dirges," are more like grieving the total loss of life. To lament in this way is to acknowledge and grieve the fact that there is a dead body in the room.

This lesson was striking to me. Mark Charles, a Native American man, spent some time at the beginning of the workshop teaching about “The Doctrine of Discovery” and about the ways in which the United States has consistently and repeatedly devalued, disenfranchised and dismembered Native peoples throughout the country. This happened through colonialism, forced removal, genocide, and sheer injustice as the US broke hundreds of treaties with Native peoples. The questions that is posed, naturally, is what are we supposed to do about this now? What does this history have to do with our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities and our churches today? What does it matter that all of our homes are built on stolen land? What do “justice” and “reconciliation” mean in this context?

What if means that we lament the dead body in the room?

Lament, to my knowledge, does a few things. It acknowledges and dignifies the life that’s been lost. It forces us to confront our own complicity in something that has been broken. It recognizes that there has been an unjust loss of life. And it creates space for God to meet us in our broken places. Essentially, lament carves out a pathway from apathy and disassociation to solidarity and healing.

Mark Charles went on to propose a “Calendar of Lament” for the church wherein we lament the painful truths of Independence Day, Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Presidents Day. He proposes that we acknowledge, in a real and sacrificial way, the hundreds and thousands of dead, Native bodies in the room and in our society.

This idea hit home even closer for me as I reflected on my own church and ministry context. I couldn’t help but think of my church, which is quite large as compared to many of the churches in my neighborhood. I think of how we bought a building in a gentrifying part of the city – getting ahead of the curve honestly – and I think about how little we’ve done thus far to be truly hospitable to our low-income, majority Black neighbors. We have partnerships in the community and we do our best to love the wandering, homeless stranger well when they enter our doors, but for the most part – our church is not the likely place that a low-income Black family would call home. The cultures are just too different.

As I thought about our move to this community, I couldn’t help but think of the bridges that we never built and the many smaller, parish churches that we never made real connections with. Part of this is due to different missions and ministry philosophies; part of this is due to simple cross-cultural disconnect that wasn’t overcome or waded through. But ultimately, I know what it looks like to some. It looks like colonialism, gentrification and the expansion of the Christian empire.

After this workshop, and in light of the reflections I was having on my own community, all I could think was that my church community needed to step into a season of lament for this seeming economic and aspiring spiritual takeover. My heart wanted to see us move towards our neighbors with profound humility and for us to apologize for the ways we sought to “bring the kingdom” to this community that we knew nothing about. My heart still wants those things, I think. I want us to lament that we never learned all that we could about the deep spirituality of justice that is the very literal legacy of these streets.

So, all of this speaks to my second big takeaway from CCDA, which is more of a wrestling match than a resolution. I’m wrestling with the discipline of lament. I’m wrestling with the church’s corporate responsibility to respond to our history of complicity in injustice. I’m wrestling with gentrification and with the power dynamics that are at play. I’m wrestling to figure out the most neighborly, most loving way forward in it all.