God of the City, Part 2: Rich Christians in an Age of Gentrification

God of the City, Part 2: Rich Christians in an Age of Gentrification

Last time, I talked a bit about how San Francisco is changing and how we may be more responsible for those changes than we’d like to admit. Part of the changing landscape includes city-focused churches that are set on renewing and restoring San Francisco. Tim Keller, one of the biggest voices in this movement towards cities says,

Nowhere do we encounter more opportunities to apply the gospel in these ways than in the city. Many modern urban dwellers face loneliness, economic hardship, social injustice, and personal and societal brokenness. The church is to serve all of these needs, including directly serving the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the city. We are dedicated to training leaders and planting churches that are committed to strengthening the influence of the gospel in the city in ways that result in spiritual growth, the flourishing of neighborhoods, reconciliation between classes and races, and the renewal of family life, education, health, and vocation.

He ends by saying,

People who want to love the city to life, they are our heroes

I love Keller’s mission and I think Millennial Christians who are buying into this expression of faith (which really isn’t new) can really have an impact in their cities in good and God-honoring ways. The last sentence, though, seems to really capture some of the tension we must navigate as we step deeper into this ethic of service. We Millennials have huge hopes of being a force for good in the world, yet we are confronted by the paralyzing forces of our own sense of entitlement: We want to love the city to life, but we also want to be heroes. Can both be true?

I think one of the biggest dilemmas our generation of Christians must navigate is how to pair our eagerness to do good in the world with our rampant sense of entitlement.

Because I think we have found a Jesus who has challenged the way many of us grew up. We have encountered the poor Galilean, the Messiah who paid no respect to the structures of power and religious oppression propagated by the Pharisees and who challenged the status quo of his day. We have found that grace is the ultimate inequity, the great equalizer, the force that levels all playing fields. Grace puts me, the homeless man, and the corporate CEO all on the same plane, the mountain men with the valley dwellers, and says, “You are all sinners. You are all created in my image. You are all forgiven.” This is the One we hope to follow. This is the Holy God who claims to dwell among the poor, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned. And if that is his claim, then we want to be there. The city is that place, so we go.

But there is something twisted about our hermeneutic. The Gospels were not written to challenge wealthy readers to lower themselves to follow the penniless Christ (though that call is there too). They were primarily written for poor readers to find comfort in a Christ who joined them.

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I once led a devotion for a group of homeless men. That particular day we were studying James 1, which has a part that says, “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds, for the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” I remembered in our college bible studies we had looked at similar passages in Philippians and had concluded that we needed to seek out suffering so that we could have deeper fellowship with Christ. Drawing from those studies, I asked the homeless men, “Do you think that this passage means we should look for suffering?” Before I could even finish the question, responses rang out, “Nooo! No way.” “That’s crazy Nate.” “That’s definitely not what it means.”

Perspective matters. Context matters. And rich Christians in an age of gentrification must be willing to slow down and consider the context of their ministry and the difficult questions that arise as we wealthy meet Jesus as he is found among “the least of these.” No matter how neat our theology, the collision of worlds is messy. Yes, city ministry is great and perhaps even strategic, and yes, I think the call of Jesus is indeed a call to find places of suffering, but we must be mindful about where we come from too, that our privilege, entitlement, and skin color may all communicate unwanted messages to those we “serve.”

I remember at Urbana 2009, Patrick Fung, President of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, told us about Live to be Forgotten, his book about missionaries whose names were lost but made the biggest impact toward furthering the Gospel in China. Why any sensible publisher would allow that book title is beyond me, but it brings up a pertinent conversation for this moment and this city. Fung’s “live to be forgotten” stands in stark opposition to Keller’s “those who love the city are our heroes.” In our ministry to the poor, in the cities, and on our missions trips, who has power? Who is the hero? Who is remembered? Who is forgotten? For churches serious about city renewal, the inevitable juxtaposition should lead us to difficult conversations: We, obviously, are affluent, college-educated, mostly White and Asian white collar Christians who have moved into the city and they are poor, uneducated, mostly black and brown blue collar (if not unemployed) families who have lived in San Francisco for decades. Some questions arise: Who is “serving” and who is “being served?” Who knows what is best for San Francisco? Will poor people feel welcomed in a church where everyone has an iPad? Can I maintain an affluent lifestyle while I serve the poor?

When we discuss city renewal, we must also ask ourselves, “City renewal according to whom?” According to us? According to the pastor who just moved here two months ago to start a city-focused church? Does he know what’s best for the Tenderloin? Or does city renewal happen according to the old Mexican lady who’s lived here for 30 years and has seen hipsters take over her neighborhood? Or the black family who’s been living in the Bayview for 20 years and has seen Chinese families slowly move onto their block? Who is going to ask them what restoration looks like? In our city-focused churches, are poor community folks in positions of leadership and power so that the congregation is actually informed about how those neighborhoods are best served? Or is it an affluent white man giving that information? Whose voices are elevated as we serve and love? If society silences the voices of the poor, will the church follow suit? What does it look like to have a racially, socioeconomically, and gender-reconciled church? Would we attend a church pastored by a poor, uneducated, brown person? Wasn’t Jesus… a poor, uneducated, brown person?

Service among the poor + a sense of entitlement = city renewal on MY terms. It means city renewal at my convenience, with my methods, and with people I like. It means I proclaim the Gospel to poor folks, not the other way around. It means I can serve the poor while not having to confront my own materialism. It means I can go to the soup kitchen and then back to the suburbs without thinking twice. It means I can feel good about the work I do in my neighborhood without having to acknowledge that I am gentrifying it. It means I am using my privilege to undo my privilege. Which doesn’t work. And I think many of us Millennial Christians, desperate for a faith that matters, running from the bubbles we grew up in, have found a faith that appears more authentic, socially conscious, and justice-minded, but underneath has the same fears, materialism, consumerism, and greed we claim to despise. Our churches have changed clothes, but we are still as entitled, wealthy, and comfortable as the Christians we left behind in the suburbs.

As I have, in my own life, attempted to live out what I hope is following Jesus through the eye of the needle, I have been forced to confront these questions of power, privilege, racism, gentrification, and injustice that lie within the crevices of my own hands. Because that is what happens when you get a rich Chinese kid from the suburbs and introduce him to a Jesus who tells him to give that all away. I want desperately to disassociate myself with what is wrong with the world, but I cannot deny the fact that wealth disparity, racism, and injustice are not just things I fight “out there” in the cities, but it is something I must confront in my own heart and lifestyle. I am extremely rich. And there are people out there who are extremely poor. That fact alone puts me at a grave disadvantage to understanding what the Kingdom of God is all about, despite my noblest actions. And there is nothing scarier than injustice draped in good intentions. My response to Jesus, as sacrificial as I would like to think it is, is tangled in a giant hairball of contradictions.

One of the biggest contradictions is that, while we have committed ourselves to justice, we also seem to have committed ourselves to gentrifying the city. True city renewal cannot happen without difficult conversations about gentrification. This, in my mind, is where we are the biggest part of the problem. Because no matter our theology, our geography may be more telling of whether we are renewing the city or destroying it. Because I can be doing my best to serve my neighborhood, but if I am young, affluent, light-skinned, and recently relocated to San Francisco, I am probably part of the problem, not the solution. And my neighbors won’t be fooled. To them, I am a “strange liberator,” representative more of decades of injustice than any positive change.

John Perkins, President of the Christian Community Development Association, says that it takes five to eight years to make any kind of sustainable impact in a community. The trouble with internet-age Millennials is that we desire instant gratification and fast results. But real city renewal is slow, painful, mundane, unglamorous, un-newsletter-worthy, and untrendy. It requires the difficult task of showing up in broken neighborhoods. And then showing up again. And then showing up when you hate it. And then showing up when people hate you. And then listening. And then listening some more. And not telling anyone what they need or what the Gospel should look like to them. Real city renewal means you get betrayed, mugged, and dismissed. It means you are immediately distrusted because of the color of your skin and then doing the hard work of understanding where that distrust comes from and then slowly earning it back. It means the people you serve end up hurting you and you end up hurting them. It means you work through conflict, you have hard discussions about privilege, wealth, and race, and you confront yourself daily. Real city renewal is slow trust, mutuality, and reciprocity. It destroys the illusion of “us” and “them”, “missionary” and “lost”, “service provider” and “service recipient.” And to truly know and therefore love a city, we must get our hands dirty in the mud of it. We must commit ourselves to it long term. We must know its history, its ins and outs. We are not ghetto tourists. We cannot take our cameras into the communities we “serve” because the hood is not a vacation or a documentary; to the folks who have lived there for 30 years it certainly isn’t. And a picture of me and a group of black kids doesn’t automatically make me legit; it makes me a poverty pornographer. Shane Claiborne did a good job making justice-focused Christianity cool; it’s time to move beyond cool to sustainability, continuity, and mutuality. A one day service project is not enough. A one week urban missions trip is not enough. A one year urban missions program is not enough. San Francisco deserves better than that.

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In an apartment on the West Side of Chicago, I was forced to confront myself. For the first time in my life, I realized that my reality was worlds apart from the reality of those we call “poor.” To understand poverty on an intellectual level is an oxymoron. You cannot understand poverty on simply an intellectual level. Jesus’ mandate to love the poor is more of a call to solidarity than to service, to friendship than to charity. Jesus obliterates the illusion of a unilateral, vertical relationship; we don’t stand above the poor, we stand with them until they are no longer “the poor,” just friends and neighbors. Christ prays, “That you may be one…” that’s what this is all about.

When relationship is the goal, we will be able to stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.

I have found that to love my neighbor as myself changes when I deeply know my neighbors, when we have BBQs together, celebrate together, and mourn together. And many times, when you live in the same place, see the same issues, and grieve over the same losses, to love your neighbor is to love yourself, because your wellbeing and your neighbor’s are wrapped up together as one. The more we see ourselves in the face of the poor and the more we find Jesus there, the less important it will be for us to hold onto our privilege and wealth. Let us be friends, not missionaries, and if we are bringing harm to our neighbors, gentrifying the city, let us apologize and repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand, and will be realized when those of us on mountains are brought down and those living in valleys are exalted, when we are one, when there is no longer us and them, just us.