The (Sub)Urban Scene | Autumn 2011
Cultural Preservation and Ministry in the City
By Jason Davison
“But he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command . . . But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” – The Elder Brother, Luke 15:29-30
As I live and work in an urban community undergoing gentrification, I see elements and hallmarks of my culture being erased or pushed out. I see black institutions, including the church, clinging for relevance and influence in a community that is “safer and cleaner,” but has little need or affinity for African-American culture.
Sure, there are folks new to the city who love ethnic food or black theater productions, but in gentrifying communities nationwide, culturally specific programs are becoming passé in the minds of today’s “tolerant” and “open-minded” urbanites.
Unfortunately, this post-racial sentiment quickly gives way to a mindset of cultural homogeneity that unconsciously assimilates minorities into the dominant, predominantly white culture. I’m a product of this cultural process. After teaching in Seattle’s traditional African-American neighborhood (the Central District), my wife, Foxy, and I moved to St. Louis to attend Covenant Theological Seminary. Similar to my experience from elementary to graduate school, my time in seminary was spent as one of the few African-Americans in my cohort. After four years of excellent instruction and spiritual formation, I graduated as the only black M. Div student going for ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA ) in May 2009.
Once Foxy and I arrived back in Seattle, we found the Central District greatly changed from the community it had been in 2005. Low-income families, the poor, and many African-American and Latino neighbors had been priced out by gentrification. Blacks once forced to live in the Central Area by way of restricted housing covenants in other Seattle neighborhoods are now pushed out in the name of safer streets and affordable housing. It’s no wonder that black and other ethnic institutions — including those that were once the center of the community — find themselves bitterly clinging to their culture and jostling each other for community impact.
So what is a minister to do if he wants to serve among people of color in rapidly changing communities? Foxy and I began by working bi-vocationally and volunteering in organizations that served black or other ethnic minorities left in the community. One of my responsibilities was to host community forums on race, class, and neighborhood issues. In one such forum, we had students write antiviolence messages on T-shirts and display them for the forum. Looking at one T-shirt, I asked a friend what color best represented death in her mind. She was undecided, and without thinking I suggested the black T-shirt hanging over our heads. Immediately after the discussion, a friend pulled me aside and rebuked me for using the color black in a pejorative connotation, as opposed to pink or white.
It was a harmless comment on my part, but I have come to a painful realization these past 18 months in Seattle. I have subtly embraced white, middle-class values and cultural perspectives. In order to pass advanced placement courses in high school, I needed to learn about white heroes. In college, I had to communicate “white” in order to become a professional; in seminary, I had to pray, think, and lead “white” in order to get where I am today. This is not a slight on individuals I know and love, but a statement about our educational and ecclesiastical structures that quickly assimilate minorities.
This phenomenon is not completely wrong, but it presents a problem for individuals wanting to plant churches or lead ministries that are culturally equitable and attractive to minorities — especially among those who are disillusioned with dominant culture values of “diversity” in our post-racial milieu. Gentrification is not just a secular issue for cities, businesses, and residents; it is an issue for white evangelicalism in our new urban communities. It is an issue for people of color within white church traditions seeking to live out reconciliation while still retaining their cultural identity.
In Luke 15, the elder brother sees the end of his world as he knows it. The younger, sinful brother returns home and is met with mirth and love from his father, while the faithful son feels unloved. His protest against his father and brother is an attempt to preserve his narrative, his cause, and his world. Of course he is wrong to be bitter, of course he is right to faithfully serve in his father’s house — but he is also stuck, believing that he is unloved.
I find Christian and non-Christian groups intensely jaded against white churches, institutions, and residents in my community. I also struggle, as I see little empathy by well-meaning white evangelicals to the plight and mindset of black people in rapidly changing communities. It is of course wrong for black people to disown their white brothers and make them feel guilty; it is of course commendable that ethnic institutions have faithfully cared for youth and the poor for generations; but people of color find themselves stuck — believing themselves to be unloved and inferior to their white counterparts, who exercise greater mobility to thrive in gentrifying communities.
This black, elder-brother mindset is not just sin bred from past discrimination; it is fostered by a lack of true brotherly love on the part of white evangelicals and secularists alike.
Continuing church policies and values that mold black seminarians to unconsciously disdain their own culture, or set up black pastors as “inspirational” speakers in white churches rather than true partners in ministry, will only replicate churches that assimilate rather than dignify other ways of thinking and doing in American evangelicalism. What would be refreshing and helpful in preventing this “elder-brother syndrome” is a loving and respectful posture from my white Christian brethren and a willingness to explore new ways of structuring education and ministering in our changing inner cities.
Jason and Foxy Davison live and serve in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood with their two children. The Davisons own Cortona Café, which is currently transitioning to a nonprofit entity devoted to hospitality, partnership with grassroots organizations, and job creation for youth in the Central District. Additionally, Foxy serves families that struggle with sickle cell anemia and Jason is an assistant pastor at Seattle’s Green Lake Presbyterian Church.
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