Two weeks after I turned 19, I left the large, suburban Nazarene church I had attended my entire life to start pastoring and working for nonprofits in the inner city. Seven years and 1200 miles later, I’ve learned more than I could ever possibly write down. It has been the most challenging, rewarding, painful, humbling, joy-filled time. I would pray for the same experience for all pastors! Yet, as I hear about more churches moving to the city, I feel an overwhelming sense of worry. Why? The short answer is gentrification.

 

The simplest explanation of gentrification is the phenomenon that happens when large numbers of middle to upper class, usually white people move into low-income, often historically minority neighborhoods. Houses are flipped, high-end restaurants and trendy coffee shops appear, property values skyrocket and soon the original residents can’t afford to live in the neighborhood anymore. They are displaced and quickly forgotten, while the new crowd enjoys a thriving neighborhood without the pre-existing problems of the poor. The new city dwellers congratulate themselves on solving the problem, but in fact the “problem,” or poor, have just been hidden, tucked away in run-down apartments in the suburbs. In actuality, nothing changes except their zip code. Plus, gentrification actually creates more problems because it pushes the already under-resourced even further from resources such as free clinics, public transportation, shelters, courtrooms, government housing and other assistance agencies that are almost always located downtown. Gentrification also erases an entire community’s history. Outsiders see poor downtown areas as blights in need of fixing. With the best intentions to be helpful, they knock down, flip and whitewash away the history and culture of the area. They choose to believe that unless the area looks and feels familiar it is wrong, they know the best way to live.

It’s happening in almost all major cities across the US. Downtowns are booming and the poor are being swept under the rug. I’ve lived in Raleigh for the past two years and have experienced the effects of gentrification first hand. I work in a low-income, historically African American neighborhood and decided early on that I wanted to live in the same neighborhood in which I served (which is something I’m very passionate about!). I moved into a cheap rental house and my landlord warned me that he was considering putting the house back on the market since it seemed like the area was gaining popularity. I agreed to a short-term lease because I thought there was no way the neighborhood would flip quickly, even if it was within walking distance of downtown. Six months later I had to move out because the house was indeed selling. Now, a year later, nearly half the neighborhood is in the process of being renovated and I can no longer afford to move back.

Unfortunately, gentrification isn’t just secular problem. In fact, I’ve seen the church be a major participator in this pattern. In the past six months, I’ve heard about so many churches, including several from our denomination, moving back into the cities. And if I’m honest, I feel really torn. Part of me rejoices that more Nazarene pastors are interested in going “back to our roots” of serving in urban areas. As General Superintendent, Dr. David Busic, pointed out recently, the Nazarene Church has done a poor job over the past 50 years of planting churches or supporting existing congregations in the city. We’ve chosen to create compassionate ministries in urban areas that let us help others without having to do the messy work of living life with people who are different than us. We’ve created a safe distance in loving people. So I am genuinely excited that our church is moving in a direction that will create long-lasting relationships downtown. But I fear that we’re too late. We should have moved back to the cities 20-30 years ago, before it was popular, safe or easy. It’s disturbing to watch our Church following the popular and powerful in returning to the city. I’m afraid that when we move back to the cities we’ll continue creating churches that look, feel and act the same as the ones we’ve planted for the past several decades in the suburbs. Are we loving our neighbors or have we fallen in love with new neighborhoods?

I hope you don’t think I’m saying that moving to the city is wrong! It’s not. In fact it’s needed. The crowds of wealthy people who are moving back need Christ just as desperately as those who are relocating. Plus pockets of deep poverty still exist in inner cities. Gentrification doesn’t always have to be such a negative force, but often is because those moving in are unaware of the rippling effects they create. So, if you’re called to the city, come! Come pastor, live in and experience the richness and craziness that is urban ministry. But come cautiously. If you’re going to relocate, consider these steps. Think deeply about what neighborhood you move into and how that will change your housing options. Know that if you build or flip a house in a low-income neighborhood it will affect your neighbors. Listen to the community- ask for their advice! Learn from pastors and organizations that are already established downtown. A really great resource is Christian Community Development Association (ccda.org), which includes pastors and practitioners who’ve been wrestling with this issue for decades. For even more practical tips, I suggest reading, “Theirs is the Kingdom” by Bob Lupton. He gives great insight into how to relocate in ways that helpful, not harmful to our new neighbors.

I urge us to think and pray about relocating. As the demographics shift, suburban pastors will face entirely new situations. Their congregations will soon be in need of ESL classes and multilingual church services, food pantries, after school programs and more. They will need advocates who will fight for better public transportation, better housing and more job opportunities. So I pray that, instead of following the trends of the wealthy and powerful in our nation, Nazarenes would pursue the poor and forgotten. I hope that we’d be willing to stay behind or relocate to the dwindling, less exciting margins of the city instead. I think that’s where our roots really are, not in a physical location but with the marginalized.

Originally from Bethany, OK, Melanie Gering attended Southern Nazarene University, where she studied Urban Ministry. She is now an associate pastor at Tapestry Church of the Nazarene in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. Melanie also runs a language arts after school program at Tapestry's partner non-profit, Neighbor to Neighbor.