For all the church’s efforts at promoting racial unity in urban America, what if our cities are actually designed to keep us apart? In Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation (InterVarsity Press), urban missiologist David P. Leong considers how the basic building blocks of city life—like neighborhoods, schools, and freeways—sustain fault lines of race and class. Mark Mulder, professor of sociology at Calvin College and author of Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, spoke with Leong about the “geographic structures” of urban life, and how the church can bend them toward flourishing for all.
What do you mean by “geographic structures,” and how can we recognize them?
My parents were born and raised in Detroit, but later they moved so that my siblings and I could attend better schools in the suburbs. As a kid, of course, you don’t realize how different things are in one place versus another. I had some suspicion that not everyone enjoyed these same blessings. But it wasn’t until I began doing high-school youth ministry in Seattle that I began really reflecting on the problems of urban geography.
I was working at a long-established Chinese church in a neighborhood that was home to many Chinese-speaking East Asian immigrants. And I began to see an interesting pattern. The short version is that many of the church’s second- and third-generation Chinese American families were moving out of this urban-ethnic enclave into the more upwardly mobile suburbs about 20 minutes away. I’ll never forget speaking to a high-school Christian club on Mercer Island, a wealthy community just a few miles across a bridge from Seattle. The school was architecturally beautiful and had all kinds of fancy equipment. I was a University of Washington student at the time, and the kids were mostly asking me about scholarships and standardized-test prep.
This stood in stark contrast with the other half of the youth group: local kids from the neighborhood who were a mix of Chinese, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian—many from families who weren’t even attending the church. When I went to visit their high school, it was a night-and-day difference.
This is when I began thinking seriously about geographic structures. I’m trying to pastor these kids and help them prepare for their futures. But I could see them headed on two very distinct pathways, which seemed unfair. And I could see how the structures of division that made up their everyday existence—grocery stores, schools, neighborhood blocks, housing developments, freeways, and mass transit—were locking them in to these pathways.
You claim that patterns of urban geography are not incidental or neutral. What do you mean by that?
For me, geography is never passive. Why does a new freeway cut through a certain neighborhood? Who lives near that freeway, and why? Those are not just decisions of urban planners or politicians. There are a million little decisions that go into that process—public and private.
It’s impossible to live in a place, or move to a new one, without getting tangled up in the history of its particular structures—who they benefit and who they exclude. That’s a hard reality, because most of us didn’t pave the streets we live on. Yet someone designed those places, and that design will either encourage the flourishing of society or lead to patterns of exclusion.
What advice would you give to middle-class Christians who feel drawn to poor or under-resourced neighborhoods, yet worry about their presence contributing to gentrification?
Some folks will probably read the book hoping for three or four practical steps. I wish it were that simple. Gentrification is a moving stream. It would be nice to pluck it out of its context, dissect it in a laboratory, and then figure out a solution. But like everything else in our cities, it’s a fast-changing, dynamic process. There are so many stakeholders, so many moving pieces.
I have so many students who understand that the Incarnation calls people of faith into solidarity with the poor. They’re saying, “Shouldn’t I move? Shouldn’t I live among those who are under-resourced?” On the whole, I want to say yes. It’s encouraging that people are even asking those questions, because there are plenty who would say, “It’s a free society. Why shouldn’t I get to live where I want to live?” But there’s also a challenge of being thoughtful and careful, and recognizing that you don’t go into a moving stream without paying attention to its history and its current dynamics. I think it’s a fair criticism for people to say that gentrification is the clearest form we have of new urban colonialism.
To a significant degree, gentrification is going to happen regardless of what we participate in or protest against. My hope is that people who see themselves at risk of contributing to the problem can find ways of displacing other gentrifiers more than displacing the poor.
How can churches contribute to a healthier urban geography?
So many churches, frankly, just don’t know their communities at all. Two or three days a week, a whole bunch of cars come in and then go somewhere else—and that’s the only relationship a church might have with its surrounding neighborhood. That’s more of a suburban reality, but it’s increasingly true of cities as well. The first step, for churches, is just asking, Who’s here? Who are the immediate neighbors that we serve? What populations are underserved? If churches begin to have that conversation more often, then they can look to their congregations and say, “Are we representing the people in this community, and why or why not?”
I’m encouraged that a lot of people are interested in returning to this idea of the local parish: a smaller church, mostly neighborhood-centric, one pastor, maybe 75 to 100 regular attenders. Not that long ago, more than 80 percent of North American churches fit that description. It’s a model that offers a great opportunity for churches to get to know their communities more closely.
The next step is asking, “How can our congregation use its resources—whether that’s a building, a program, or a professional with certain skills—for the sake of others?” Church buildings, for example, are notorious for inefficient usage. They’re filled up a couple times each week, but otherwise the heat is off and they’re just vacant. What a gift it would be for churches to think of their physical structures as resources not just for themselves but also for their surrounding communities. Especially in dense, gentrifying urban areas, where space is really at a premium.
Why do you consider Jesus a “geographic transgressor”?
In the beginning of the book, I tell the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). That’s one example among many of Jesus transgressing the established geographic boundaries of the ancient world. When we look at Jesus’ ministry and, after Pentecost, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we find that the human boundaries we’ve constructed don’t seem to interfere with God’s work in particular places.
If we’re following Jesus, it takes us not only into low places of suffering and hurt, but also into a range of places where we don’t feel we belong. It might take us into places where, according to society, we should remain apart. The geography of the Christian family transcends those boundaries and, in some places, really does demolish and destroy that hostility. It’s a wonderful metaphor for understanding how the church’s identity gets worked out in the world.
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