Gentrification: Its Impact on the Local Church

While pastoring at Emmaus Church in Portland, OR, I was given an opportunity to guest write a chapter for Sean Benesh's book on the effects of gentrification, Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting. Sean is an author local to Portland, writing about discipleship and church planting in an urban context. The following is the chapter in it's entirety


Alvin and Angela’s sons grew up in the same neighborhood as their parents. As the boys entered their teenage years they were able to witness the rapid changes gentrification was bringing to their neighborhood. Beyond mere observation, they were also able to experience these changes on more occasions than they would like as police offers repeatedly pulled them over within 2 blocks of their residence. They had committed no traffic violations. Nor had they committed any crime when they were followed by a squad car as they walked home from school. Nor were they committing a crime when they were approached by a threatening officer wielding his nightstick as they walked up the steps to their own home. The only reason for their increasingly common encounters with the police is that certain officers believe black teenage boys no longer “fit” in their own neighborhood.

Duoshun has spent most of his 27 years in the neighborhood. As a food connoisseur it was only natural for Duoshun to gather his friends to celebrate his birthday at the brand new BBQ restaurant that entered the neighborhood on the waves of gentrification. It seemed to be just as natural, unfortunately, for the white server of the white-owned restaurant to greet her black guests with the words, “I know you all want ribs, but we’re almost out.” Being brand new to the neighborhood did not stop her from assuming that black people in the neighborhood only order ribs, nor did it stop her from assuming they could not afford any items of additional cost (“I don’t think you want that, it’s going to cost extra”) or that they could not be trusted to leave a generous tip (“you guys never tip”). 

Dianne has owned her own home in the neighborhood for nearly 40 years. When she moved in she was one of many black residents on her block. She now owns the only two houses on the block occupied by non-whites. Every week Dianne receives unsolicited postcards from white individuals and families in Portland’s surrounding suburbs. “We really want to move closer into Northeast Portland. Would you be willing to sell your house to us? We’ll offer a nice sum.”  Needless to say, Dianne is the only homeowner on her block receiving such postcards because she is the final holdout of black homeowners who purchased homes on her block at rock-bottom prices (because no white people wanted to live there) that have since increased in value by more than 2,000% (because many white people want to live there).

These three stories from members of Emmaus, the multi-ethnic church I pastor, are not uncommon. I chose them randomly from the many dozens of stories I have heard since we planted the church in Portland, Oregon’s lower Northeast section in 2006. In the decade we planted the church the process of gentrification overtook the historically black neighborhood and resulted in 7,700 African-Americans being displaced.[1] That process has only continued into the current decade. While much has been written about the impact of gentrification on a city and its communities, much less has been written on the impact of gentrification on the local church. In this chapter I will review two ways that gentrification has impacted my congregation and others like it.  


Cross-Cultural Relationships

It is sometimes stated that one of the positive effects of gentrification is that it moves multiple neighborhoods from a largely segregated state to a far more integrated state. This is seen as a positive because integrated neighborhoods provide improved services for minority populations and an opportunity for cross-cultural relationships in neighborhood schools, churches, businesses, and community organizations. While it is accurate to observe these effects of gentrification, it is inaccurate to interpret these effects as necessarily positive. In my experience of pastoring people from both the “Old Neighborhood” (read: black) and “new neighborhood” (read: white) these effects do not contribute to improving cross-cultural/cross-ethnic relationships. They more often contribute to even greater tension in cross-cultural/cross-ethnic relationships.

Those in the New Neighborhood that are more socially conscious are initially excited about establishing diverse relationships for themselves and/or for their children in the integrated social spheres the gentrified neighborhood promises to provide. They are often subsequently disappointed to find that the Old Neighborhood is not equally excited about the opportunity to establish cross-cultural/cross-ethnic relationships with them. At the same time, many in the Old Neighborhood have difficulty believing that the new residents of their neighborhood truly desire equitable cross-cultural/cross-ethnic relationships. As a white man who has lived in the Old Neighborhood since long before gentrification began, I find this to be a reasonable doubt based on reasonable questions. Such as,

If you really wanted to have relationships with us why did you avoid our neighborhood until it became gentrified? Why did you wait for it to become “your” neighborhood before you made any efforts to know us?

Now that you do live in our neighborhood why do you spend your time in the coffee shops, pubs, concert halls, and churches that serve the New Neighborhood? You say you want to be in relationship with us but you spend your free time and money in the places you are least likely to find the diverse relationships you say you want.

Why are you willing to sacrifice my entire community in order to meet your personal desires? In order for you to gain all the good things you wanted (such as cross-ethnic relationships) the people of my community had to lose many of the good things we had.  

You say that gentrification provides positive benefits for minority populations because it improves schools, lessens crime, beautifies historic buildings, and raises property values. Why do you talk about these things as if they are positive instead of fighting against the unjust policies and practices that lead to these results? Do you really think it’s a good thing that the only way for a community of color to experience these “benefits” is for white people to move into it? Why do you not acknowledge the terrible injustices that these truths reveal and you unintentionally perpetuate?         

If you are so interested in building relationships with the Old Neighborhood why are stories like those that opened this chapter only becoming more common with each phase of new residents and businesses?  

Questions such as these only exist because of gentrification. The tension produced by the general failure of the New Neighborhood to acknowledge the presence of (much less the validity of) these questions only exists because of gentrification. The stories that opened this chapter only exist because of gentrification. Thus, in my pastoral experience, gentrification tends to worsen cross-ethnic relationships rather than improve them.

@@Gentrification tends to worsen cross-ethnic relationships rather than improve them@@

The good news is that the Christian Church has the tools to confront this cross-ethnic tension and reconcile the two divided neighborhoods into one neighborhood through the message of the gospel.[2] The bad news is that in most gentrifying neighborhoods, local churches are not making any attempt to narrow the divide. Instead, they are choosing to greatly widen the divide through planting churches by white people, of white people, for white people in the middle of historically black neighborhoods.

This is not to say that predominantly white churches entering currently gentrifying neighborhoods want to contribute to the cross-ethnic division in the neighborhood. It is to say that they do contribute to this division in spite of the fact they do not want to. By building their church upon New Neighborhood leaders; by covering their facilities, website, and promo materials in New Neighborhood art; by filling their services with New Neighborhood music, preaching styles, and sermon topics; and by specifically targeting New Neighborhood residents these churches unintentionally become yet another emblem of the New Neighborhood and its utter disinterest in the communities, values, spirituality, and people of the Old Neighborhood. This leaves the Old Neighborhood with the perception that even white Christians do not really want the cross-ethnic relationships they say they do, nor do they really want the justice they say they do as they seem to be content with not only allowing gentrification to run its course but with participating in it.   

All of the above leads us to conclude that gentrification is hurting local churches by multiplying cross-ethnic tensions (thereby hindering the proclamation of the gospel of reconciliation across ethnic lines) and by producing new segregated congregations even in ethnically diverse neighborhoods (thereby hindering the visibility of the gospel of reconciliation at work).



Community Discipleship & Community Benevolence


That is the word I hear most when asking African-Americans in my church to describe how gentrification affects them. Black men and women affected by gentrification often feel, in the words of my co-pastor D’Arcy, “like an alien in both neighborhoods.”

They no longer fit in the neighborhood they grew up in. The community they used to be a part of is gone and the new community is not designed to serve them or welcome them. They also do not fit in the neighborhood they have had to relocate to due to gentrification. Since the black community has been scattered to various places outside of the city center, they often discover they are the only African-Americans in their new neighborhood. Even when they are one of several new black residents in a neighborhood they remain without a single reflection of the unique culture that was a part of their every day existence prior to gentrification. Their new neighborhood is without culturally appropriate food, beauty salons, or hair supply stores, without culturally relevant art, without culturally competent educators, and – most importantly – without culturally sensitive churches.[3]  Such changes cause people like Perry, a member of Emmaus, to lament, “I don’t know where my community is anymore.”

All of this impacts local churches in at least five ways.

First, because there is no longer a geographically discernable “African-American community”, black Christians in my city no longer have the option of attending a neighborhood church. They are left with three options, each of which is less desirable.

A)   Commute anywhere from 20 to 120 minutes to one of the few remaining predominantly black churches in the Old Neighborhood. Many of these churches have died or are significantly declining in membership because of the long commute that is now required due to member displacement.  

B)   Attend a predominantly white church in their new neighborhood, of which only a minute number display even the smallest degree of cultural sensitivity or competency when ministering to African-Americans. This requires that in addition to the social discomfort of being one of very few persons of color in the congregation, the black Christian must also adapt to white cultural forms of preaching, worship, small groups, and community life.

C)   Attend one of the predominantly black churches or multi-ethnic churches that has relocated outside of the city center due to gentrification. This allows for a culturally sensitive worship experience but, because the church community consists of people who are scattered throughout the suburban and outer-city landscape, community outside of Sunday mornings is very difficult to find.

None of these options does anything to heal the problem of loneliness that many black Portlanders experience as a result of gentrification.

Second, as neighborhood churches decline through gentrification, so does church participation. Churches in the Old Neighborhood can attest that the longer the distance that one must travel to participate in church life the less frequently they will participate. For some, this is due to financial challenges. Each trip into the city center and back requires notable quantities of gas, which translates into notable sums of money. One can only travel into the city center and thus, to their church gatherings, as often as their finances permit. For others, the drop-off in church participation is due to scheduling challenges. Their work or family schedule will not allow them to spend 90 minutes on public transportation to get to the church gathering and 90 minutes more on public transportation to get home from the church gathering every time the church gathers. Yet this is exactly what is required of many who have been forced out of their church’s neighborhood through gentrification. For still others, the decrease in church participation is due to social challenges. People are motivated to participate in church activities at least partially by the social connections they develop. As the physical distance between church members grows greater, the social connections tend to feel weaker. Through gentrification, church members begin to feel less connected to their church family. The less connected they feel, the less motivated and/or safe they feel traveling long distances to worship with them.

Third, as church participation declines, Christian discipleship is hindered. Jesus intends for discipleship to take place in community. It is difficult to read the Bible and imagine spiritual growth taking place in any other context. For example, one cannot even attempt to obey the vast majority of commands in the book of Ephesians, Philippians, or Colossians apart from active involvement in a local church community. One also cannot receive some of the much-needed grace that God offers apart from his chosen instrument of the local church.[4] Though Emmaus is a growing multi-ethnic church this remains one of our biggest challenges. Because of the effects of gentrification discussed above, our members are unable to participate in community life to the degree that they desire and need. This affects their spiritual growth as Christians and our spiritual growth as a church. Therefore, beyond being an economic and political injustice, gentrification is also a spiritual injustice that distances minority Christians from their church communities and, consequently, robs the church of the contributions of its individual members and robs the individual members of the contributions of the church.

Fourth, as gentrification leaves many black Christians feeling disconnected from the communities they live in, and from the communities they worship in, evangelism suffers. A close reading of the Scriptures reveals that evangelism comes from communities and goes into communities.

@@Gentrification hinders church participation, Christian discipleship and community@@

Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 reveals that the gospel message is made more attractive and more believable by the unity of the Church that carries it. Likewise, Peter writes that it is through being built into a visible community that we as the Church declare the praises of Jesus.[5] By disconnecting many black Christians from their church communities (and their church communities from them), gentrification hinders the power of their evangelism from community. Gentrification also hinders their evangelism into communities. God moved to save us by becoming like us and coming to us in the person of Jesus.[6] When he came to proclaim the gospel to the Jews he came as a Jew. The Apostle Paul took a similar approach.[7] Both made themselves “fit” into the communities they had been sent to in order to make the gospel intelligible. Yet, as explained above, many black Christians do not feel like they “fit” anywhere. They no longer fit in their old neighborhood. They certainly don’t fit in their new neighborhood. And neither neighborhood seems to be very interested in welcoming them. This means that the people that black Christians can most effortlessly connect with on a human and cultural level are too far away – too scattered – to be evangelized as a community. Yet the people who are most close – most geographically accessible – are those most difficult to connect with on a human and cultural level for many reasons, several of which were illustrated in the opening stories of this chapter. Again we see that gentrification produces spiritual problems as much as it does economic and political ones. It weakens churches.

@@Gentrification weakens churches@@

Fifth, those who are most spiritually affected by gentrification are those who are most vulnerable. Consider who it is that has the greatest difficulty actively participating in church life after gentrification.

It is the poor who cannot afford the money it costs to travel into the city center and back two or three times extra times per week.

It is the single parent who cannot afford the time it costs to travel into the city center and back two or three extra times per week.

It is the disabled or the aged who are not physically able to drive or walk to and from public transportation.

It is the socially outcast who does not have relationships to depend on for transportation.

It is the historically oppressed who find themselves displaced from their own communities to begin with.

Jesus has much concern for and mercy on such people.[8]

Gentrification does not.

But will the Church?

It goes beyond the scope of this chapter to list a number of specific practical ways the Church might respond. It also goes beyond necessity. We cannot answer the “how local churches should respond” question until we answer the “will local churches respond” question. Will the Church respond to the ways gentrification is negatively affecting cross-ethnic relationships? Will the Church respond to the ways gentrification is leading many black Christians away from the blessing of community and into loneliness? Will the Church respond to the economic, political, and spiritual injustice that is gentrification? As a pastor of a church community that lives on all sides of the gentrification issue I pray we will all answer “yes” and then work on answering the “how” question together. And the only way we can answer the “how” question is to stop listening to white leaders such as myself and start listening to the stories of those who are directly impacted by gentrification.

I leave you in their far more competent hands.

May we listen well.

@@Will the church respond to the injustices of gentrification?@@


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or  facebook.


Image Credit to Jeremy Piehler:

[1] Aaron Scott, “By the Grace of God,” Portland Monthly, March 2012, 52.

[2] Ephesians 2:11-22

[3] Scott, 55.

[4] For example, see Galatians 6:2, Ephesians 4:11-13, Hebrews 13:17

[5] 1 Peter 2:4-10

[6] John 1:9-14

[7] 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

[8] Isaiah 58:6-9, Luke 14:12-14