Church, Respond to Gentrification!

The City that is

Here in the city of Cape Town, the effects of poverty are widespread and rancorous. It is centuries old and it feels as though we who are rich have become numb to it. We have normalized what isn’t normal. The spirit of apartheid lingers on here, its last stand. Our city has held onto the legacy of apartheid in many ways but none as clear as the race-based spatial divides. We accept that the rich should have special and reserved places in our city. We have legit Non-poor areas where even taxis can’t reach. Generally, white people live closer to the city centre and nice beaches while coloured people live in the middle and black people on the outskirts of the city. Here is a helpful race dot map using 2011 census data.

Showing Racial distribution in Cape Town

If you take the same map and look where rich people live we can see that the richer areas are where white people live.

Showing household incomes.

The areas that have the most people of colour are also the poorest. If we overlay that with population density (i.e how many people live where) then we can see it is the most densely populated places where people of colour live.

When we look at which neighbourhoods have the most murders but least police resources it is then almost unsurprising that those are the neighbourhoods where black and coloured people live. See this article by Zackie Achmat. What would God have us do in an unjust city like this? Surely we recognise that we are complicit in this city that is. Our silence on issues that don’t affect us tacitly condones the abnormal state of affairs.

The G word

This backdrop is what we have to bare in mind when we speak of gentrification.

Call it what you like

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it — Luke 19:41

I wonder if Jesus would think Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world. I wonder if he would praise us Captonians as we so liberally take credit for His creation. We LIVE in Cape Town they WORK in Johannesburg. We ooze pride at what we have here.

That most important command Love Thy Neighbor rings in my head often as I fail to do it. In Cape Town who is your neighbour? It seems more often than not we have let our politics determine or theology rather than letting our theology determine our politics. Our politics it seems dictates who we think our neighbours are. Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan leaves no room in the definition of neighbour for geography, ethnicity or culture. He calls us to something way more revolutionary, something that is painful to accept and to be honest quite upsetting.

Eugene Petersen says that all Theology is rooted in Geography. The question we should be asking is where has our theology rooted us? We have a biblical mandate to live a life toward Justice that is as simple as loving our neighbour. Could it be that our hope to change this city lies not in the power of politics or big money but rather in the subversive act of Love for our neighbour? And loving our neighbour is not only charity work. MLK says:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King

If this then what?

How do we even begin to restructure things? Firstly we reject the notion of a silver bullet solution. One-size-fits-all is baby wear. We need a conversation of nuance. We need to step out of the binary and into the complex. We mustn’t do just one thing we must do many things. Often subversive, seldom safe. Let’s do big things and small things. Structures are structures because people made them so our raw materials then are people.

We start from where we are at. At the moment in the ministry area, I find myself we can tangibly feel the movement of people as described in the video. Gentrification is a structural problem, our response is at a heart level. Are we naive enough to believe that we can shift things? But that is kingdom economy.

As agents of transformation in God’s subversive kingdom, we don’t have to apologize for being few in number, focusing on one little area or need around us, making what seems to be a small impact. Our King’s own teaching tells us not to be thrown off or discouraged by worldly perspectives that minimize what we’re doing or try to stop us from getting started altogether, making us perceive our kingdom work as being too insignificant to matter. Small strides are actually God’s deliberate design for effective growth. It’s how his kingdom happens.” Subversive Kingdom — Ed Stetzer

This is the stuff of our faith tradition. You see at the crux of our belief is the death and resurrection of our peasant, rabbi, King Jesus. He was from Nazareth, the middle of nowhere. Nothing good comes from Nazareth remember. As a baby, he was a refugee in Egypt. Born in a manger with animals as witnesses. By all accounts we should know nothing of his crucifixion, it should have been lost in history along with the thousands of crucifixions that took place across the Roman Empire.

And although we should know nothing of it, it is the single biggest event in history. By dying on a Cross and raising up to life, He changed everything forever. A seemingly insignificant person, in a seemingly insignificant place, changed the world forever. They wouldn’t have known it then but more than 2000 years later we still sing of His goodness.

Is it unreasonable then to believe that God would use something very small to eventually make a sustained difference? We pray for this, we yearn for it. In our lifetime Lord, in our lifetime. When gentrification comes like a wave responding with one home to occupy space seems insignificant. That’s no sexy strategy. Our most recent project at Level Ground is the Mustard Seed Home. With this one home, we hope to make a prophetic statement. We want to say that we do not accept the onward march of the market. We do not accept that people’s homes, families, and lives should be uprooted for the benefit of the rich. We think it is significant that we reserve homes within a gentrifying community for those most at risk of being evicted. So we start small with this one home.

So to end, here is an open invitation for you to join us. As we foolishly believe that another city is possible. That something new can be made. And that God could use us to inspire others to this work. Consider praying with and for us. Consider contributing financially to the campaign. Consider spreading this opportunity in your networks. We hope this mustard seed will one day grow into a tree, made visible to those passers-by on life’s roadside. That they would marvel at the Creator of it all.

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