Reflection shared in worship by Jen Moore
If you read the July-August newsletter, you’ll know that my first ambition was to become an architectural historian, specializing in historic preservation. You’ll also know that I did not go on to do that, but that I instead joined the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, moved to a racially and economically divided neighborhood in North Minneapolis, and served as a community organizer. What you won’t know is why.
I like old buildings. I really do. And I liked learning about stylistic movements and researching the stories of a place. But somewhere along my 4th year in college, we started reading about successful “revitalization” projects. These are projects in which a run-down neighborhood is saved from blight through a process of relocating public housing, encouraging private business investment, and rezoning for high-end retail and housing. The result is more tax revenue for the city and “Huzzah! The buildings’ historic charms are preserved!” Sound like someplace we might know??
Well, for reasons I couldn’t pin down at the time, this made me feel uncomfortable. One day, I raised my hand and timidly asked my professor, “So…the people who were living there. Where did they go?” The grad students looked at me like I had lobsters coming out of my ears. The professor, who really was a nice guy, said (something like), “That’s not what we focus on. That’s not our primary concern.” A
And just like that, I knew I was in the wrong field.
Case in point: we’ve recently been hearing a lot of good news about New Orleans. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina exposed shocking racial and economic disparities. When the levees broke, New Orleans and our televisions were flooded with horrifying images of mostly Black and Brown people drowning, dying, and left to fend for themselves with no food or fresh water for nearly a week. We heard stories about mostly Black and Brown prisoners left locked in their cells while the prison flooded. We were overwhelmed with tragedy and loss. And now, 10 years later, on the heels of the Charleston shootings and countless stories of police brutality against people of color, New Orleans officials celebrate the city’s recovery. They use words like “renaissance” and “revitalization.” We know what that means!
A little bit of digging unveils that, while private business investments have rebuilt much of the city, 52% of the city’s Black men remain out of the workforce, 39% of its children live in poverty, and there are still people who are missing all together. Only 7% of the people displaced by the hurricane have been able to return, and a good portion of those still out there are public housing residents whose homes were torn down in the name of “revitalization,” and not replaced with an equal number of public housing units.
Deeper digging reveals how wide the net of racism spreads to trap people of color. A mostly Black high school has been slated for redevelopment, and the students and teachers were to get a brand new building … built on top of a toxic former landfill. Residents of a long-standing Vietnamese neighborhood spent the first year after Katrina not only rebuilding their community, but also battling a dumping ground placed nearby without any public forums or resident input. And neighborhoods filled with undocumented workers who were brought in to rebuild New Orleans are now being emptied of their pastors, teachers and leaders through deportation. NOLA’s recovery has taken place on the backs of people of color, whose cultural heritage is freely mined for the tourism industry, but who are subjected to erasure through displacement and economic violence, then discarded.
This is why I couldn’t become an historic preservationist, and why we NEED to talk about racism. What I know for sure about Jesus is that:
1. He commands us to love God and one another;
2. Jesus’ notion of “love” involves subjecting the Godself to human suffering, all the way to the cross; and
3. He told us STRAIGHT OUT that the greatest love you can show is to give up your life for the sake of your friends.
Over and over again in his ministry, Jesus chose people who lived on the margins of society to be the recipients of grace and the witnesses to the good news. He made them the center of his ministry, and it was for these friends and everyone else that he came to us, and for whom he died.
Racism causes us to do the opposite. It causes us to enact policies that fail to prioritize human rights and dignity in favor of those that reinforce a status quo that heavily favors white people, and then white privilege makes it hard for the people in power to even see or hear the experiences of the marginalized. We require natural and human disasters, like a devastating hurricane, or murder in a Bible study, before we can see or hear. While people continue to suffer, we declare recovery and move on.
We need grace, and we need healing, the kind that only God can give. God is the original revitalizer, the greatest re-newer. He can take communities that are broken and divided by racism and make them whole again, but we have to do some work to help it along. The good news is that Lutherans know something about reformation, so we have it in us to do this work. The statement that our church has adopted gives me hope that we’re willing to do the hard work of confession and reflection, and to take action to make a positive difference in our communities. I’m excited about the possibilities, and grateful for this community of faith and its commitment to being the hands and feet of God.