Neighborhoods Change, but the Lord is an Everlasting Rock

“Gentrification” is an outdated term that conceals more than it reveals. Here's one pastor's experience in a changing neighborhood.

Brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which has been experiencing gentrification for two decades.
Brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which has been experiencing gentrification for two decades. (photo: ‘Newyork10r’, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dramatic demographic shifts have occurred throughout this country that have substantially affected the Catholic Church. Nationally, Catholics have tended to relocate from the Northeast to the South and Southwest. In many large cities, such as Washington D.C. where I live, there have also been large shifts in the demographics of the city centers.

From the 1960s through the 1990s the “inner city” was synonymous with poverty. Housing there was considered substandard; government services and schools were thought nightmarishly poor; crime rates were high; boarded up buildings were common.

More recently the center city has become fashionable again. Weary of commuting and of a rather culturally bland existence in suburbs, many have chosen to return to the urban centers. Property values have soared, and renovation and new construction are visible everywhere.

I am a pastor in a rapidly changing city and my own neighborhood has been on the forefront of such change. This has placed both pressures and possibilities before us, and I think that we are handling the situation well. Yet, truth be told, dramatic change is never easy. We have been an historically Black parish in an historically Black neighborhood.

Beginning in the 1990s and picking up speed over time, many parishioners moved out of the city to the nearby Maryland suburbs. While keeping our African-American identity, we increasingly became a commuter parish. That works for a while, but eventually the numbers drop as the logistics of driving in to the city on a Sunday morning set in.

Further, although the parents who moved stayed loyal to the parish, their children and grandchildren are less attached and less likely to attend Mass. Realizing this, and seeing our numbers steadily dropping, we began an evangelization outreach that included door-to-door visits. Our numbers are growing once again. However, our new neighbors are not, for the most part, African-American. That solidly black neighborhood is now gone.

“Gentrification” is a term often used to describe this trend, but I find that it conceals more than it reveals. It tends to be focused in broad categories such as race and economic class and misses a lot of subtle but substantial realities that are important for both understanding the trend and for effective evangelization in the face of it.

I’d like to speak to some of the subtleties and paradoxes that the word “gentrification” misses. This reflection is based on my own pastoral experience. I do not write as a demographer armed with statistics and survey results. My sample is small: churchgoing Catholics in a particular residential Capitol Hill neighborhood in Washington, D.C. My point is that the details are pastorally important in order to cultivate understanding and to avoid the conflicts that can emerge if things are reduced merely to stereotypical notions about race and economics.

Here are some points to understand what the term “gentrification” misses and even conceals:

I. Most of the neighbors and parishioners who moved out were not poor. Although our neighborhood was referred to as the “inner city” and “Southeast Washington” (a sector usually associated with poverty) my parishioners and neighbors were not, for the most part, desperately poor. Back in the 1950s, it was a working-class neighborhood. Many worked in the Navy Yard, in city government, in construction, or in retail. By the 1970s, many here had stable jobs and were homeowners in a real estate market that was starting to heat up. I would characterize the core membership of this parish in those days as middle to upper-middle class.

Through the 1980s it made economic sense for many of the residents here to sell their houses and move to the suburbs. Soaring property values gave them the financial leverage to buy some very nice, large homes in suburbs such as Bowie, Laurel, Fort Washington, and Mitchellville. Many still viewed the fulfillment of the “American Dream” as suburban living. I have had many opportunities over the years to visit and bless these homes, and they are certainly larger than the homes in which I grew up.

While there is now less public and affordable housing in this neighborhood, the two largest public housing projects (Potomac Gardens and Hendly) are still here and our parish is actively engaged in ensuring that they are not eliminated.

New housing developments and apartments are required to include 30% “affordable units” at three different economic levels.

So at least within the boundaries of my parish, it is not fair to say that there has been a huge exodus of the poor or that those who left were driven out by the economic inability to live here.

II. Our new neighbors and parishioners are not all rich. The price of a renovated row house in this neighborhood now approaches a million dollars. There are also a good number of rather pricey new condominiums and apartments. This fuels the impression that everyone who lives in this neighborhood is fabulously wealthy.

However, many new neighbors who live here and attend this parish are renters. Often several people will room together in a row house or a mid-sized apartment in order to share the high rent. This is the only way that many if not most of them can afford to live here.

A large number of them are young adults, 20-35; many are unmarried. A good number of them work on Capitol Hill and in lobbying and legal firms. Some also work as nannies or in the hospitals or universities. Though some of these sound like high-paying jobs, many are not. They involve long hours and high pressure; the benefits are more in prestige and resume-padding than high salaries.

Many do not have cars, much furniture, or other assets. Many also have high college debts.

Thus, while the word “gentrification” implies that the “gentry” (or wealthy class) is moving in, the reality is more complex. There are surely some (the owners of these homes) who must have significant wealth, but even many of them rent their basements or other parts of their home in order to be able to afford the mortgage payments.

The paradox is that many of the older African-Americans who left were economically better off than many of the young adults who live here now. The term “gentrification” misses this subtlety. As a pastor, I have learned that many of them, especially those who are staffers in the Hill, must work long and irregular hours, often involving travel to far-flung congressional districts; most of them have limited disposable income.

Because they have limited time, it is harder to engage them in parish groups and ministries. They seem to favor the 7:00 p.m. Sunday Mass we established to reach out to them. (During our door-to-door evangelization in the neighborhood, we had frequent requests for an evening Mass on Sunday because it was hard for them to be free on many Sunday mornings.)

In all this, I do not intend to paint an overly bleak picture, but only to demonstrate that “gentrification” is term that conceals more than it reveals.

III. The shift is not merely one of race, but of age as well. The average age in both the neighborhood and the parish has dropped dramatically. This provides as many (if not more) challenges than racial differences.

Some of our older parishioners prefer traditional times for Mass, enjoy gospel music, and aren’t in a big hurry to get Mass finished quickly. They like earlier meetings, preferring not to venture out at night so often. They prefer traditional forms of communication such as the telephone, would rather use cash and checks, and like to register for events using paper forms.

Young folks prefer texting and other electronic media. They live life at a faster pace, are more nocturnal, and prefer shorter liturgies. Far fewer of them are married or grew up in a traditional home. They also emerged into a more fragmented, virtual world and are more prone to act independently rather than as members of a group or a class.

All of this presents pastoral challenges. They are not insurmountable, but the generation gap is alive and well.

The point here is that much hinges on age, not on race or economic class. The term “gentrification” wholly misses generational differences due to its focus on economic class and race.

Truth be told, most young adults do not go to Church at all. Many are agnostic or “spiritual but not religious.”

Those who do attend, though, are more devout than I ever was at their age. For example, most of the confessions I hear each week are before the 7:00 PM Mass, which is mostly attended by young adults. There is a steady stream of penitents for at least half an hour before Mass. That anyone born after 1980 is in Church at all (let alone devout) is a minor miracle given the militant atheistic and secularist forces they have known. Somehow, someone has connected with them, praise God, and they know to go to Mass.

IV. The new residents are not all white. For many, the term “gentrification” refers to the rich and white, but my experience is that the dichotomy of rich and white versus poor and black is false in many ways. Whoever is moving into my neighborhood, merely calling them “White” is as problematic as calling them all rich.

When I walk into our young adult Bible study, I look around the room and see a young woman from Korea, another from the Ukraine, and another from Poland. I see a young man from Ghana. I see an African-American woman and three or four born-in-America “white people.”

Only half of them speak English as their first language. There is great diversity in this neighborhood that many simply describe as “going white” or being “gentrified.”

V. They don’t stay long. One of the saddest and most challenging truths for me as a pastor is that very few live in our neighborhood for long. Many of the young adults who live in our boundaries are only here until the political fortunes on Capitol Hill shift. Others, whether working on the Hill or not, will not stay long simply because the city is most attractive to those without children. Once they marry and start their families, few remain for long.

Whatever the reason, within three to four years, most of the young adults who live here now will be somewhere else.

This is perhaps the greatest pastoral challenge of all: the ephemeral quality of our current culture. Few people stay anywhere for long, and this is especially true of younger adults, regardless of their race. It is quite a challenge to develop leadership in such a shifting environment.

Here, then, is the final inaccuracy of the term “gentrification”: it implies a certain “landed” quality wherein “old money” accumulates and real estate belongs to a group (the gentry) in a kind of lasting way. That’s just not happening here.

As noted, this makes leadership development in the parish very difficult. Some of the older parishioners are tested leaders and have been here for years, but the younger leaders will not stay long, or at least that has been my experience. As the older folks who have led groups and ministries effectively continue to age, there are few standing behind them to take the reins. Even if there are, they tend to move on quickly. This presents quite a challenge, and while not insurmountable, it is still difficult.

What, then, are pastors and their parishes to do in a changing demographic? Welcome the newcomers and evangelize! There is no other option.

For Catholics, it is important to remember that the entire world is organized into parish boundaries. I and my parishioners are responsible for every man, woman and child within our parish boundaries—Catholic or not, Christians or not. Have they met Christ? Have they heard the call to repent and believe the Gospel? Our first work is to make disciples of everyone (Mat 28:19). Jesus did not issue exceptions such as, “… unless they are not your race or unless they are not in your age group.” He just said, Go unto all the nations …

Thanks be to God, my own parishioners heard this call and did what Jesus demands. It was not easy. They had to reach across racial, ethnic, and generational barriers, but they did so. There were only a few grumblers, but even they knew, deep down, what Jesus expects. For the Church, there can be no such thing as “gentry.” There are only people, God’s people.

As I have tried to show in this reflection, “gentrification” is an inaccurate and divisive term. Quite simply, as I have shown through my experience, they are not all gentry. They are people, just people: some rich, some poor, some docile, some argumentative, some white, some not; people from every other distinction imaginable. In the end, they are all souls loved and sought by God.

In a changing world, the Church’s mission is unchanging: Make disciples of all.