Some of these questions are indeed frequently asked.  Others are simply anticipated to be of import to some.  Much of the thoughts I share here are not entirely my own, and I’ve borrowed from other friends and co-laborers–hence the use of “we” in various places.  Enjoy!

Q1: Why this focus on moving into high-need areas?  Why can’t we just set up ministry centers and staff them with caring people?  Why not just send groups several times a year to plant flowers and spruce up low-income neighborhoods and love people that way?

A1: Centrally, it’s about Jesus and following his example.  Jesus came in the flesh to bring reconciliation with God and reconciliation between people.  Many of the poorest areas in the United States are isolated places–there are few businesses in the neighborhood, few jobs, few grocery stores, and almost never an excellent school.  They are culturally isolated from mainstream culture (often with a justifiable suspicion of outsiders and those in power).  The mix of skin colors is balanced differently than in America as a whole.  America is in need of reconciliation.  Not just a leveling of the playing field, not just making sure nobody goes hungry, but reconciliation.  Reconciliation requires that people with inherited privilege apologize for the oppression that they have benefitted from, and it requires forgiveness of the oppressed.  A lot of this messy business doesn’t happen long distance: it requires proximity.

Before Jesus brought reconciliation with God, people were isolated from him in real ways.  Just read the Old Testament and the regulations for the High Priest approaching God.  I can’t do justice to it in this paragraph, but a fair number of books have been written about the mystery and power of the incarnation–God coming and living among us in the flesh and not just as a spiritual force.  The power of the Gospel is that Jesus left his place of power to be our neighbor–even to be crucified by us.  God decided to live among us as He reconciled us to himself.

Beyond the example Jesus has set for us, we have found other practical advantages:

  • There is some danger in seeing communities or people as projects needing fixing.  Somehow living next door seems to defuse the danger of seeing ministry in this way–you get to see the whole neighborhood and the whole person.  You get to be friends and neighbors first, and a servant and a worker second.
  • There is insight to be gained in living in a community, seeing 24 hours of how it works for weeks on end.  From the outside looking in, it’s a easier to accidentally devise plans for ministry/service that end up being toxic charity and to never realize the unintended consequences of what we’re doing.
  • When you and your family are personally affected by a social, governmental or neighborhood problem, you suddenly find amazing energy to work on these problems!  There is no motivation like the motivation of having skin in the game.  The operational status of streetlights, the quality of the neighborhood school, the graffiti problem a few blocks over suddenly become very important and you’ll invest huge energy in addressing them–for yourself and for your neighbors.
  • Living next door often breaks down suspicion.  There were barriers right from day one when I started teaching in an urban high school where I was the minority.  I remember vividly the break I got from students when one of them found out I lived about a mile away in a very similar low-income community.  As the news spread, there was good-natured teasing about their teacher living in “the hood”, and I slowly had fewer problems linked to suspicion of me as an outsider.

Q2: Isn’t what you’re proposing called gentrification?  Isn’t that a bad thing?  I’ve heard of people protesting against gentrification.

A2:  You’re at least partially right.  Gentrification by definition is linked to resources coming into a neighborhood–people buying houses and higher home ownership rates.  When somewhat more resourced people move in and buy houses in neighborhoods that used to be very low income and had fewer homeowners, that is certainly called gentrification.  But gentrification itself isn’t the problem.  Gentrification brings resources, brings higher tax revenue, and reduces housing blight–all things which benefit everybody in the neighborhood, rich and poor.  The problem isn’t gentrification: displacement of existing neighborhood residents is the problem.  When people protest against gentrification, they are usually actually protesting the higher rents and resulting displacement of existing residents.

In many large cities, gentrification can occur swiftly as developers see opportunity for returns on investment in a changing community.  Sometimes there may be an organized plan to change a low-resource, high-need neighborhood directly into a high-resource, low-need neighborhood as quickly as possible.  Other times it happens in an unplanned way, simply as a result of many actors all operating under the same market forces.  Either way, economic justice is not usually on the list of priorities for real estate developers if their goal is profit.  The faster a neighborhood transforms from poor to rich, the better the return on investment for developers.  Sometimes significant change can happen in as few as 5-10 years.

Gentrification can happen differently.  Many within the Christian Community Development community are talking about “Gentrification with Justice”.  They realize that a certain amount of gentrification lifts neighborhoods and neighborhood residents, so let’s plan for it and even encourage it in the right ways–working hard to avoid displacement of existing residents.  The goal is to serve the community, develop it into a healthier mixed-income neighborhood and ensure that existing residents are able to stick around to enjoy the fruits of development and the in-flow of resources.  Some are starting programs which promote home-ownership, encouraging and assisting existing community residents in buying houses (and enjoying rising property values).  Others are working to ensure affordable rents in the long term.  Check out the Binghampton Development Corporation as an example of an organization doing great work in this area.

One final thoughts: poverty is beginning to suburbanize.  While many of the highest-need neighborhoods are still in the core of many cities, don’t ignore the high-need neighborhoods forming around the periphery. We need neighbors working to stabilize these communities and prevent further decline.

Some of the best thoughts on this topic come from Robert Lupton.  Here are two great resources for thinking more about this question: a short newsletter and a longer, very interesting talk given at the 2006 CCDA conference.

Q3: What about safety?  Isn’t it my job to protect my family from danger?

A3: Fact #1: The nightly news thrives on reporting sensational, violent crimes.  People are fascinated by crime and research shows that crime reporting increases viewership (people can’t seem to turn it off).  So while you’d like to trust that the people on the television are just doing even-handed journalism, that’s not often the case.  The nightly news almost always disproportionally covers the dangers of low-income areas over the beauty of these areas and the assets these community do have.

Fact #2: While there are a few truly dangerous neighborhoods in America, there are far fewer than you might think.  Many people who move into a “tough neighborhood” to make new friends, to serve and love their new neighbors go from being terrified the first few nights of being there to being quite at ease a few months later.  I put “tough neighborhood” in quotes because that’s only how you see it before you live there.  Once you live there, you see it as a beautiful neighborhood with some challenges and a lack of resources.

Fact #3: There are dangers in SuperZIPs too: kids die from automobile accidents, souls waste away from the pursuit of that which does not satisfy, people suffer from loneliness.  Life is fragile and though we strive to run from every risk, there is no security apart from being in the will of God.  The safest place in the world is where God has called you to be: even if that’s a place with relatively higher crime than other areas.

Q4: Surely you can’t be saying that every Christian is called to move into high-need urban areas?

A4: No, it doesn’t seem that God calls every Christian to live in high-need urban areas.  Certainly some are called to be good neighbors to those who have every worldly possession yet are still empty, to seek the lost in the nicest and most expensive of neighborhoods.  The Bible and the Church encourage Christians to submit their entire lives to God’s will.  In fleshing out the details of this, the church has done a better job on some topics than others.   We talk a lot about submitting our family to God’s will, our money, our time, our career to His will.  But generally speaking the American church hasn’t spent much time focusing on where we should live.  I hope to persuade you that this decision is just as important as all the others, and that we must be intentional in submitting it to God’s will.  The following passage by Robert Lupton from Restoring At-Risk Communities is what really made me first think about this:

During the decades of unraveling, there was little discussion in the church about the potential downside of out-migration.  There was so much excitement (and some fear) about the historic opportunities for fair housing legislation and equal education that little attention was given to the consequences of leaving urban communities.  The American dream became the practical theology of the people of faith and upward mobility became the sign of God’s blessing upon the faithful.

Little thought was given to a theology of community that provided the framework for Christians to live interdependently rather than independently.  Nor was a theology of neighbor part of the Christian dialogue during this period.  Neighbor became a word so broadly used to describe any and every human relationship that it lost its meaning.  And when neighbor was neutralized, it no longer specifically included the people who live next door.  Thus, loving one’s neighbor lost its practical impact in everyday living.  Christians could move away from each other to pursue individualistic interests with little concern for those being left behind.

Also lost was a theology of place that raised the issue of the deployment of God’s people.  Without such a theology, the people of faith begin to drift toward places of personal convenience and comfort with little reflection on the strategic kingdom importance of where godly neighbors are located.  I remember when it first dawned on me that something was wrong with this theological picture.

“Bloom where you are planted,” the preacher challenged us one Sunday morning.

It was an important sermon emphasizing the need for Christians to be salt and light in their everyday environments–in the home, the workplace, the neighborhood.  I had heard similar messages before and had been moved by them.

This time, however, I felt more troubled than motivated. Something the minister was saying–or maybe not saying–was making me uneasy.  “. . . where you are planted.”  An assumption was being made that God, fate, heredity, or something other than personal choice had placed us where we were living.  Glancing around the congregation, I began to wonder by what coincidence most of my successful friends owned homes where they did–on the affluent north side of the city.  Was it God who had decided that physicians and bankers should be planted among the wealthy?  Were there not enormous health and economic needs on the south side of the city?  I had the sinking feeling that where we were living had been determined by a long series of intentional personal choices that were primarily influenced by our earning power.

. . .

Then it dawned on me what had disturbed me about the sermon.  A major question had been omitted.  Neither the preacher nor the listeners were asking “Why are you planted where you are?”  We were simply assuming that the American dream is the guiding standard by which God’s people should locate themselves.  It is expected that competent, connected Christians establish their homes as close as possible to the lush banks of the deep capital streams.

I have heard hundreds of sermons on understanding God’s will for my life.  After all, I am a preacher’s kid and have been in active Christian work most of my adult life.  Early on I became convinced of the importance of seeking God’s will in selecting the right college, career, church, spouse, and dozens of other important life choices.  Try as I may, however, I cannot remember hearing a sermon on God’s will regarding the location of my home.

Edited by Perkins, John. Restoring at-risk communities. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995. Pages 77-8.

Many more excellent thoughts on this topic can be found in reading this book, specifically the chapter entitled “Relocation”.

Q5: Shouldn’t this be called the “circle project” instead?  That’s the goal right?

A5: Quite right.  Alas, both circleproject.com and thecircleproject.com are already taken!  But you are correct–the goal is to have God’s people deployed into places of need so that there are no more flat ovals.  The goal is to be present, to serve humbly, to be a mentor to youth, to connect the unemployed with jobs, to fight for better schools, to be a friend.

Q6: How did you make it?

A: Check out the nuts & bolts page.

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