I was 17 and living in my small town with two stoplights when I declared I wanted to grow up and become an urban missionary. And I was 19 when I left college to spend a year serving in downtown Atlanta. It was a crash course on life in the margins, and I was hooked. Living among the poor was where I learned to be an adult, where my faith was challenged and deepened, and where my understanding of the world as it is was formed.
After a few years in school and other cities, my husband and I bought our home back in Atlanta seven years ago. At that time, almost a third of the houses in our neighborhood were boarded up and abandoned. They’d been mined for copper and become makeshift shelters or places to hide nefarious business dealings from the public eye.
We joined a group of Christian community developers already at work creating spaces of mixed income housing, economic opportunity, youth programs, and more. They were doing transformational work, and we were excited to be a part as intentional neighbors in the community. I was living out the dreams of my youth.
But after seven years, here’s the thing. Our neighborhood is changing.
A small coffee shop has stayed open and provided community space for socializing and local meetings. Artists have repurposed rundown buildings for creativity. We’d been a food desert for decades, but a year ago, a local market opened. That may or may not sound like a big deal, but after years of half-hour car rides (or hours longer on the bus) for milk, these are signs to my neighbors and me that our community is being restored. It’s coming back to life.
And what if it does?
Urban renewal and gentrification are not new ideas. And many who care about the poor worry that an influx of new homeowners, ice cream shops, and well-supported schools will push out longtime residents to a new place of margin. This concern is valid and important.
In our neighborhood, though, fifteen years of conscious community development has come alongside current residents to prepare them to navigate the inevitable transition that is happening all over the country. Many of my neighbors own their own homes thanks to a housing agency that’s been quietly selling affordable homes and offering low interest loans. Some residents have purchased second properties to keep affordable rentals available. And the new grocery store hires locally and offers a product mix that serves recent and longtime neighbors alike. Shoppers can find hummus and pickled pig’s feet, local honey and loaves of white bread. In such a small store, the intentionality is clear.
My neighbors on the margins are being included in the mainstream renewal of our community, so isn’t that a good thing? I mean, of course it’s a good thing! I feel both hopeful and delighted. And yet, I also find myself questioning, wondering about my own place in this revitalization.
Does my identity come from living in a neighborhood where outsiders would drive through with locked doors? That hardcore 17 year old who proclaimed she’d live her life in the margins—will she feel like a failure if the neighborhood is restored? Have I been here because I really want to see change or because I’ve wanted to be seen as doing something radical? Somewhere along the way, I had created a message that “doing hard things” was the way of following Jesus. And while that’s not entirely untrue, perhaps I had accidentally replaced my desire to follow Jesus with a search for suffering and sacrifice.
It makes me wonder if my theology idolizes brokenness and suffering and sacrifice without relationship to healing and redemption. Do I understand the death of Good Friday, but forget all about the joy of Resurrection Sunday? If my sense of self requires my neighborhood to stay disenfranchised so I may be validated, that is a serious problem.
But I am convicted that this work is not about me. I always hope to seek justice for and suffer with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, but I also want to recognize and embrace the redemption present before my very eyes. I want to enjoy the renewal in our midst and fully celebrate this season of restoration in my community. We are witnessing the redemptive work of God in our schools, streets, and neighborhood spaces so this is our time to dance together and proclaim the goodness of God.