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Fighting Gentrification With the Holy Spirit

A small church in Minneapolis is working to stave off the effects of rising neighborhood housing costs by unifying communities through religion.
The skyline of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The skyline of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

A few Sundays ago, at the first weekly service of New City Church in Minneapolis, the Bible wasn't the only book Reverend Tyler Sit used to preach his sermon. The other text was How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood.

Peter Moskowitz's book, which was published in March, takes readers into cities such as New York and San Francisco, where low-income residents of the inner city have been displaced by mostly white middle- and upper-class people moving back into urban areas. It's a creeping reality for Minneapolis, too, including the southern neighborhood of Powderhorn, where New City Church assembles, as well as Central and Phillips, two other neighborhoods that the church has singled out to serve.

"I'm glad that some of you felt the call to come alive, felt a call to de-gentrify a neighborhood with gentrification being an intrinsic death-dealing blow," preached Sit, 28, who received hollers back in agreement. Of 127 adults in attendance (per the church's count), the majority appeared to be Millennials—no small feat for a religious congregation these days.

The gospel of de-gentrification isn't just a strategy to snag the attention of a younger generation whom the wider church is struggling to captivate. It is a core purpose of New City Church. Besides growing a church with new converts to Christianity, the church's central mission is to slow, stop, and even turn back the negative effects of demographic change in these urban Minneapolis communities.

To this end, the church is pursuing revenue-generating backyard farms, community-owned housing, and better policies for longtime residents—while spreading a gospel that is relevant to Millennials moving in and the neighborhood's old guard alike.

It took a while for Sit, who is half Chinese and grew up in the middle-class Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, to see the true needs of the area where he felt called to plant New City Church in 2015. Initially, he wanted to create an "eco-church" that focused on climate change. However, the feedback he received convinced him to follow a different path. "Eco church sounds like an expensive toilet bowl cleaner that you pay more for but it just cleans worse," Sit says.

Instead, he began listening to people from the neighborhood tell their stories. The common refrain he heard was of a predominantly Latino and African-American community that had improved their neighborhood—closed brothels, added bike lanes—leading to rising rents that residents could no longer afford. "What I heard, again and again, was 'I guess I'm too poor to live in a safe and green neighborhood,'" Sit says. "As a person of faith, that is a narrative that I have to categorically reject."

New City Church belongs to the United Methodist denomination, which has always excelled at "acts of mercy," according to Reverend Daniel C. Johnson, who oversees the 60 or so United Methodist churches in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Johnson describes these acts as responses to immediate needs like food, clothing, and shelter. New City Church focuses on the root causes of those issues—especially displacement—before they become problems that set back the community. "The hope is witnesses like New City Church can be a stabilization for our communities and a more multicultural environment so we don't just go back to the homogeneity of people who can afford to live there," Johnson says.

New City Church and its leader are typical in many ways. Sit went to seminary at the Candler School of Theology, a traditional program at Emory University. While the church follows the quintessential call to evangelize, it also walks a progressive path by embracing the LGBT community and climate-change issues. But New City Church's focus on gentrification sets it apart: Faith leaders, including Reverend Curtiss DeYoung, the chief executive officer of the Minnesota Council of Churches, couldn't name any other church with the same community outreach focus. Many churches do not see this kind of social justice as central to their work, he says. But they should be more clued in.

"In order for the church to be relevant to a younger generation, social justice issues like gentrification will need to be on the agenda," DeYoung says. "Jesus was about justice. So for the sake of integrity, the church will also need to be about justice."

Despite the conversations with residents that led Sit to this mission, studies are mixed on the rate at which Minneapolis is actually changing. A study by the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity in 2016 describes the panic over gentrification as overstated. Many areas in the city often labeled by the media or residents as gentrifying actually "show signs of decline," the study finds. However, preliminary data from a study to be released in early 2018 partly contradicts those findings. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, also at the University of Minnesota, finds that Phillips and Central, two neighborhoods the church is targeting, are among several areas where home values and median household incomes are shooting up along with the percentage of residents with college degrees.

If an official verdict on urban transformation around New City Church is still elusive, residents nevertheless feel pressure. Shannon Jones, the executive director of Hope Community, a local non-profit that includes affordable housing in its mission, agrees with Sit's findings. "Anecdotally, we are seeing displacement happen," she said. "You will hear about homes changing ownership, someone rehabbing a house, a duplex rent going up."

So what does the Bible say to those who fear the impending doom of small-plates restaurants and hipster coffee shops, of sharp property tax increases and renters displaced by developers? The Good Book doesn't have an explicit answer to Soul Cycle. But it does imagine a world without the downsides of urban renewal, Sit says. In Revelation 21, the namesake scripture for New City Church, the apostle John describes his apocalyptic vision of a new heavenly city with walls made of precious gems and streets lined with gold. It's a place where all nations dwell together with no more pain or violence. This city isn't just an afterlife metropolis: To Sit, Revelation is a blueprint for an equitable community.

New City Church's ideal for Powderhorn, Phillips, and Central is heaven on Earth, where races are not segregated, crime is low, and homes are valuable. Isaiah 65 is another chapter that speaks directly to the gentrification pattern where investment in a community leads to displacement. "They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat," the scripture reads.

The Bible's focus on farming also fits into New City Church's de-gentrification strategy. Since Sit began forming the church a year ago, he and others starting planting fruit trees in the yards of willing residents as a symbol of New City Church's long-term commitment to the area. In spring 2018, the church will begin a pilot program in micro-farming modeled on the success of Green City Acres in British Columbia, Canada. Armel Martin, 25, a church member leading the program, is currently working to identify five area families, within or outside the church, to grow produce like spinach, arugula, and turnips. Martin is trained in permaculture, the design of sustainable agricultural ecosystems; the church will handle the start-up cost of building a greenhouse as well as administrative work like sales to local restaurants or farmers markets. The goal is to create additional income streams to help area families meet rising rents.

"Instead of spending their nights driving around drunk party goers [with Uber] and not being with their kids, they can have a flexible work schedule in their own backyards," Martin says.

Urban farming is only the beginning. There is already talk of other programs, including building affordable housing and even expanding New City congregations to other cities experiencing rapid displacement. How the church can facilitate a land trust—where it can steward affordable housing by owning both property and land—is an ongoing conversation. "Every early indication is that it would be really aligned with New City's vision," Sit says. A staff member is also tracking legislation and government policies that have to do with affordable housing so "we can have a say in the housing that is being allowed into our neighborhood," Sit says.

One problem that Sit and other inner-city churches and missionaries grapple with is the role they themselves might play in urban transformation. Take the story of Bob Lupton, who founded the non-profit Focused Community Strategies that provides mixed-income housing and community development in Atlanta. In the 1980s, he moved his family to Grant Park near downtown to better serve the neighborhood where he was already working in the juvenile justice system. They bought and renovated a house. Other middle-class people took notice and began moving into the area. Soon, the people Lupton was there to serve began asking for prayer over eviction notices and the lack of affordable housing.

"I am hopeful [New City Church] will come up with new answers to these challenges, but the power of the business community and developers is very strong," DeYoung says. Even though churches and faith-based organizations have been at the forefront of addressing issues like housing and racial inequality, the structural roots of these problems is rarely a subject for the Sunday sermon. "Gentrification is rather a new concept for churches to talk about," he says.

Gentrification is a word Sit will continue to preach on. His recent sermon kicked off "Habits of a De-Gentrifier," a six-part series designed to teach how displacement happens. (Moskowitz's book highlights this change in six stages.) Sit's mission recognizes the cultural currency of a neighborhood, debunking the notion that Minneapolis neighborhoods were desolate before middle-class whites discovered them.

But New City Church isn't just about an urban renewal that doesn't dislodge a community. It is also centered on internal renewal, a renewal of the soul. At that recent Sunday service, Sit encouraged those listening to allow their worship of God to make porous hearts whole again, so loving thy neighbor is easy.

"God is saying, 'I want you to step into a new city, a new way of thinking, into a new love,'" preached Sit, "so Minneapolis can become a transformed city that goes against the tide of consumerism that has swept this country."

"Do you feel the [Holy] Spirit right now calling you to this?" he added.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.