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Cultural Preservation and Ministry in the City

“But he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, …..But when this son of your came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” –The Elder Brother, Luke 15:29-30

Cultural Preservation and Ministry in the City

As I live and work in an urban community undergoing gentrification I see elements and hallmarks of my culture being erased or pushed out. I see black institutions, (including the church), clinging for relevance and influence in a community that is “safer and cleaner”, but has little need or affinity for African American culture. Sure, there are folks new to the city that love ethnic food or Black theater productions—but in gentrifying communities nationwide, culturally specific programs are becoming passé in the minds of today’s “tolerant” and “open-minded” urbanites.

Unfortunately, this post-racial sentiment quickly gives way to a mindset of cultural homogeneity that unconsciously assimilates minorities into dominant, predominantly white culture. I’m a product of this cultural process. After teaching in Seattle’s traditional African American neighborhood, (the Central District), my wife and I moved across the country to attend seminary. Similar to my experience from elementary to graduate school, my time in seminary was spent as one of the few African Americans in my cohort. After four years of excellent instruction and spiritual formation, I graduated as the only Black M. Div student going for ordination in the PCA in May of’09.

Once my wife Foxy and I arrived back in Seattle, we found the Central District in a huge amount of transition from the community it was in 2005. Low-income families, the poor, and many Black and Latino neighbors had been priced out by gentrification. Blacks once forced to live in the Central Area by way of restricted covenants in other Seattle neighborhoods, are now pushed out in the name of “safer streets” and “affordable housing”. It’s no wonder that Black or ethnic institutions find themselves bitterly clinging to their culture and jostling each other for community impact—and this includes historic inner city congregations that once were the center of the community.

So what is a Black, PCA minister to do if he wants to minister among people of color in rapidly changing communities? Foxy and I began by working bi-vocationally and volunteering in organizations that served Black or ethnic minorities left in the community. One responsibility I had was to host community forums on race, class, and neighborhood issues. In one such forum, we had students write anti-violence messages on t-shirts and displayed them for the forum. Looking at one t-shirt, I asked a friend what color best represents death in her mind. She was undecided, and unwittingly I suggested the black t-shirt hanging over our heads. Immediately after the discussion, a friend pulled me aside and rebuked me for using the color black in a pejorative connotation as opposed to pink or white!

A harmless comment on my part, but I have come to a painful realization these past 18 months in Seattle: I have subtly embraced white, middle class values and cultural perspectives. In order to pass advance placement courses in high school I needed to learn about “white” heroes; in college I had to communicate “white” in order to become a professional; and in seminary I had to pray, think, and lead “white” in order to get where I am today. This is not a slight on individuals I know and love, as it is a statement about our educational and ecclesiastical structures that quickly assimilate minorities. I have always been teased for “acting like a white boy”, but what I and others have experienced out of seminary speaks to what we learn and value as younger ministers of color in the PCA. This phenomenon is not completely wrong—but it presents a problem for individuals wanting to plant churches or lead ministries that are culturally equitable and attractive to minorities; especially among those who are disillusioned with dominant culture values of “diversity” in our post-racial milieu.

In Luke 15, the elder brother sees the end of his world as he knows it. The younger, sinful brother returns home and is met with mirth and love from his father; while he, the faithful son is unjustly un-loved. His protest against his father and brother is an attempt to preserve his narrative, his cause and his world. Now he is of course wrong to be bitter, he is of course right to faithfully serve in his father’s house; but he is also stuck—believing that he is un-loved.

I find Christian and non-Christian groups intensely jaded against white churches, institutions and residents in my community. I too, struggle as I see little empathy by well-meaning white evangelicals to the plight and mindset of Black people in rapidly changing communities. It is of course wrong for Black people to disown their white brothers and make them feel guilty; it is of course commendable that ethnic institutions have faithfully cared for youth and the poor for generations; but people of color find themselves stuck—believing themselves to be un-loved and inferior to their white counterparts, who exercise greater mobility to thrive in gentrifying communities.

This Black, elder-brother mindset is not just sin bred from past discrimination it is fostered by a lack of true brotherly love on the part of white evangelicals and secularists alike. Continuing church policies and values that mold Black seminarians to unconsciously disdain their own culture or fails to set up Black pastors as true partners in ministry will continue to replicate churches that assimilate rather than dignify other ways of thinking and doing in the PCA. What would be refreshing and helpful in preventing this “elder brother syndrome” is a loving and respectful posture from my white Christian brethren that is willing to explore new ways to structure education and minister in our changing inner cities.

TE Jason Davison is a recent graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary (M.Div. ’09) and currently serves as the New Development Pastor at Ascension Presbyterian Church in Seattle WA.

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