To many in Cincinnati, the Over the Rhine neighborhood revival seemed like a major success; one of the poorest parts of the city was seeing restaurants serving locally grown food, coffee shops,bars move in along with vibrant botique locally owned retail shops.
But to the people who had lived there before the development, it was nothing but the same kind of bad news they’d seen before; rising rents were forcing them to move from where they’d lived for decades. African American owned bodegas and pawn shops and barber shops were being gentrified out.
A local interdenominational bible study and justice action group called Economics of Compassion saw it another way; through a lens of Biblical justice linked to economic analysis. Renowned Old testament scholar Walter Bruggeman, then a Cincinnati resident, taught them to see development using texts like Isaiah 5:5 “The prophet says woe to those who join house to house and field to field,”Bruggeman said. “That is eminent domain and gentrification. The prophet was what was going on in Jerusalem and had a social awareness and acute economic analysis.”
Like most Christians, most people in EOC “never thought about the gospel in economic terms,” Bruggeman said. That new understanding had a practical impact, said Peter Block, a noted community development author and community organizer who was another EOC founding leader. “It gave form to their missional work and it helped them see the empire they were working against, and even how it existed inside their own congregations.”
EOC taught its faith community to stop blaming the poor for their circumstances or see the homeless as broken people. “We learned to help people find their gifts and led them to invest in them,”Block said.” We dropped the concept of charity, giving from those who have to the people we label needy. That sustains poverty and bad power relationships. Charity is not an economics of compassion. We looked for the assets of our neighbors.”
Based on the new understanding of their neighbors, coupled with an Biblically based understanding of the injustice that comes with gentrification and the responsibility of people of faith, the city came together at a conference we held in the city called Neighborhood Economics and took new action.
A $30,000 grant from the local Episcopal Cathedral had let the leader of a local African American led accelerator called Mortar, operating in Over the Rhine, play the connect the dots role for six months as a system entrepreneur between the white churches, the city, local investors, the community foundation and CDFI’s and economic development agencies. Those new relationships enabled by that visionary grant from a church resulted within three years in more than $3.5 million in philanthropic, private sector and public investment in Mortar to help black led businesses create assets operating out of their pop up store front in Over the Rhine. Mortar has since been recognized as an award and grant winning national model and its leader has testified in Congress on the role of entrepreneurship in asset creation among marginalized communities.
Many church members were trained by Mortar in culturally appropriate technical assistance, and white professionals learned to both talk to listen to first time non college African American entrepreneurs and become long term, valued mentors, spawning scores of new relationships with value for both.
Bruggeman’s teachings and the EOC conversations “caused the Cathedral community to repent of certain past ways of behaving and thinking; they realized that gentrification is not all good, that not all investment benefits everyone equally, said the dean of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral Gail Greenwell. “There was a significant shift in our outreach projects. We went from ameliorating the symptoms of poverty to addressing system change.”
A core group of Cathedral community activists formed and they, with the Cathedral’s backing, raised a minority business loan fund, with partners. Now, the Cathedral, which has a large endowment, plans to invest $10 million in low income housing, along with public sector partners toward a $50 million low income housing fund to “counter balance the gentrification.” The wealthy church even learned to see its endowment in a new way. “We had always thought about preserving the (Proctor Fund) endowment. Now we’ve come to see with great treasure comes great responsibility, not in a nobless oblige way, but identifying with our neighbors,” Greenwell said.
A key to their new understanding was shifting from thinking about Cathedral members to thinking about the Cathedral community, and identifying as and with their neighbors. “That led us to learn to listen to people with the least wealth as part of the conversation, and to see them as people we could learn from.”
What’s needed to replicate the Cincinnati story is education to teach pastors to “articulate their faith and the Jesus message of the kingdom of God as it relates to human society and politics and economics, not just their private time with Jesus or the private spirituality, cut off from the world,“Bruggeman said. “They need to break out of their bubble of comfort. They need an understanding of the Gospel as a call to discipleship through some kind of worldly engagement.”
“Most pastors have no sense of how to do social analysis (as the prophets did) and connect it to their Biblical faith.”Bruggeman said. “They stay in their private morality, but they need to follow the money and see who benefits from it in their community and see who is suffering from it. They have no sense that the prophets were speaking against the urban elite and on behalf of the oppressed peasants. It’s the same today. The economic strategy in many cities is to move the poor out of downtown and make them invisible.”
Preachers need this kind of theological and biblical education, along with economic analysis of what’s going on in their cities and towns, Bruggeman said, citing half a dozen other relevant and timely Old Testament prophetic texts. “They need to see what decisions are being made in their towns, and see who is suffering from them.”