Dear Church, Choose We Not I

Dear Church,

I am always filled with a sense of wonder when I read the scriptural depiction of early church unity and the selfless manner in which first-century Christians served one another. When I graduated from architecture school just under four years ago, I searched for opportunities to apply this community ethic and to serve others through design. I began serving on housing committees for refugee support organizations by conducting research and advocating for increased access to quality, affordable housing. I eventually found my way to a lecture which would turn my view of the racial landscape and its impact on the built environment upside down. The presentation was given by local historian Dr. Bob Booker and featured hazy photographs displayed from an old-school slide projector: houses of Queen Anne and Craftsman styles, multi-story brick-clad structures with storefronts, theaters, barbershops, and beautifully detailed churches. These were a taste of the historic built environment with which black communities in Knoxville, Tennessee identified until the 1960s-1970s when the district was seized by eminent domain. Following seizure and poorly-compensated displacement, the communities known in Knoxville as The Bottom, Mountainview, and Morningside were demolished, joining hundreds of predominantly African-American communities around the country as casualties of the federally-funded “blight removal” program called Urban Renewal.1

As Dr. Booker clicked through the slides, I was sobered by my ignorance. I had spent the majority of my life in East Tennessee and 6 years in Knoxville but had not heard of Urban Renewal. As a white woman who didn’t experience racial diversity growing up, I thought whatever plight remained for the black community was perpetuated by racist individuals, not government policies and institutions. However, this knowledge made sense of various urban conditions I had observed in Knoxville, including the nearly complete absence of African American-owned businesses and the concentration of poverty within government-subsidized housing complexes built in the 1970s to meet housing demand. The reality of institutional racism was further confirmed upon my discovery of Richard Rothstein’s book Color of Law, which comprehensively documents policies traceable to the racialized landscape we see today, including explicit racial zoning, demolition of formerly integrated neighborhoods, creation of segregated public housing, and the refusal of federal construction subsidies for homes sold to African Americans during post-war suburbanization2

The result of these practices and condition we experience today is geographic racial segregation and concentrated poverty, a combination which perpetuates socio-economic strife and sows cultural disunity – even disunity among followers of Christ. This is evident by the mere 20% of American congregants who attend a church where a single ethnic group does not make up more than 80% of its congregation.3 The Church’s complacency toward segregation betrays a deep misunderstanding or otherwise shameful ignorance of the radical unity to which we are called in Christ. In explaining the gospel message to the Ephesians, Paul unveils the significance of unity within God’s plan as “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” – that is – “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). In the book of Acts, the early church is described as being of “one heart and soul” and having “everything in common” (4:32). Peter commands the church to have “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Paul writes to the Ephesians: “In him [Christ] the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22). We are not individually “temples” as many have espoused. Rather, the Spirit dwells in the collective body of believers. Consider the depth of unity achieved in the triune God between the Father, Son, and Spirit. In His appeal to the Father on behalf of the Church, Jesus prayed that we would be one with Him just as He and the Father are one (John 17). For Christians, the unity of believers cannot be regarded casually.

Despite the clear scriptural appeal to unity, individual freedom and choice take precedence in western cultures. The authors of Divided by Faith write, “Choice and freedom are two of the dominant American values that today maintain the racialized society. Contemporaries may view these values as the realization of America’s destiny, but these values are at the same time now essential tools in dividing people along socially constructed racial lines.”4 This is exemplified by the fact that, though highly-educated whites express less discomfort in having black neighbors and greater openness to their children experiencing diversity in school, they are actually more segregated from black Americans than those with lower education levels. Those with greater mobility, though perhaps some of the least prejudiced individuals, tend to choose according to other, nonrace-based cultural values that reinforce racialization. Highly-educated whites tend to choose according to key American ideals, such as a nice home in a safe neighborhood, quality education, and access to parks. In the U.S., this means choosing whiter neighborhoods and whiter schools5.

Individual autonomy was not a cultural value in the ancient near east, the context in which the New Testament authors penned their appeals to unity. Randy Richards writes in Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, “In western cultures, individual choice is to be protected at all cost. Communities that do not protect it are oppressive; individuals who will not practice it are weak-minded. Conformity, a virtue in a collectivist culture, is a vice in ours. . . [on the other hand] Such an individualist in the east is described as someone who ‘doesn’t get along’ or ‘breaks harmony’ or ‘seeks his own glory’ or ‘is self-important.'”6 Unlike today’s society, in which interstate mobility allows us to choose our church community based on a variety of subjective preferences, early church members had to contend with one another at the gathering geographically nearest them. Paul’s letters to the churches consistently address the challenges of reconciling significant cultural differences among members, such as between Jewish and Gentile believers (Acts 15, 21; Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8-10; Galatians 3). When Peter separated himself from the Gentile believers, favoring Jewish company, Paul writes that he “acted hypocritically,” and that his “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:11-14).

When we allow subjective preference to determine our church community, we risk adopting a superficial unity by surrounding ourselves with like-interested people of a similar education level, race, and cultural upbringing. Unity in this context is prone to superficiality because it is founded upon convenience and comfort – ultimately driven by self-satisfaction. This is not to say that freedom and choice lack value, but rather to say that valuing individual autonomy over humility undermines the community ethic found in scripture. And this community ethic is highly valuable: Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind calls the capacity of religious communities to sacrifice for the group “a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.”7 The reason humility is frequently emphasized alongside scriptural appeals to church unity is that the sacrificial love which binds us together requires that we redirect focus from ourselves and toward the community of believers.

During college, my husband served the youth at a subsidized housing complex – one of the developments built to meet the need for housing created by Urban Renewal – through an after-school outreach program facilitated by our church. He witnessed firsthand the combined challenges of racial segregation and concentrated poverty: guarded privacy and distrust, lack of social capital, and low ambitions for the future, among others. Overcoming distrust took several years of weekly commitment, but even this could not approach the communal respect between residents. Despite being “outsiders”, we became close with a family who faced severe housing and domestic challenges. When friends of ours offered this family temporary guardianship to prevent foster placement, our geographic proximity allowed us to help bear the responsibilities of transportation and caretaking. Had we lived further away, our capacity to help would have been severely handicapped.

This experience made me realize that it requires intentional, geographic positioning to effectively love and serve those in need and to attain true unity in the Church. As such, my husband and I directed our house-searching to an area where we saw an opportunity for community investment, where we would be surrounded by socio-economic diversity, amongst neighbors from whom we could learn and who we could serve in response to identified needs. Recognizing the capacity for design to positively reshape the racialized landscape, I seek to apply for my work as an architect to serve the neighborhoods impacted by Urban Renewal. My design philosophy has evolved to incorporate urban design strategies that facilitate social integration and community cohesion, access to resources such as employment opportunities and basic necessities, and upward mobility. 

I am inspired by my friend Cindy who moved her family from the comforts of a mostly white and affluent community to perhaps the most diverse neighborhood in Knoxville to better serve refugees. Cindy had helped move a refugee family into the neighborhood and, recognizing the challenges presented to teachers of ESL8 students whose parents work multiple jobs, began volunteering in their child’s classroom. While parent volunteers filled the schedule at her daughter’s school, Cindy was often the sole volunteer at this one.

Her family’s decision to relocate wasn’t easy. Cindy faced disapproving remarks from other moms who couldn’t fathom relocating their child from a 9/10 ranking school to a 2/10. But since moving, the fruit of her family’s daily presence in the community has been clear. For example, local volunteers have risen up to support these teachers, such that the parking lot is always full. The neighborhood association, formerly hostile toward immigrants, now welcomes all neighbors who “live, work, and play” in the neighborhood. While grocery shopping, Cindy regularly encounters the moms to whom she teaches English, and at the end of the school day, she intentionally parks further away so that her daughter can walk with her friends who live in the apartments nearby. This is the fruit of a true community ethic, and it likely would not have been possible without an intentional commitment to serve the community daily. Cindy leveraged her privilege and freedom to serve more effectively, choosing community over self-interest. 

Are We Willing?

Do those of us living in a comfortably homogenous community need to put our house on the market and move across town? Do we need to leave our present church community in favor of one which is more diverse? Not necessarily. But maybe. And if so, are we willing? 

When Jesus and his disciples were traveling to Galilee, they took a route Jews didn’t often take. Jews would typically travel east of the Jordan River to avoid passing through Samaria because they viewed Samaritans as unclean. Jesus, however, specifically chose his route through Samaria, facilitating his famous encounter with the woman at the well (John 4:4-42). It was through this encounter that Jesus made known to the Samaritans the gospel message, preparing them for the coming occasion when “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” – in other words when believers among the Samaritans would be united with the Jews in the community of the faith (23). Jesus positioned himself geographically, denying a host of significant cultural norms, to reconcile the Samaritans to his church.

Are we willing to compromise our comfort for the sake of unity? Will we continue to elevate our culture’s values for individual freedom and choice above our commitment to fellow believers? I’ve endeavored to make clear that the present racialization and division in the Church is both geographically and culturally driven. I’ve pointed out that physical segregation is due to both institutional action and our own free choice. And I’ve demonstrated the reasons we should work actively against these forces in favor of the unity to which we are called as followers of Christ. 

We recognize this in marriage: we intentionally forfeit certain freedoms in order to gain unity with our spouse. Reconciliation in the church will require us to compromise freedoms we presently idolize, but let us do so willingly. Let’s leverage the freedom we have and choose humility over autonomy, diversity over security, reconciliation over convenience. Choose WE. Not I.

With Love,

Christina is an architect and affordable housing advocate in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a founding board member of local nonprofit Welcome House Knoxville which serves refugees through transitional housing. She is passionate about Church unity and a fierce defender of the Faith. Most importantly she is a Reconciler. Christina can be found on Instagram @crbouler.

1” Knoxville’s Urban Renewal: The Rest of the Story” by Dr. Robert Booker, Presentation at  University of Tennessee, 2017; “An Ethno-Historical Account of the African American Community in Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee Before and After Urban Renewal” by Anne Victoria, Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2015; “A Case Study of the Consequences of Displacement Caused by Urban Renewal and Highway Construction on Minority Businesses in the City of Knoxville, Tennessee” by Comer L. Taylor, Master’s Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1974.

2 The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, 2017.

3 “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Study” by Mark Chaves & Shawna Anderson, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2014.

4 Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, 2000 (p11).

5 (Via Divided by Faith) “Changes in the Segregation of Whites from Blacks During the 1980s: Small Steps Toward a More Integrated Society” by Reynolds Farley and William H. Frey, American Sociological Review, 1994; “What People Say, What People Do: Education, Racial Attitudes, and Racial Realities” by Michael O. Emerson and David Sinkkink, Paper Presentation at ASA Annual Meeting, 1997.

6 Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, 2012 (p99-100).

7 The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, 2012 (p299). See also “Religion and Intragroup Cooperation: Preliminary Results of a Comparative Analysis of Utopian Communities” by Richard Sosis, Cross-Cultural Research, 2000; “Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion” by Richard Sosis and Eric R. Bressler, Cross-Cultural Research, 2003.8 ESL stands for English as a Second Language