Evolution Of The Black Church: Impacts of Gentrification on The Black Church



February is Black History Month, and to continue learning about the establishing, evolution, and culture of the black church, we spoke with African American Christian leaders to guide us through the history of the black church and the critical purpose it serves as part of the full Kingdom. For the fourth part of this series, I had the opportunity to speak to Pastor Faison on the role of The Black Church today. 

Here are some important terms to understand for this blog:

  • Redlining: Redlining is the systematic denial of various services or goods by federal government agencies, local governments, or the private sector either directly or through the selective raising of prices

  • Jim Crow Laws: Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States

  • Gentrification: the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.

Pastor Faison is the Senior Pastor of Watson Grove Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The Grove is a predominantly African-American, multi-generational, multi-campus church, which was founded by former slaves. The church began in the bustling center of Nashville, but redlining, segregation, and cases of White Flight and suburbanization segregated Black neighborhoods, including the one in which The Grove fell. The predominantly Black neighborhood went from being a thriving Black community to now being gentrified and causing many blacks to move out of the area.  

In my conversation with Pastor Faison, we discussed four main topics in relation to his experience at The Grove and with The Black Church as a whole:

  1. The role of The Black Church, historically and today

  2. Gentrification and its effects on The Black Church

  3. Strategies and responses to gentrification

  4. The goals of The Grove moving forward

1. The role of The Black Church

The Black Church often was and still is the center of the Black community. It was where members went for affirmation, identity, and celebration in a community that saw their inherent value. There was a consistent message of inferiority to Black community members until they went to church. It was a place where they could be unapologetically Black and connect with a God who was walking with them through hardship. 

Oftentimes, the Pastor of a Black Church was the most educated person in the community. Because of this, people would come to the church for anything from financial issues to legal concerns. It was a socio-cultural place, rather than just a spiritual place. This is a common theme we’ve heard woven throughout this series and truly defines much of Black Church culture today.

2. Gentrification and its effects on The Black Church

Today, the overarching theme in The Grove’s neighborhood, and many other historically black communities is gentrification. There are life cycles of suburbanization and urbanization, and those who were products of suburbanization are now coming back to the urban core. Since the value of land in urban areas has been lowered with rising crime and unemployment, those coming back to the urban core rapidly purchase land in the “hood” areas where it is cheaper. Black families who have been renters for years are gradually forced to vacate so that the properties they reside in can be sold, flipped, and then sold again to affluent white families for profit. As higher quality and more expensive homes are built, property taxes increase for Black homeowners in the area, warping their budgetary needs and driving them out as well. Older Black residents especially, who are often unaware of the heightened value of their property, are exploited by predatory realtors. 

This impacts the church in manifold ways. Many members can no longer afford to live in the church neighborhood, separating them from the center of their Black community. Kids who would normally be a part of youth groups and after-school programs can no longer get to the church easily. The parking lot for church use has been outgrown, and street parking has become only accessible with resident permits. All of these things are barriers to attendance for The Grove and many other Black churches. 

3. The Black Church’s response to gentrification

I asked Pastor Faison what he would say to encourage other Black pastors in similar circumstances and what we can do to help turn the tide of gentrification. This is the advice he shared:

  • Gentrification is not something you can stop or reverse. It is part of a cycle, and by the time you see it starting, it’s too late. Pastor Faison would encourage pastors that when they see land becoming available, particularly close to them, to position their church to purchase as much as they possibly can. 

  • If churches believe they are called to a particular place, rather than just to the people, they must adapt to what the community looks like and strategize. If you do not have room for growth, you put a cap on your church’s reach. Otherwise, you need to shift trajectories, providing new ways for members to get connected, such as additional services or locations. 

  • It’s also important to collect data before making any major decisions. The Grove’s data helped them see where their members were coming from, informing their decision to expand to another site and launch The Grove Franklin. 

4. The Grove moving forward 

In the next 15 years, The Grove expects to expand to two to four more locations in order to be a community church rather than a commuter church. In order to accommodate the growing community’s needs, The Grove plans to expand to housing, retail spaces, grocery, and parking, making the church a community hub. 

The ultimate goal is not just to minister to Black community members, but to all community members. In order to reach across racial barriers, The Grove seeks to set itself up as a resource for all members of the community in useful, helpful, and transformative ways. This does not mean that the church loses its identity. The Grove is not seeking to become a ‘multicultural’ church, as that lens often implies that there is something wrong with The Black Church being predominantly Black. The Black Church is an ecosystem around which Black community finds identity, fellowship, and affirmation. The Grove is not reaching to snatch members of other communities simply to become ‘multicultural,’ but its doors are welcome to anyone and everyone who chooses to come. 

The mission of The Black Church has not changed since its beginnings. It is still a place of affirmation, of safety, and of camaraderie amongst people who are aspiring to seek the Lord with all their hearts.

At Vanderbloemen, we value constant improvement and invite you to walk alongside us as we learn more about how to better love and serve the whole church. Be sure to check out the full podcast episode with Pastor Faison and stay tuned for the other episodes in our History And Evolution Of The Black Church series throughout the month of February.