Imagining Whole Cities: The Church’s Role in a Gentrifying Neighborhood

[1] Luther Place Memorial Church sits on Thomas Circle in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, DC, in the Logan Circle Neighborhood. In the post-white flight 1960s and ’70s, fueled by the response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Logan Circle was filled with vandalism, prostitution, and drug-related crime. During this time, responding to injustice became wrapped up in our congregation’s identity and understanding of the gospel. Over forty years ago, Luther Place decided to use their land and buildings to create a ministry that would respond to the needs in the community, which ultimately became N Street Village. The shelter with its accompanying programs has grown into the largest service provider for women experiencing homelessness in DC.[1]

[2] Burned into Luther Place’s collective memory is the decision to open up the doors of the church during the uprisings after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Luther Place offered clothing, medical care, and refuge to over 10,000 people.[2] With that picture and self-image in mind, no one imagined that Luther Place would eventually be located in one of the fastest gentrifying zip codes in the United States[3] and that our Martin Luther statue would mark the base of a one mile stretch that has become home to twenty five new bars and restaurants and ten new luxury apartment buildings in the past three years.[4]

[3] Today, the dominant narrative around gentrification imagines a “natural and desirable process” whereby younger, wealthier white people move into previously “difficult” or “distressed” areas, most commonly historically black and brown working class neighborhoods. This influx of new residents makes the neighborhoods more economically prosperous and in turn attractive for new businesses and amenities (often things inaccessible to long term residents, such as dog parks and coffee shops) and new luxury housing. These new residents, always wealthy and usually white, are congratulated for “improving” a neighborhood whose poor, minority residents are displaced by skyrocketing rents and economic change.[5] Suey Park and David J. Leonard, in a post for Model View Culture, name the trend that these neighborhood changes are “celebrated as ‘renewal’ and an effort to ‘beautify’ these communities.’”[6] In our neighborhood of Logan Circle, the average rent has risen to $2,700 a month[7] and we have seen rampant displacement of renters. Citywide, we are seeing a rise in homelessness, including a 25% increase in family homelessness.[8] So why is there not sufficient action to slow down the pace of gentrification and try to mitigate the impact on long term residents and people of color?

[4] The answer is that culturally, we have not accepted that there is a problem; people are merely exercising their choice and freedom to live where they desire. As Daniel Jose Older writes, “The standard frame for a story on gentrification pits the upside of “urban renewal” against what’s painted as a necessary byproduct of this renewal: some folks have to move out.”[9] Our failure to slow the pace of gentrification is also due to a failure of cultural imagination around racism. The dominant narrative in America is that racism is comprised of individual acts that require intent.[10] Therefore, even if gentrification has race-based disparate impacts, gentrification is not largely understood as structural racism.

[5] How should the congregation respond to such significant changes in our neighborhood? We propose that we must: 1. Seek to educate with a vigorous analysis of housing policy, 2. Ask the questions, “who benefits?” and “who should benefit?”, 3. Organize congregational ministry for intentional inclusion, and 4. Organize for public power through broad-based organizing.

[6] Luther Place has the benefit of the Steinbruck Center at Luther Place. The Center is named for Reverend John Steinbruck, the faithful pastor who served as a pastor from the 1970s to late 1990s. Rev. Steinbruck took on the cause of the poor and homeless in DC, railing at the government and church for not feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. This prophetic word came to life in the effort called N St Village, whose story is told in the book, Breaking Bread: Stories of Luther Place and N Street Village.[11]

[7] The Steinbruck Center’s educational program hosts nearly one thousand young people annually, using an immersion model to teach about homelessness and poverty. We give tours of the neighborhood to our program participants, and often they pose the question, “But I couldn’t afford to live here. If the neighborhood has gotten too expensive, why don’t the poor just leave?” This sentiment reflects the temptation to focus on individual choice, responsibility, and work ethic, as opposed to examining gentrification as the combination of mythology, policy decisions, and history. We work to accompany students and young people through the process of changing the focus of their analysis from that of individual action to the examination and critique of structural forces. As people of faith, we suggest that the gospel requires nothing less.

[8] We know that in 2003, Mayor Anthony Williams set out a goal of attracting 100,000 new DC residents within a decade.[12] It is not a coincidence that some of the city’s most distressed business corridors, including the 14th St business corridor, became places of significant investment and deemed ripe for “revitalization”.[13] The goal set out by Anthony Williams has largely been realized, with over 100,000 new residents arriving in DC over the past fifteen years.

[9] In order to understand the changes in Washington, we must take a look back at larger US housing policy. An excellent and provocative analysis of housing policy, is provided by the California Newsreel piece entitled, Race: The Power of An Illusion, Episode 3: The House We Live In.[14] The film and the transcript are worth engaging, as the movie lays out how our collective imagination of a white suburb and a black/brown urban core was created by housing policy surrounding the GI Bill in the 1960s.

[10] The movie tells us exactly how the GI bill explicitly advantaged white communities and disadvantaged people of color through red lining.[15]The Federal Housing Authority’s appraisal system “warned that the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values in the new suburbs.”[16] Melvin Oliver, a sociologist further explains,

That those communities that were all white, suburban and far away from minority areas received the highest rating. And that was the color green. Those communities that were all minority or in the process of changing, they got the lowest rating and the color red. They were ’redlined.’ As a consequence, most of the mortgages went to suburbanizing America, and it suburbanized it racially.[17]

Overall, between 1934 and 1962, the federal government underwrote 120 billion dollars in new housing. Less than 2% went to non-whites.[18] The consequences of these housing policies, which were widely adopted by private industry as well, contribute largely to the wealth gap. The wealth gap still exists today and in fact only grows; overall, the average black family only has 6% of the wealth of the average white family, the average latino family only 8%.[19] If one examines white flight through the lens of individual choice, one misses crucial realities. For white people, there were clear economic benefits to leaving the city for the suburbs. It was not merely racial prejudice or animus that made people believe that the presence of a non-white family would have a negative impact on their home value; on the contrary, the federal government had coded that into law.

[11] Because black and brown communities were systematically blocked from the home purchasing market in the suburbs and relegated to renting in the inner-cities, it is inaccurate to claim that we have historically had individual choice and freedom surrounding the geography of where we live. It is the perpetuation of this falsehood that allows us to sit back and watch gentrification displace long-term residents and communities of color. If gentrification is thought of as the newest manifestation of using housing policy to create wealth, that is, as a reality created by the cooperation of government, media, and banks, perhaps we would be more willing to engage in collective lament and prophetic action.

[12] How should the church respond to a reality such as ours? Can the church be a leader in ushering in a different collective imagination around gentrification? And how do we respond to the new residents outside our doors? One could choose to focus the blame on young, white, new residents invading the city – and we would be inauthentic if we did not acknowledge that there are some in our congregation who do blame the new residents for displacing long term neighbors. Yet, we propose that we first stop debating pros and cons, such as weighing housing value increase against displacement or less blight against breakdown of community. We have learned that the opinion of which should be weighted more heavily all depends on whom you ask.

[13] We think the church’s second role is to ask the faithful questions of “who benefits?” and “who should benefit?”, while guiding the community through how to respond at both the individual level and at the structural level. This can be an uncomfortable conversation, yet it pulls us into taking seriously the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors. Jesus did not demonize individuals – he called out the systems that benefited the rich and ground the faces of the poor. This means we are a called as church to engage an alternative narrative that has us all at the foot of the cross, offering us ourselves a way that says our individual life is not more important than that of our neighbors. The church that continually asks the question, “who benefits?” can stay attuned to those who are most adversely impacted. Roman Catholics call this the “preferential option for the poor.”[20] We Lutherans might call it “the common good”.

[14] As a congregation whose own narrative includes a priority for the economically poor, we believe we are also called to engage the new gentry in town with love. Our model for this is Jesus – he clearly loved individuals, while at the same time critiquing systems and structures of power that marginalized and oppressed people. Yet, as a congregation located in a gentrifying area, we are to create a space in which people of different racial groups and social classes can engage each other in an authentic way. Our vision statement talks about us gathering people ranging from the powerless to the powerful around the communion table and in relationship with one another. These unlikely associations in ministry and in worship mean together we learn to follow the Jesus who had a whole collection of unlikely people around him, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and brothers who ran big fishing businesses. When the powerful and powerless gather at Christ’s table, the bread and wine offer a mysterious connection for all to God’s common good.

[15] Lastly, the church should leverage these personal relationships into building power for systemic change. At Luther Place, we are part of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate. Along with faith institutions from across the city, we are organizing people and money to hold our elected officials accountable to an agenda of housing and jobs. In 2015, WIN witnessed the groundbreaking of over 300 units of affordable housing and won a one hundred million dollar commitment from Mayor Muriel Bowser for the Housing Production Trust Fund, one of the most effective ways to produce and maintain affordable housing city wide.[21]

[16] It is our prayer and our intention that as we educate, question who benefits, intentionally including diverse people in our faith community, and organize for public power, we become a living example of a gospel narrative that teaches us to love God, love self, and love neighbor. It runs counter to our highly individualistic notion, but we believe through our experiences here at Luther Place in DC that we are called by God into a love that is not limited to only an individual interpretation – we are called into a love that permeates our life in public. As we seek to be a faithful congregation in our context, we consider “freedom” to include the ability for even the most vulnerable of our neighbors to participate in community life in a gentrifying neighborhood. This means we are stretched to daily imagine and practice the ways in which we all can benefit, and it is grace alone that gives us the strength to reside in this very real tension.

The Rev. Karen Brau serves as Senior Pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC. Ordained 25 years, Pastor Brau spent the first 18 years of her ministry serving in East Baltimore, where she helped create Amazing Grace Lutheran Church. ­­­­­­

Bianca Vazquez is the Program Director for the Steinbruck Center at Luther Place and co-coordinates the Organizing for Mission Cohort, a network of Lutheran churches that use community organizing for congregational development and neighborhood justice work.​

[1] Bank of America Partners with N Street Village and Miriam’s Kitchen to Tackle Homelessness and Poverty in Greater Washington, N Street Village, December 3, 2015,

[2] Samaritan Medal Foundation, April 17, 2007,

[3] Michael J. Petrilli, The 50 Zip Codes with the Largest Growth in White Population Share, 2000 – 2010, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, June 14, 2012,

[4] Annys Shin, Gentrification in Overdrive on 14th Street, The Washington Post, July 21, 2013,

[5] Benjamin Grant, PBS, POV: Documentaries with a Point of View, Flag Wars: What is Gentrification?, June 17, 2003,

[6] Suey Park and David J. Leoniard, In Defense of Twitter Feminism, Call out Culture, Gentrification on Social Media and the Politics of Feminist Discourse Online, Model View Culture: Technology, Culture, and Diversity Media, February 3, 2014,

[7] Annys Shin, Gentrification in Overdrive on 14th Street, The Washington Post, July 21, 2013,

[8] J.B. Wogan, Why Homelessness is Rising in DC But Declining Elsewhere, Governing: The State and Localities, February 9, 2015,

[9] Daniel Jose Older, Gentrification’s Insidious Violence: The Truth About American Cities, Salon, April 8, 2014,

[10] Moving the Race Conversation Forward: How the Media Covers Racism and Other Barriers to Productive Racial Discourse Part 1, Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, January 2014,

[11] Rev. Karen Brau and Carolyn Rapp, Breaking Bread: Stories of Luther Place Memorial Church and N Street Village, (Washington DC: 2014).

[12] Neighborhood 10: Ten Strategies for a Stronger Washington, Brookings Institute & Government of the District of Columbia, April 17, 2003,

[13] Strategy Seven of the Neighborhood 10 plan included “Enhancing Neighborhood Commercial Centers (ReStore DC)

[14] Race, The Power of an Illusion, Chapter 3: The House We Live In, DVD, Executive Producer Larry Adelman (Original Release Date: 2003; California Newsreel, transcript),

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Laura Sullivan, et all, The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters, Institute for Assets & Social Policy: Brandeis University & DEMOS, 2015,

[20] Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005,

[21] Drew Bongiovanni, WIN: Midyear Report 2015, Washington Interfaith Network, June 23, 2015,

Bianca Vazquez

Bianca Vazquez is the Program Director for the Steinbruck Center at Luther Place and co-coordinates the Organizing for Mission Cohort, a network of Lutheran churches that use community organizing for congregational development and neighborhood justice work.​

Karen Brau

The Rev. Karen Brau serves as Senior Pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC. Ordained 25 years, Pastor Brau spent the first 18 years of her ministry serving in East Baltimore, where she helped create Amazing Grace Lutheran Church.