East Harlem: A Theology Close to Home
This article was originally published at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture and is being reposted by Until Zion. Though longer and approached differently than most UZ content, the article provides some of the context for UZ.
In 2019 my wife and I worked with a team to start a new church in East Harlem. “I work on Wall Street. Will this church plant be a place where my non-believing finance co-workers feel welcome?” asked an attendee at one of our church plant vision nights. “Yes,” I responded. “We certainly want to be a church where that type of person feels comfortable. However, given you live in Harlem, I’d be more interested in whether your neighbor would come.” The puzzled look on his face made it clear that he had not been expecting that answer. “I have never given any thought to bringing my neighbors to church,” he responded. I never saw him again.
This interaction was formative for me. How had this individual—a man with an apparent desire to be missional in his relationships—not given any thought to bringing his neighbors to church? For him, the place in which he resided and his neighbors next to whom he lived seemed absent from his missional equation. Like many of us, his missional fervor had not yet fully informed how he ought to exist in, embody, and embrace the community in which he found himself. There seemed a disconnect between his theological convictions about mission and place.
This disconnect, in my experience, is common. For myself, I often wonder, do I exist faithfully within the communities I inhabit? Are there unexamined assumptions about my neighborhood that, if addressed, might lead me to more holistic ministry in that very neighborhood? Am I missing an opportunity for greater Kingdom witness by keeping separate my theology of missional engagement and my theology of place?
These questions inhabit the forefront of my mind as a pastor in East Harlem, New York City. How does a theology of place shape how I live and minister in a place like Manhattan, NYC, and, more specifically, East Harlem? To sufficiently answer that overall question, two other questions crowd to the front. First, what is a theology of place? Second, how does that theology impact my particular context? In the following, I answer for my community. What about yours?
A Theology of Place: Walter Brueggemann, in his book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith, says,
A sense of place is to be sharply distinguished from a sense of space… Space means an area of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free from pressures and void of authority…. But “place” is a different matter. Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.
A robust theology of place first recognizes—and then articulates—the history and sacredness of particular spaces. Ignoring the sacredness of specific locales leads us to use spaces in self-serving ways that can desecrate the sacredness of what God has done there over the course of generations.
Christian theology is rooted in such an understanding of the sacredness of place. In Genesis 12:7, when God is making his covenant promises to Abraham, he says, “To your offspring, I will give this land.” “This land” referred to Israel, which would become the most sacred place in the world for God’s people. However, in Romans 4:7, when discussing this promise, Paul writes, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world (kosmos), but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” In God’s plan, the whole world has become a sacred place. When understood in a biblical theology of kingdom and eschatology, namely the restoration of the physical world as part of God’s redemptive plan, the work of God in all spaces makes those places sacred.
In her book, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why it Matters, Sandra L. Richter builds her case for environmental stewardship on this very point. The land on which we find ourselves is sacred and entrusted to humanity as its stewards. Though given stewardship, however, that stewardship is only valid under the authority of God—the King. Yet, she goes on to argue, “our fallen race has instead chosen to use superior gifts to exploit and abuse…but God’s people are called to be different. We live for a day when the creation itself will be set free from ‘its slavery to corruption into freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom 8:21).” In other words, God calls Christians to embrace the sacredness of place because we understand our God-given responsibility as stewards, and we recognize the restoration God is accomplishing.
Yet, particularly in modern times, the sacredness of creation has been severely undermined. John Inge, in his book, A Christian Theology of Place, articulates this desecration, noting:
There has been what might be termed a “loss of place” in human experience for very many people in the recent past….This is an important insight in a world in which the effects of globalization continue to erode people’s rootedness and experience of place. Attention given by the Christian community to place…will not only therefore afford nourishment to the community itself but will be a powerful prophetic action.
This insight has significant implications for how we all live within our communities. But can Christians really resist our world’s erosion of place and, as a result, ensure that our attention is a powerful “prophetic action?” But, if by “prophetic” we mean making God’s Word and Gospel known, how can we make the Gospel known through how we live in specific neighborhoods? How might embodying our theology of place itself be a proclamation of the restorative and redemptive power of God’s Kingdom?
New York City and East Harlem: In a city like New York, most believers disconnect their theology of mission from their specific neighborhood. Many people come to New York from elsewhere and move into neighborhoods haphazardly. They rarely think much about the community or its history but instead enter pragmatically. Communities like East Harlem—the community in which I pastor—and its neighbor, Harlem, are prime locations for those looking for relatively cheap rent until they get that pay raise or promotion and can afford their ideal location. A Wall Street banker might currently live in the neighborhood but might not wish to stay beyond what is necessary—unless, of course, the neighborhood changes to his needs or preferences. This dynamic is a major factor in gentrification.
Gentrification—a phenomenon in which relatively affluent newcomers move into historically poor and marginalized communities—is a complicated issue with complex market forces at play. Though the causes of gentrification are complicated, the consequences are simple for many: gentrification changes neighborhoods.
For example, consider Central Harlem—a neighborhood known historically as an epicenter of Black culture and the Civil Rights Movement. Despite that rich history, Harlem has changed. Gentrification established a Whole Foods and Olive Garden one block away from the Apollo. Gentrification demolished the famed Lenox Lounge and replaced it with a bank branch. Gentrification renamed the neighborhood of South Harlem to “SoHa,” to mimic the appeal of affluent neighborhoods like SoHo. While gentrification is complicated and addressing it is beyond the scope of this article, let it suffice to say it produces tension within communities.
How should Christians respond? Do these complications limit Christians’ ability to live faithfully in their neighborhoods? I believe there is a faithful way forward. This is where a robust theology of place helps us; it provides theological grounding to step forward in meaningful ways—ways that center the unique experiences and history of our neighborhoods. In the words of Brueggemann, when Christians (1) recognize the “historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations,” (2) remember “important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny,” and (3) honor that “vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued” within that community, there is hope to be that prophetic voice. Doing so acknowledges the sacredness of that place and recognizes the ways God has always been at work.
What might such an approach look like practically? How might recognition of a place’s sacredness shape engagement within a community? First and foremost, understanding the context, and the development of the context is central. For example, consider my specific context of East Harlem.
Like many neighborhoods in Manhattan, East Harlem has a rich and complex history. Over the decades, East Harlem served as a landing zone for many immigrants coming into NYC. This trend began with Europeans but eventually became most known for the Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican populations. Today, East Harlem is still often called “Spanish Harlem.”
While this has been and remains a vibrant and beautiful neighborhood, due to its Hispanic immigrant populations and Black residents, East Harlem also has and does experience significant marginalization.
For example, modern-day East Harlem, in many ways, is the result of various post-WWII era discriminatory practices. African Americans and darker-skinned Puerto Ricans were often excluded from jobs, education, and housing, not to mention that many Puerto Ricans struggled in English-speaking institutions. Additionally, East Harlem, along with its neighboring community of Harlem, were specific targets of redlining—the racially discriminatory practice of disinvestment in communities of color—which deeply impacted both economic and real estate development. The consequences were devastating.
The community, which lacked comprehensive recourse, was targeted in the Urban Renewal or “Slum Clearance” Programs (Part of the Housing Act of 1949). This program gave the government legal authority to confiscate land from slum owners in rundown areas and turn the property into public housing. These housing units required large swaths of land that resulted in the demolition of not only tenement housing but also brownstones, meeting halls, and small businesses.
Slum Clearing’s stated intent was to create affordable housing for growing populations. However, by 1965, and due to racist motives by NYC city planners and the discrimination executed under the guise of government assistance, concentrated poverty was instead systematized. East Harlem now has the largest number of public housing apartments in any of the city’s fifty-nine community districts, with nearly a third of all residents living in public housing. Additionally, redlining led to the low East Harlem homeownership rate of approximately 5.5 percent, which is lower than the citywide share of 31.9 percent and even the Manhattan average of 24 percent.
Further, the economic opportunities in East Harlem differ drastically from its neighboring communities, especially the Upper East Side. 96th Street is the dividing line, the line between East Harlem and the Upper East Side. As one might imagine, the two sides of the street could not be more different. For one, the Park Avenue underground train line turns into an elevated train line around this location, immediately changing the atmosphere of Park Avenue. South of 96th Street, the train runs under Park Avenue and, as a result, is lined with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. North of 96th Street, the train runs above Park Avenue and is lined with public housing. South of 96th Street, the median income is $121,000. North of 96th street, the median income is $33,000. 96th Street is arguably the most dramatic change in neighborhood in New York City, as two different cities exist on either side.
That said, as noted, East Harlem is changing. The neighborhood that experienced a generations-long toil to sustain the community is now drawing the attention of new developments and new residents, all of which create new complexities. And this is where we must now come back to our original consideration: how should Christians, especially Christians new to the neighborhood, approach the ongoing consequences of this location’s particular history?
For many new residents, ignorance of this history can lead to an ignorance of impact. When someone comes to East Harlem looking for cheap rent, the context of that cheap rent is historical marginalization. When residents are quick to leave the neighborhood as soon as they get a raise or promotion, this implicitly states to neighbors who cannot leave: “I just need to use your neighborhood for a while. I was never committed to being your neighbor.”
Does that mean Christians not native to the community should not move into the neighborhood? Does it mean that people like me—a church planter who is not native to East Harlem—should not plant churches? In my opinion, our commitment to joining what God has been doing in the neighborhood is what answers that question.
God is at Work: God is at work in East Harlem. But God has been at work in East Harlem for generations. The work of the Spirit preceded my presence or the establishment of our congregation and will remain long after we are gone. Since the time of the Weckquaesgeek—the true native inhabitants of East Harlem—the Spirit of God has been at work. There are churches, organizations, and leaders who have served for many years and whose wisdom sustained the neighborhood through difficult seasons. Their resolve fueled a commitment to work for justice and equity for their neighbors. Their affection for the neighborhood brings the vibrancy and joy experienced by many in the neighborhood. God has been using these people, and joining their work is a non-negotiable for those who desire to live faithfully in the neighborhood.
Returning to the gentlemen I mentioned earlier, he was conscious of how God was working through him at his workplace. I genuinely believe he saw himself as an agent of the Good News of Jesus on Wall Street. And though conjecture, I have to assume he paid attention to how God was working in his workplace so that he might come alongside the work of the Spirit and testify to the Kingdom of God. Paying attention to how God is working orients our hearts toward those God brings across our path. Yet this consciousness should not be reserved only for our workplaces but also our homes! This consciousness recognizes the sacredness of those homes and is central to resisting the erosion of place within our communities.
Becoming more Conscious: As a relatively new pastor of a new congregation in East Harlem, a primary concern is to ensure our congregation honors all that God has been doing for generations. We wrestle with questions like these: how can our presence be good news for everyone in the neighborhood, including other churches and organizations? How will we disciple our people not to use the neighborhood but to invest in the neighborhood? What does it mean to be a people who give hospitality to our neighbors and receive hospitality from our neighbors? How could we ensure that native East Harlemites feel honored by the presence of new, gentrifying East Harlemites? These are not easy questions to answer, and I cannot, in this article, fully expound on how we attempt to answer them. However, while we have certainly not excelled in the following, I will note several ways we attempt to help people become more conscious.
First, in an attempt to honor the work many have already done in the community, we highly value partnership. While our church has a unique identity, we desire to also identify with many others in the neighborhood. We do very little that is not in partnership with others in one way or another.
Second, for our congregants who are new to East Harlem, we desire them to treat the community as their home. Though they might not live here forever, while they are here, investing in and loving the community is vital to honoring it. As I mentioned, gentrification is complicated, but what does not need to be complicated is the posture of the gentrifier. Loving and respecting the neighbor takes work, but in the end, doing so honors our neighbors and, more importantly, the Lord—the One who calls that neighborhood sacred.
Third, though many new residents might not stay long-term, there will be many who can stay. Instead of always looking for a “better” location, we encourage long-term residency. This gives a greater opportunity to invest in the betterment of the community. We desire to resist what I call “privilege mobility”—the privilege afforded to those able to come and go as they please. Instead, to love well, we desire our people to root themselves in the neighborhood. No healthy relationship is possible when one party always has one foot out the door.
Fourth, our neighborhood has an historical context full of injustices. Christians in all contexts serve a God whose throne is one of righteousness and justice. As a result, living faithfully means we confront any unrighteousness and injustice within our communities. When gun violence, racial violence, inequality, and the like impact our neighbors, we will stand with them. To do so well, we must know the context of our communities and respond accordingly.
As an example, given the history of East Harlem, consider a recent real estate deal, Hudson Yards, one in which developers recently (and legally) used the historical marginalization of East Harlem to pad their own wallets. Hudson Yards, a now affluent part of Manhattan, had a massive development project underway. As part of the financing of that development, developers utilized a government program that invests resources into poor communities. However, as I mentioned, Hudson Yards is anything but poor. So how did they do this? They leveraged the poverty of East Harlem by “creative financial gerrymandering” of Manhattan (Bloomberg’s words, not mine). Though Hudson Yards is in southwest Manhattan, and East Harlem is in northeast, their gerrymandering connected Hudson Yards to East Harlem and even used Central Park as part of that gerrymander. In the end, millions of dollars that should have gone to neighborhoods like East Harlem went to build the wealth of those in Hudson Yards.
Why take the time to tell that story? Because historical context matters, and injustices still exist as a result. Christians in both East Harlem and Hudson Yards must confront this kind of injustice. To do so is to recognize the sacredness of the communities.
East Harlem is a case study, my case study because it is my community. But faithful living—informed by a theology of place—is possible in all communities. East Harlem is an example of the type of processing we should all undertake when seeking to love our communities. This processing will look different everywhere, but some fundamentals are the same. To that end, consider the following encouragements as a way to begin the process:
Develop a robust understanding of the historical development of the community in which you reside. Nearly all communities have a version of 96th street, whether the railroad tracks, an expressway, or some other boundary. Whether one lives in “East Harlem” or the “Upper East Side,” there is a context for how those communities developed. Learning that context helps shape the kind of life and ministry we pursue, regardless of which side of the tracks we find ourselves inhabiting. Plus, for Christians, understanding the context is foundational for having a prophetic witness.
Acknowledge and honor how God has been at work for generations in that community. For many years, God has been at work through churches, organizations, public services, small businesses, and the like. Coming alongside them, even if they are not those with whom you most identify (racially, socioeconomically, politically, etc.), is part of seeing the sacredness of the community. For example, maybe you come from a well-resourced church looking to begin a food distribution program in a food-insecure community. Before starting this program, consider if there are organizations that have faithfully distributed food for years, earned the trust of residents, but could use support from your well-resourced organization or congregation? Maybe consider partnering with them even if they are supported by a different church denomination, religion, or even political leaning.
Commit to investing in the community for the long haul. While there are many reasons why this might not be possible, Christians should do so when it is. This longer-term commitment will inevitably provide opportunities to love the community more holistically.
Embrace the beauty of the community. Every community has beauty to enjoy. Christians acknowledge the sacredness of the community by enjoying the community. This enjoyment can occur in many ways: enjoying the parks, spending money at local businesses, or volunteering at local non-profits.
Engage the brokenness of the community. Much like every community has beauty, it also has brokenness. Naming the brokenness of a community provides a needed foundation to bring a prophetic witness. That brokenness has a history which likely includes some unrighteousness and injustice. For Christians, confronting unrighteousness and injustice within our communities is part of honoring the sacredness of that community.
I pray that God gives us the wisdom to love our specific contexts well. As we do, I trust he will provide opportunities for a prophetic witness––a witness that testifies to the hope of his Gospel.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 4–5.  Sandra L. Richter, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters (Westmont: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 109.  John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (London: Routledge, 2017), xi.  Portions of this section come from my dissertation, “Developing Justice-Oriented Church Plants & Revitlizations,” (North Park Theology Seminary, Chicago, IL, 2022).  “Puerto Rican/Cuban: In Spanish Harlem,” Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History: Classroom Materials, The Library of Congress, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/puerto-rican-cuban/in-spanish-harlem/.  Emily Nonko, “Redlining: How One Racist, Depression-Era Policy Still Shapes New York Real Estate,” Brick Underground, December 29, 2016, https://www.brickunderground.com/blog/2015/10/history_of_redlining.  “East Harlem History,” EastHarlem.com, accessed August 12, 2021, https://www.east-harlem.com/index.php/history/.  Office of the New York State Comptroller, “An Economic Snapshot of the East Harlem Neighborhood,” Dec 2017,https://www.osc.state.ny.us/files/reports/osdc/pdf/report-9-2018.pdf.  “East Harlem,” Neighborhood Profiles, NYU Furman Center, accessed August 12, 2021, https://furmancenter.org/neighborhoods/view/east-harlem.  “Snapshot of Homeownership in New York City,” The Stoop: NYU Furman Center blog, Dec 17, 2019, https://furmancenter.org/thestoop/entry/snapshot-of-homeownership-in-new-york-city.  “Median Incomes,” Keeping Track Online: The Status of New York City Children, accessed August 12, 2021, https://data.cccnewyork.org/data/map/66/median-incomes#66/39/6/107/62/a/a.  See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-12/the-visa-program-that-helped-pay-for-hudson-yards