Since August, when my wife, Kathryn, and I moved to Charlotte, I have performed a nightly ritual: scrolling through the Zillow App on my iPhone, searching for a home that is both affordable and desirable. I love our neighborhood, but the prices are high and show no sign of falling any time soon.
Real estate prices in Charlotte, like many other cities, are rising. In the last year alone, the median household price rose almost 6 percent. Since 2012, prices have increased by 30 percent.
Add to this phenomenon the challenges of economic mobility and the optics are not good. In fact, as a 2013 study by Harvard University/UC Berkeley entitled, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States” indicates, Charlotte is ranked 50th out of 50 in economic mobility among the largest U.S. cities. That is to say: someone born into a particular social location will most likely remain in that class. If someone is born into poverty, they are trapped and likely to die in poverty. Factor in the significant shortage of affordable housing, and we see that the housing crisis has reached its tipping point.
As faith leaders, how do we reckon with this? How do we care for those that are being priced out of their neighborhoods, uprooted from their communities and displaced with no place to go?
Howard Thurman, the brilliant mystic and social activist, raises a question in his magnum opus, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” that speaks to this issue pointedly: “The masses of men [sic] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what [the Christian] religion offers to meet their own needs.”
Notice Thurman isn’t concerned with how to counsel or console the poor, but rather how religion can meet their needs. The answer, for Thurman, is not found in private pietism but in public, pragmatic action.
So, what does the Christian tradition have to say — in anything — to the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed?
In his own magnum opus that we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus radically reforms and reshapes his tradition to address the concerns of the poor of his day. The Roman economy, much like ours today, had created its own class system replete with economic and political systems of inequality and injustice.
In Luke’s rendition of the sermon, Jesus says:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you,
revile you, and defame you on
account of the Son of Man. (NRSV)
While many have used this text as a sort of deferment from this world to the next, I think Jesus is speaking quite literally about this world (why else would he teach his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come?”). He goes on to issue “woes” to those who are rich, full, laughing and well-thought of. The takeaway? I believe it is easy to focus only on ourselves. We can live cut off from the rest of society, left to our own comforts and unfazed by the problems of our community. But if we want to address Thurman’s question, we must be willing to reach out and let the needs of the poor affect and change us. Housing is not excluded from this.
This is the way Jesus lived and invited us to live.
Rather than a kingdom of God with a king on a throne, I am an advocate for a kin-dom of God, in which we all realize our connectedness to God and each other: we are family. And family looks out for family. If one of us is struggling, we all struggle. This is what Jesus modeled.
As we consider the rising real estate prices and dire economic outlook for mobility, are we willing to name it? Are we willing, like Jesus, to take action, to reimagine and reorder our worlds to open our hearts and homes to those that are poor, disinherited and dispossessed? What types of action can we take in Charlotte to address the needs and concerns of our community?
If we are not willing, I fear our religion has nothing left to say.
Shea Watts is the music director at Holy Covenant United Church of Christ and a third year Ph.D. student at Chicago Theological Seminary, where his research focuses on ritual studies and the body.