Missional Collective: Land, Racial Equity, and the Church
December 9, 2021
By Rev. Heather Kilbourne
Land plays a leading role in the Old Testament. It begins on the third day when God created land (Genesis 1:9-13) and continues through the story of the burning bush when God promises to deliver the Israelites to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). God planned for the land to be portioned so that everyone might sustain their families (Numbers 26: 52 – 56).
The promise of land and inhabiting the land drives the plot of most of the Old Testament, and it still plays a central role in faith, family, and flourishing. Many people still see their family’s inheritance of land as God’s gift. In some rural areas, ownership of land is held in an almost biblical reverence. Many people advised me over the years to “buy land, because they are not making any more of it!”
The histories of land among white and black individuals differ greatly in America. There are countless stories about people of color losing their land as part of a government act or law including programs such as urban renewal, which gave local cities the authority and funding to condemn “slum” neighborhoods through eminent domain and use the land for private development or government buildings. There are many critiques of this program including it condemned only black neighborhoods, it provided below market reimbursement to land owners, and it caused great damage to the people forced to move.
Participants in the 2021 WNCC Missional Collective recently explored the intersection of church missional engagement and urban renewal. Our group participated in a walking tour covering some of the racial history of Uptown Charlotte; it was eye-opening to hear the stories. We walked the deserted, gravel parking lots adjacent to the Spectrum Center, where the Charlotte Hornets play. While there, we learned that from 1880 – 1967, this deserted area was home to Brooklyn, a once thriving black community, with over 216 businesses, 14 churches, 2 schools, and 1,480 homes on 238 acres. Almost all of Brooklyn was destroyed as part of the urban renewal program running from 1961 – 1968 and nearly 7,000 Brooklyn residents were displaced.
Brooklyn wasn’t just land, like the Promised Land wasn’t simply dirt to the Israelites. It was a web of community connections between neighbors. It was where teachers and principals knew their students’ families, neighbors checked on neighbors, old friends visited in the grocery store aisles, and black Charlotteans built housing equity to pass wealth to the next generation. One of Brooklyn’s residents, Ms. Allegra Westbrooks, distributed library books through black churches in order to make sure children had books to read. Brooklyn was a vibrant community until urban renewal destroyed it.
Urban renewal represents a sad part of our country’s history. I invite you to pause for a moment and imagine if this happened in your community, to your friends and family, to you. Imagine your home or business and expand the boundaries out so it includes 7,000 people. For some that may be the size of your town, for others half of your entire county. Now imagine being forced to sell your home for less than it was worth. Can you imagine the devastation of losing that financial investment? Even more than the loss of money, is the loss of your community connections: your child’s school, your church family, or knowing the local plumber by name.
It is easy to dismiss urban renewal as a big city problem, it even has “urban” in its name. However, forms of this forced relocation happened in smaller towns and rural communities all over North Carolina. According to the University of Richmond, during the 1960s, 500 black families were displaced by urban renewal in High Point, 384 families in Salisbury, and 510 families in Winston-Salem. In rural areas, a similar displacement has happened more recently by highway construction. In my rural hometown of Marion, 40 miles east of Asheville, a large highway was built in the early 1990s. The road engineers carefully skirted the path of the road around a wealthy, white neighborhood and instead built the highway straight through a black community. Family members who used to walk down the road to visit their mom or grandpa were cut off by a four lane, limited access highway. When the highway was first opened, you would see brave neighbors trying to cross the busy highway, risking injury or death. The Department of Transportation made promises of building a pedestrian bridge but to date, those promise have been unfulfilled.
As followers of Christ, we cannot work toward equity for all God’s people if we do not educate ourselves on inequities in our country. I encourage you to do some Sherlock Holmes sleuthing and explore the racial history of land in your own community. Discover which Native American tribe lived in your community before Europeans settlers claimed the land? Were homes destroyed during the period of urban renewal? Where do recent Latino or other immigrants live in your community and why do they live in that section of town? If you are interested to find out more about the historic Brooklyn neighborhood there are several excellent resources on the web, including the Charlotte Labyrinth’s in-person or virtual tour. Let me know what you discover!
Rev. Heather Kilbourne helps rural, United Methodist churches pursue God-sized dreams of partnering with their neighbors to build a more vibrant community. She is the Senior Program Manager of the Faith in Rural Communities at the NC Rural Center in Raleigh, NC. She is an Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference and previously served churches in Hamptonville and Morganton, NC. As an itinerant minister, she looks forward to a day when she will buy her own land.