California State University at Los Angeles professor Mark Wild, who specializes in the urban and religious history of the modern United States, published an interesting scholarly article titled Liberal Protestants and Urban Renewal in the California Press for the Center for Religion & American Culture. In his article, Wild (2015) outlined the effects post World War II urban renewal plans and implementation had on the global Churches in the United States. He spoke of the Church in two major categories: Liberal Protestants and Renewalists. In terms of local church functionality, Liberal Protestants stress the social gospel – the betterment of society as a whole through justice and charity. Renewalists (also known as Charismatics), on the other hand “places special emphasis on God’s ongoing, day-to-day intervention in human affairs through the person of the Holy Spirit… manifested through such supernatural phenomena as speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and prophetic utterances and revelations” (2007, April 25, Pew Research). In terms of culture, Liberal Protestants were primarily Anglo middle-class and elites. Renewalists included middle & lower class Anglo, African-American, Latinos and other immigrant populations.

Both the Protestant Liberals and the Renewalists knew their role in remaking America was imperative, so they initially agreed to work with the government in the Urban Renewal plans. The leaders of the Church began working with government, with the support of their congregants. Conflicts in urban renewal planning began to arise as middle-class whites moved to the suburbs, taking their capital with them. And, as the ecumenical nature of the movement increased, “Renewalists criticized redevelopment for degrading the spiritual and material lives of urban residents, especially African Americans and Latinos” (2015, Wild, pg 111). The government urban planners found Liberal Protestants easier to work with, but Renewalists got better outcomes in making community programs successful. The division of middle-class/elites moving to the suburbs made the segregation in the global church along class, race, economic and political lines even more evident.

Some, but not nearly enough, responses to issues concerning the Church, social responsibility, segregation, and urban planning included:

  • A few “middle-class white churches redefined their mission to serve the parish – that is, local community residents, regardless of church membership, race or ethnicity” (Wild, 2015, p. 115)
  • “Renewalists built new churches specifically for interracial congregations” (Wild, 2015, p. 115)
  • Black and Latino leaders opened a Liberal Protestant ministry with a parish in a black and Latino community in East Harlem
  • Church officials in various denominations committed to gaining skills in technical planning and business
  • “..[city] planners or city officials… invited Church bodies and leaders to consult on new projects and initiatives (Wild, 2015, p. 117)
  • White middle-class Renewalists opened parishes in urban communities. These did not do so well due to the “Renewalists’ obvious difficulties relating to African Americans, Latinos, and working-class whites (Wild, 2015, p. 122)

 

I chose this topic after reading a 2014 article by social physiologist Christena Cleveland of Duke University Divinity School titled Urban Church Planting Plantations. In it, Cleveland quotes a Latina pastor’s Freudian slip as “urban church planting” initiatives run by predominantly white suburban churches as “urban church plantations” (para 5).  Cleveland also quotes a white pastor’s response as to why he’s opening one of his multi-campus ministries in an urban community as saying:

“Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine” (para 7).

After pastoring a small multicultural church in a suburban community, but having my roots and ministry preparation in black churches (large and small) in urban communities, I know how it feels to have a new congregant come to a church that has far fewer resources and political influence than the large churches, wanting that small church touch, but big church amenities.  The result, all too often, is the congregant spends most of their time and gives most of their charity (their time and their offerings) to the big church; but, when they have issues such as family problems, or are suffering from grief, or want someone to take out more than five minutes to pray for them, they come to the small church, hoping their doors are still open. After receiving one-on-one help from the small church leader, the congregant asks: “When are you going to get a youth church pavilion”? or, “Are you streaming online yet?” The best response to these type questions is to give them a hug and say: “I’ll see you next time.”

 

References

Cleveland, C. (2014, March 18). Urban Church Planting Plantations. Retrieve from: http://www.christenacleveland.com/blogarchive/2014/03/urban-church-plantations

Wild, M. (2015, Winter). Liberal Protestants and Urban Renewal. California Press for the Center for Religion & American Culture. Retrieve from: http://rac.ucpress.edu/content/25/1/11

Unknown (2007, April 25). Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion – IV. The Renewalist Movement and Hispanic Christianity. Pew Research Center. Retrieve from: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2007/04/25/iv-the-renewalist-movement-and-hispanic-christianity/