I am currently an A-level student living in London, and I completed an assignment on gentrification in Britain and the United States. The focus of this study was to explore how gentrification impacted Black and Latino communities in New York, and Black communities in London. It was while doing the research for this essay that I realised that gentrification was having a massive impact on churches meeting the spiritual needs of Black and Spanish/Portuguese-speaking communities in London.
For those not familiar with this phenomenon, gentrification usually involves middle/upper middle-class people (usually White) moving into ethnically diverse areas of a town or city. These locales tend to be culturally rich, but economically poor – having good housing stock, but not the types of amenities that make life so much better. In London, it tends to happen in areas within the Zones two and three of the London Underground map and, over the last several decades, it has seen an influx of young White professionals move into areas like Brixton, Dalston, Camberwell, Peckham, Harlesden, etc. This has resulted in higher house prices, as well as the emergence of more cafés, bistros, restaurants, wine bars, cocktail bars and bakeries to cater to this new clientele. However, there are now fewer Black people living in these areas. Several family and friends sold reasonably purchased houses for big money, enabling them to retire to the Caribbean. The problem has been that their children were not able to purchase houses in the same area because of the newly inflated housing market.
What I do find particularly interesting is the introduction of new contemporary churches in these areas, which have been employed to gentrify these areas further by bringing in people from other neighbourhoods with the intention of getting them to live there. This creates a clear predicament, because how can they properly engage with the original, diverse community after helping to strip away many of its residents, and then claim the work of ministry to a broken community?
When not ‘importing’ Christians into an area, gentrification can also mean that the existing churches are only used by new residents for “births, deaths and marriages”, or to get their children into Church of England schools. I often see these families either having brunch at a café on my way to church, or enjoying lunch when I am leaving it.
These new residents often replaced those who attended local churches; not everyone who sold homes left the country – some only moved out of the area, but still attend the same church. This can make the church’s work to meet their congregation’s various needs a lot harder, because they no longer live on its doorstep. Equally, churches are very reliant on volunteers and, if these men and women live nowhere near the church, it makes it harder for them to offer their services to the church.
Gentrification not only puts up the prices of buildings, it also increases the demand. Many Black congregations struggle to find suitable buildings in which to worship. No sooner does a building become vacant than it is snapped up by property developers – at an inflated price – to turn into fancy, expensive apartments.
It is not only house prices that rise with gentrification; there are also increases in the private rental market. This is a real issue for new, minority-ethnic communities who have moved to areas out of solidarity and safety, and who tend to rent while they acquire the resources to purchase properties. This is especially an issue for Spanish and Portuguese-speaking congregations from Latin America and Africa – some of whom are Black. Much like Black Christians, the church and its pastors play a central role in the lives of these communities, providing a range of spiritual and emotional support. In London, they often live close to Black communities, and worship in churches in which their mother tongue is spoken. They have also been impacted by gentrification because of the lack of available buildings and the rising cost of rentals.
As Christians, we believe that everything changes except God, who remains the one constant. Change is part of life and can be positive as well as negative. Having said that, it is important that gentrification does not leave people behind, especially if those people are church-going Christians. More needs to be done to empower these folks, as well as a greater effort to get the newer residents to appreciate the needs and faith of the older ones.