Featured Reviews

Greg Jarrell – Our Trespasses [Feature Review]

Our TrespassesFacing the Specters of Urban Renewal

A Feature Review of

Our Trespasses: White Churches and the Taking of American Neighborhoods
Greg Jarrell

Paperback: Fortress Press, 2024
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Reviewed by Wesley Vander Lugt

Greg Jarrell’s book is personal to me for several reasons.

First, I moved to Charlotte in 2013 to pastor a predominantly white church just a few miles from First Baptist Charlotte (FBC), the focal point of Our Trespasses. While the church building where we met for worship occupied an old warehouse rather than the site of a formerly thriving (but later demolished) Black community, members of our church (myself included) were mostly oblivious to the historical, political, economic, racial, and spiritual complexity of our urban location and stated identity as “a church for the city.”

Second, given multiple referrals to FBC’s preschool and its proximity to our house, all three of our kids attended there and we got to know several members: sweet people who loved America and Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Our Trespasses would have been a gut punch to me back then, and while it’s still convicting a decade later, I now receive it as exactly the kind of historically honest, truth-telling, specter-engaging work of theo-political imagination that our city and especially our churches desperately need.

Finally, Greg is a neighbor and a friend, and I can vouch for his sustained efforts at place-making, antiracism, community organizing, and improvisational wisdom that nurtured and sustained this project. I trust him and the contents of this book.

Back when my weekly routine involved dropping our kids off at FBC preschool, I could often sense what Jarrell identifies as the specters of a haunted past and present, a paradigm he draws from Ghostly Matters by Avery Gordon and Healing Haunted Histories by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns. Jarrell’s book gives names and flesh to those ghosts, with particular focus on the family of Abram North, who moved to Charlotte as the enslaved property of a Methodist minister and who after Emancipation made a home in the urban Charlotte neighborhood known as Brooklyn. Less than 100 years later, that entire neighborhood was destroyed and forced to relocate under the authority of “Urban Renewal,” along with twelve churches and countless residences and businesses.

Our Trespasses tells the story of why and how that happened, which is complicated and disturbing, especially given the prominent role of Christian churches and leaders. In recounting this story, Jarrell draws on numerous interviews, meticulous research, and a prophetic imagination to present the narrative of Brooklyn and Urban Renewal in a way that challenges normative accounts within white spaces, which include a plethora of silences and persistent un-knowings.

The story of Brooklyn and FBC bears similarity to hundreds of other accounts during the period of Urban Renewal in the United States (1947-1974), but Jarrell rightly pays attention to the particularities of Charlotte institutions, churches, leaders, and the families who suffered the consequences of public policy and personal decisions. He traces the backstory of Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, disinvestment, and other converging forces that created an almost entirely Black neighborhood that an almost entirely white city leadership would righteously deem ripe for “slum clearance.”

Initially, 100% of the properties in a so-called “slum” had to qualify as “derelict” to be seized and razed, but when the law changed to require only 67% dereliction, city leadership went after Brooklyn. The Redevelopment Authority of Charlotte bought out businesses and residences, began levelling the neighborhood, and put the land on auction, with the federal government covering more than two-thirds of the overall costs.

Parallel to the story of Urban Renewal was the expansion of FBC and the congregation’s contested vote to remain in urban Charlotte rather than move to the suburbs. According to FBC leadership, it was providential timing, with the cleared Brooklyn land selling for a reasonable price given white flight to the suburbs. The social imaginary that supported FBC’s decision to purchase this property contained political, economic, and theological elements, and FBC interpreted the possession of their new land in biblical and providential terms: God had given them this “promised land” to become great and be a blessing to others, especially “the poor,” even though many had already been displaced to other neighborhoods.

FBC dedicated its new building in 1972, complete with a massive steeple and bell tower that Jarrell interprets as the symbolic baptism of Urban Renewal. FBC may not have known what they were doing (Luke 23:34), but their expansionist mindset, privatization of sin, individualized discipleship, charity mindset, and whiteness culture kept them (and many other churches) from reckoning with their haunted history and collective trespasses.

Toward the end of the book, Jarrell explores the question of repair. What can be done now to address the harm? Jarrell does not endorse a step-by-step guide, which would be too easy and simplistic, but he does make some specific proposals, which I’ve restated below as eight “R’s.”

  1. Remembering: rather than ignorance and silence, what if we were willing to learn the real history, listen to uncomfortable stories, and re-member our lives around truth and justice?
  2. Repentance: instead of proceeding along the same path, what if we turned around and went a different direction, toward the ghosts and our fears, toward reckoning and true freedom?
  3. Reparative payments: while Jarrell reserves the language of “reparations” for national policies and actions, what if FBC and others made reparative contributions to families who suffered displacement during Urban Renewal?
  4. Returning land: it may be complex, especially since those displaced include the Catawba and Sugaree peoples, but what if communities embraced this opportunity to “confront their histories, to alter their cities, and to restore their souls?”
  5. Relational reconfigurations: what if diverse institutions and individuals learned how to relate to each other in just, compassionate, and humanizing ways?
  6. Reinterpretation of sacred texts, songs, and prayers: FBC and others who supported Urban Renewal thought they were being biblical, but what if we embraced the biblical story as a witness to the God who questions all human attempts to control, monetize, or define the conditions of salvation and justice?
  7. Re-placement: the land and all its other-than-human inhabitants are often considered disposable and invisible, but what if we embraced what Ched Myers and others call “watershed discipleship?”
  8. Redemption: what if we ended the captivity perpetuated by whiteness and unleashed new possibilities for life together on the land? What if reconfiguring our relationship with “real estate” was a missional priority for the church today?

As a theologian, several aspects of Jarrell’s book both resonated and could use further development. For one, the theme of hauntings, engagement with Mark 9:14-29, and acknowledgment of silencing spirits today were all compelling, but Our Trespasses leaves unaddressed a larger theology of spiritual powers as well as questions related to deliverance ministry, intercessory prayer, and other ways of engaging the powers (as in the work of Walter Wink). Additionally, while I loved the emphasis on imagination throughout, Jarrell’s analysis and proposals for redress could have been strengthened and nuanced by exploring the nature of “social imaginaries” as explored by Charles Taylor and others. Finally, if you’re not from Charlotte and unfamiliar with all the place names in Our Trespasses, I would recommend reading the book with a map nearby. Maps—and the changing names and features on maps—are theological texts, and perhaps Our Trespasses can include some in a second edition.

Which is to say, I hope this book is read, re-read, discussed, and applied by many for years to come. I wish I had it ten years ago when I first sensed the specters at First Baptist Charlotte, but I’m grateful to have it now and for the ways it has already shaped my theo-political imagination and action.

Wesley Vander Lugt

Wesley Vander Lugt is a pastor-theologian, writer, nonprofit leader, and arts advocate. He teaches theology and directs the Leighton Ford Initiative in Theology, the Arts, and Gospel Witness at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is the cofounder of Kinship Plot, a community of learning and practice in Charlotte that cultivates resonant relationships of every kind. Wes is the author of several books, including Beauty Is Oxygen: Finding a Faith that Breathes.

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