Conversations, Cultivating Communities

Willie James Jennings – The Christian Imagination [Interview]

Thinking Theologically About Space
Interview with Willie James Jennings
— Page 3 —

WJJ: One of the most interesting aspects of doing research on this book was the recognition of a very deep split that is taking place – and which in many ways constitutes the modern condition – that we can imagine land without people, that we can imagine land in ever-changing, ever-reformatting realities, so that the idea of continuity of space has no meaning for most of us. There’s an area in Durham here, which now houses four new shops (Target, Sam’s Club, AAA, and some other stores), and this is about the third form that [this space] has taken. Before this configuration, there was a large mall, there was a set of homes and before the homes it was basically an historical landmark. For most people, they have no idea of the history of this space. In point of fact, the people whose lives in many ways have been tied to that area, there’s a few of them that are still arguing for the importance of that land, but for most people, they see no connection between these people and that particular land. Part of what’s necessary in urban areas is to recognize that these areas are caught up in this horrific cycle of ever-overturning of space, so that it has no real sense of continuity. So the question becomes, what does it mean to try to create a form of continuity where lives actually matter in the midst of space that by its very nature and definition resists that kind of continuity? My hope for churches is that they might be communities of faith that claim habitation of such space, learn its history, become in many ways if it is possible… a church that could tell the history of the place, and not simply honoring the history of the place, but honoring the people that have been there. I hope that [these sort of practices] would set the stage for imagining ways to honor the people who are currently there, who may not be a part of that history but might be invited to see themselves as a part of that history, who are not necessarily of the same identity of those who are currently sharing in the legacy of that location. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the things that’s missing especially in urban areas of Grand Rapids is that sense of continuity, a legacy that is not there. After people die, property is taken, changed and transformed, and it moves on in a new incarnation. Unfortunately, what you have in many cases, is that the precious memories of people’s lives are not carried on by anyone, and who better than the church to find a way to claim hold of those legacies. And I would hope that any attempt to think about urban space would include that.

ERB: As a follow-up question, what do we do as we come to know the story of a place and come to see some facets of the story of a place that are very dishonorable? I’m thinking of my own neighborhood and its own deep history of racism, which ultimately led to the so-called “white flight.”

WJJ: We all understand what is most crucial, and that is, at some point in time, churches have to think about the history of white flight, and not only the white flight in terms of individuals leaving, but also in terms of churches leaving. This is part of the tragedy [of urban places]. How does the church [handle this history]? Would it be a matter of repentance?

ERB: Absolutely.

WJJ: I would think what that means is that things are so interwoven, and all these things have to be put on the table together: the geographic drift is one part of the story that churches find themselves inside of, the transformation of urban spaces is another part of it, and then the question of those “left behind.” I think that all three of these movements have to be talked about and then how one will address any of them, also depends on the other two, and so I think what that means for some churches is that they have to ask if they have walked away from a part of their life in a place that God is in fact calling them back to. And for others, I think the question becomes: can a space be claimed anew, as a place where the church will find its future? And then, there’s the bigger question of whether there are larger processes at place in the city that need to be exposed, have light cast on them, questioned and maybe even resisted?

Here in North Carolina, in the Raleigh area, we are in the midst of a massive fight over the school board and issues of bussing and where students go to school because what people have done – and churches have done this too – is quietly to allow builders to come in and do whatever they want to do. Developers come in and build communities further and further away from minority peoples, so that the communities that they build become lilywhite, and so the question becomes should somebody have raised [concerns] about the kind of community that ‘s being envisioned and the kind of community that is being built? That’s the kind of question that probably should have been asked first before we turn to the urban centers and ask what are we going to do about them? Do we sit back and allow these sorts of communities to be built, or watch these communities be built and then go from there? That’s part of the difficulty, I think, for theologians, for Christian churches, the problem that we have not even begun to think inside of, but it is exactly this kind of geographic drift that we float inside of. We don’t have anything to do with the community that’s popped up outside of town, and there’s great homes out there, many of our members are buying homes out there, and so what are you going to say, what should be said? The first thing, I think, that should be said, is what do we sense the Spirit of God saying to us about our participation in that new community that’s being built, that is now an hour from downtown and forty-five minutes from anyone who makes less than $75,000 / year? What does that mean? In order to address, as it were, the urban situation, you really have to address the larger demographic flows, and begin to think about them.

One of the most important developments that has happened in the last fifteen years here in the part of North Carolina where I live, the Research Triangle, is the explosion of a town called Cary. Cary was once a small, sleepy little farm town, but because of the technology and the pharmaceutical companies that are in the Research Triangle, and because of the universities, it became prime real estate for displaced Northerners and others to build homes and it exploded in size and obviously what came with that were large, beautiful, well-equipped schools, and there also came new, large, beautiful, well-equipped churches. Now for most people, nothing that I’ve described is a problem, but on another level, we have to say that something strange has happened, and the churches that existed before Cary exploded into a suburban, bedroom town did nothing. It was precisely the fact that they said nothing that then made it even more difficult to think through the “urban centers” of Raleigh and other areas because the question becomes what are we going to do about “those places” because those places continued to be displaced by these new places.

I’m not against growth per se, but the point is, if we don’t start to think about space theologically, as it influences our discipleship, we are only going to be responding to deeper decisions that have already been made.

ERB: Thanks again for writing this insightful and challenging book, and for taking the time to talk with us today. You have left us with much to reflect upon! God’s peace be with you.

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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