RACE & PLACE: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation. By David P. Leong. Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2017. 208 pages.
It has been fifty years or more since the days that the Civil Rights Movement made great strides in overcoming the most overt forms of systemic racism. Racism may not be quite as overt has it was “back then,” but it remains with us. In fact, we are seeing signs of a backlash against what are perceived to be threats to white privilege and supremacy in America. Things are getting a bit too diverse for many in this country. Thus, it is time for reflection on the current state of racial/ethnic/religious relationships if we’re to move toward true reconciliation. Part of the process of reconciliation is recognizing our own place in the conversation. Therefore, as I write this review of a book that speaks of race and place, I need to acknowledge that as a white male living in America, I have certain privileges that that others do not have due to the color of my skin. I also know that these privileges are deeply embedded in our society—including in the church.
If we’re to pursue reconciliation and build bridges across racial/ethnic lines, then it is important to listen attentively to voices that can help us understand the realities of our time. One of the voices that speaks to these concerns is that of David Leong, an associate professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary. David is Chinese-American, the grandchild of immigrants from China who made their home in Detroit, where his grandfather opened a laundry business, one of the few occupations open to Chinese. Being Asian-American, David has come to experience what has been termed the "perpetual foreigner."
Being seen by the wider populace as a foreigner, David, like many Asian Americans, found safety growing up in the Chinese church, which provided him a place where his appearance and cultural experience was the same as everyone else in the church. He writes that they didn't talk about race in his church, "perhaps because being Asian American was simply assumed to be normal, just like being white was the cultural norm at my public school" (p. 16). That sentence is telling, isn't it?
Leong focuses his attention on the convergence of place and race, especially in urban contexts. He does this by locating the conversation in the "intersection of theology and geography" (p. 17). He believes that place or geography plays a significant role in forming us as people. One example of place that reveals the role of race in society is the city of Detroit, which was where Leong's grandparents planted themselves and where his parents grew up. Detroit plays a significant role in the book, which resonates with me since I live in Metro-Detroit. He tells the story of visiting Detroit in 2010 for the funeral of his grandfather. He took note of the racial makeup of the city and the suburbs that surround it, noting the divide that is marked by 8 Mile Road. Looking at these realities theologically, from a perspective that is informed by the incarnation and the Trinity, he takes note of the role homogeneity plays in society. While he affirms the value of cultural familiarity and shared values, "when we only or even primarily experience belonging in homogeneity—racial, cultural, religious, or otherwise—then I believe we are tragically missing out and falling short of the deeply transformative divine community that must accompany authentic Christian discipleship" (p. 36).
The book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses, as we've seen, on "Race and Place. He invites to consider the nature of the relationship between theology and geography, as well as the question of color blindness. There is also a chapter on what he calls the move from garden to city. He is concerned about the tendency among some who want to move to the city, often for good reasons, but then become discouraged when change doesn't happen quickly. Change takes time, and requires patience. This first section of the book provides the foundation for what is to come, introducing us to the issues of race and place.
In Part II of the book, which is titled "Patterns of Exclusion," Leong introduces us to the structures in society that divide, often intentionally (take deed covenants that specifically limited occupancy to whites and redlining). Too often we fail to notice these patterns, because they often stay hidden below the surface. The walls of division and hostility can be physical and invisible. The invisible walls can be just as damaging as the physical ones. We often see this invisible wall present in suburban life, which has often been rooted in efforts to exclude the other. Thus, we have 8 Mile Road in Detroit, that has served to divide predominantly African American Detroit from its predominantly white northern suburbs in Oakland County (where I live). The divisions that exist in a place like Detroit were assisted by policies on the part of banks, insurance companies, and the Federal Government that favored whites over people of color. These policies included FHA rules that favored white borrowers who built homes in the suburbs. The legacy of these policies is seen to this very day in the disparity between white and black home ownership, and the accompanying financial equity offered to white homeowners. While this may be reality, Leong suggests that Christians should "transgress the boundaries that divide us" (p. 96). That is, we need to break through what he calls "racial logic." Once again, he counsels patience, because moving too quickly to reconciliation may lead to overlooking the causes of the divide. He writes: "Before we begin the fixing, perhaps it would be helpful to really consider the ugliness and brutality of the walls we've constructed and our own complicity in building and sustaining these walls" (p. 102). One of the issues we need to wrestle with is the challenge of gentrification, a process that is complex and requires deep understanding, for "gentrification has many faces and stories, and its outcomes cannot be easily condemned or celebrated in a singular fashion" (p. 131). I appreciate his willingness to wrestle with the complexity of the issue, because too often the conversation is one-sided. Part of the conversation deals with the "allure of urban 'cool.'" Here he speaks of the urban aesthetic that has proven attractive to many, whom he refers to as "hipsters." If Detroit is the example of urban decay and segregation, Portland, Oregon is a good example of the power of "urban cool." He writes that "cool Christianity is a piece of the gentrification conversation." The reality here is both a fleeing from the city (white flight) and fleeing to the city (gentrification), and the implications of both for the church. He notes that gentrification will occur when neighborhoods experience a renaissance, but the church, he believes, has a responsibility to help mitigate the problems posed by these efforts, for too often communities of color bear the brunt of these changes.
With these issues laid out for us, he turns in Part III to the creation of "Communities of Belonging." Here is where we get to the question of reconciliation, but notice that he first spends much of the book exploring the challenges of racial and economic disparity, and the role that the city plays in all of this. He explores these challenges in conversation with Christian theology. Moving toward this section of the book, he has reminded us that we can't move too quickly to reconciliation. To move toward reconciliation requires building relationships, and that requires patience and perseverance. He points to the Eucharistic Table as a symbol of community that honors our diversity, but he writes that we should not "confuse the radical hospitality of the Table for a sentimental moment of inclusivity, the kind we see so carefully manicured in diverse marketing materials and feel-good entertainment. Christians must remember that the story of reconciliation we are striving to inhabit is truly beautiful and entirely disruptive at the same time" (p. 174). Only after he speaks of the challenges of moving toward reconciliation does he finally offer us guidance about getting practical. This will involve the ministry of presence, but presence requires intentionality and reading social locations from a new and different vantage point. That is, reading the center from the periphery, rather than always trying to read the periphery from the center, especially, if you, like me, are white. Then, perhaps we're ready to work for change.
Race and place are related, and the patterns of homogeneity and segregation occur in Detroit and Los Angeles and in Beijing and Sao Paulo. Thus: “Ghettos and gated communities, barrios and bank towers, slums and five-star resorts coexist and perpetuate one another, but remain carefully segregate from each other by physical walls, class boundaries, and racial barriers. What can we do to unlearn the social logic of homogeneity that has wreaked so much havoc in our neighborhoods and cities?” (p.182). As I ponder the need to overcome the “logic of homogeneity,” I remember that ack in the 1970s and 1980s, church growth gurus were hailing the value of the “homogeneous principle.” You can grow churches on the principle of “birds of a feather flock together.” Thus, the church remains largely segregated, and we find it difficult to move toward something more inclusive yet not homogeneous.
This is a most important book, because it lays out issues of great importance for our time, and does so with theology as an important lens. I would suggest that it could be read very fruitfully in tandem with Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, (Eerdmans, 2015), as it also speaks to questions of race and place from an Asian North American perspective (Grace is Korean born). Leong’s book reminds us that location and geography play important roles in forming us as human beings and as Christians. The geography of the city is central to the important questions of our day, for it is in the cities that we have seen the dangers of segregation and gentrification play out. The church has been complicit in creating walls of hostility. It can now participate in building bridges of reconciliation, but we mustn't move too quickly, lest we overlook the causes of the problems we face. It is good that the author of the book is Asian, for as I've learned of late, this voice, the voice often spoken of as the "model minority" can easily get pushed to the side and discounted. But here is another vantage point through whom we can get a new perspective on the realities of the day.
Leong has written a powerful book that needs to be read widely if reconciliation and justice are to be achieved in church and society. I can’t recommend this book more highly. It is a must read for our times. Like with Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s book, this book reminds us that the issue of race is not merely a black and white issue. It is much more complex, and thus it is good to hear the voices of persons from communities like Leong’s. Take and read and hopefully gain better understanding of the challenges and the opportunities of race and place in the journey to reconciliation.