A Liberating Liturgy

How The Eucharist is Related to Gentrification and Why Urban Housing Is Sacred – Part I

Stephen Setzer

The words “Eucharist” and “gentrification” may seem to be quite disparate in their context and meaning. One alludes to ceremony, tradition, religion, and sacrament, while the other connotes cities, housing, displacement, and economics. They are seemingly worlds apart. However, it is my contention in this paper that these worlds are not so far apart as they may initially appear. Rather they are connected at a foundational level through their respective understandings of place. What is it? Is it special? To whom does it belong? And do any of these things matter? As Christians we are a part of a story, a story that is centered, interestingly, on a particular understanding of place. Rooted in the Old Testament narrative of Abraham and Sarah and the stories of exile, the Scriptures are intent upon forming our understanding of the inherent specialness of place. Moreover, Christian tradition speaks to that same understanding through the development and process of its liturgy. Particularly, through the Eucharistic liturgy we are told a story week after week of the specialness of sacred space and our place. So then in this paper I will begin to build a bridge from Christian liturgy to our urban neighborhoods and explore how an understanding of the Eucharistic liturgy can provide the urban church with a prophetic voice against redevelopment at the cost of displacement.

The Biblical Story: From Abraham to Exile

The story of Israel begins with migration. Abraham was called to journey from Ur to the somewhat obscure “land of promise” (Gen. 12). This was the land that would be the subject for the whole of the Old Testament and the land from which Jesus would be born and the mission of the church would emanate. It was a particular place and in it would develop a particular religion.  However, it is important to remember that the story begins with displacement and migration. To this Walter Brueggemann writes, “The Bible itself is primarily concerned with the issue of being displaced and yearning for a place.” Moreover he adds, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.” Displacement and migration, homelessness and belonging – these are themes that begin with Abraham and are present throughout the story of Israel.

And it is important to remember that it was a divine voice that called for Abraham’s initial migration and displacement in order that ultimate belonging could be realized. So this migration was inherently a religious movement, and one might even propose that it was liturgical. Throughout the story of Abraham’s migration there are references to his recognition that this movement and the land were both sacred. This was done primarily through the building of altars and memorials to God (Gen. 12.7,8; 13.18). Moreover, there were sacramental liturgies performed on the land, sacred rites such as the meeting of Abraham and the king/priest, Melchizedek who offers bread and wine to the patriarch. Also, there is the important rite in Genesis 15 where God establishes his covenant with Abraham promising him possession of the land. This promise was established with the rite in Genesis 15 and is reiterated through the rites of Genesis 17 and again in chapter 22. Reflecting on these passages Craig Bartholomew summarizes, “[The land is holy] because it is the place where [God] keeps revealing himself to Abraham and the place which he bequeaths as a gift to Abraham and his descendants. It is the particular presence and word of God in and through Abraham that makes the land holy.”

But what are we to do with the particular holiness of the place when the people are removed from the land? Displacement and migration, homelessness and belonging, themes in Israel’s story are nowhere more poignant than in the exile in Babylon. As the exile approached Jeremiah prophesied, “[Thus says the LORD of hosts] I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness . . . . This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25.10-11 NASB). The altars, the liturgies, the temple – gone. However, it was forced migration from their particular place which taught them that their understanding itself would have to migrate from particularity to a plurality of place. God was not to be found exclusively in the land of Israel, but universally with his people in all places. Oliver O’Donovan in his essay, “Loss of a Sense of Place,” comments, “Precisely as [Israel] understood its holy place to have fallen under YHWH’s condemnation, and was forced to consider the question of its future from a distance, it entertained a hope of restoration that would involve it in a new international context.”

In this migration Israel would move from Psalm 137 where the exiles exclaim, “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” to the words of Psalm 119, “The LORD is my portion . . . . [and] The earth is full of your lovingkindness, O LORD; teach me your statutes” (119.57;64). Sacredness now extends beyond the confines of particularity and it continues throughout the whole space of the world. The world is sacred. Such sacredness is most pointedly observed in the incarnation of Christ in the world. Holy places become unfixed and might be found in the region of Tyre and Sidon, the home of a tax-collector, or upon a wooden cross. Such a reality is prepared for us in the Jewish exile. From particular to universal, their context has now moved beyond what was once exclusively sacred.

Telling the story of how Israel moved from the particular to the universal is essential to establishing how the church must move beyond the particularity of its sacred spaces and into the plurality of sacred spaces that surround it. However, before this move can occur one thing must be addressed. In writing about such movement from particular to universal are we not simply subsuming one space into another so that nothing remains particular or unique? O’Donovan recognizes the potential of this assumption, and he responds by asserting,

“A universalism that responds to God’s initiative has taken its beginning from the historical fact of an elect man in an elect place. If it transcends holy places, then, it does so not by subsuming them into a universal, but by proceeding from their unique, once-for-all role to new general possibilities in the history that follows them. The elect places of history are the matrix in which meetings between God and mankind are shaped.”

This is precisely what this paper is calling for, a “new general possibility” for the church to use the particularity of its understanding of sacred space to influence the spaces that surround it. To become a prophetic voice within a changing neighborhood whose inhabitants are being subjected to displacement through redevelopment and gentrification. It is the particularity of its space and the uniqueness of its liturgy that form and shape how a church can begin to teach its neighbors concerning their own particular and unique spaces and place within the community.

Stephen Setzer is a master of divinity student at Wycliffe College, in the University of Toronto, where he is completing an internship at Church of the Redeemer. He is a postulant for ordination in the Diocese of Dallas, the Episcopal Church. You can find more of his writing on his community blog, Life on Lindsay.

__________

Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 2-3.

Craig G. Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 51.

Oliver O’Donovan, “Loss of a Sense of Place,” Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 313.

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