A Liberating Liturgy

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

Stephen Setzer

Urban Housing and Gentrification

Before we begin to examine elements of the church’s liturgy and look for its connections to our urban neighborhoods, some introductory matter is necessary. We must first define the terminology, describe the setting, and understand the demographic which will provide the context for this paper’s thesis.

Defining the Terminology

Gentrification is a relatively recent phenomenon that began in the 1950s and 60s in London, England, and in numerous U.S. cities. It can be defined as “the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city into middle-class residential and/or commercial use.”1 However, it should be noted that there are other nuanced definitions of what gentrification is; moreover, gentrification is not necessarily limited to urban centers, but is currently being experienced in rural settings as well.2 Yet for our context the above definition adequately describes the process of transformation that the proposed community is currently experiencing. And although there are differing opinions concerning gentrification’s positive or negative effects upon a community, we will only focus on the most prominent consequence of displacement, which Rowland Atkinson and Gary Bridge outline as “Displacement through rent/price increases; Secondary psychological costs of displacement; Loss of affordable housing; and Homelessness.”3

Describing the Setting

The setting for this paper will be Dallas, Texas, and particularly a community in the northeast quadrant of the city-center commonly known as “Knox-Henderson.” In recent years this area has undergone significant redevelopment due to its close proximity to Uptown Dallas, a burgeoning community of White, young professionals who may occupy any of the numerous upscale apartment buildings or condominiums that have recently been constructed in the area. Interestingly, Uptown Dallas was historically known as Freedman’s Town or North Dallas. Beginning after the Civil War freed slaves began to buy small tracts of land, which now borders the Central Expressway, and to develop its own burgeoning community. However, this all changed in the 1940s and 50s when the the city of Dallas began to institute particular changes that transformed the community into what it is today.4 The Knox-Henderson area has been slower to change, maintaining an ethnically diverse population, which now incorporates a significant percentage of Hispanics. Yet transformation is occurring in the form of upscale residences and restaurants along N. Henderson and N. Fitzhugh Avenues.5

Understanding the Demographic

The population of the Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh section is predominantly Hispanic and it forms the western boundary of East Dallas that lies between the Central Expressway and I-30 including the area surrounding Fair Park. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) demographics for this section are overwhelmingly Hispanic with averages from most elementary, middle, and high schools maintaining Hispanic percentages near or above 75%. For example, Robert E. Lee Elementary School is an elementary school within the the Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh section and its demographic is 75% Hispanic, 11% African-American, and 12% White. Nearby Ben Milam Elementary School is 87% Hispanic, 7% African-American, and 4% White. The entire district’s percentages are 67% Hispanic, 25% African-American, and 5% White.6 Another interesting statistic is the percentage of students that are eligible for free/reduced lunches. DISD states the following parameters for qualification:

“Children in households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP–formerly Food Stamps) or TANF may be eligible to receive free meals regardless of household income. Also, if your household income falls within Federal Income Chart limits, your children may be eligible to receive free or reduced-price meal benefits.”7

According to Robert E. Lee Elementary’s demographics, 78% of their students qualify for free/reduced lunches, while the entire district is at 87%.8

These statistics are important because they indicate the ethnic and socioeconomic disparity between Uptown Dallas and the Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh area. And they are particularly important in considering the gentrification that is already occurring in this section of the city. The demographic of Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh indicates that as gentrification continues it will displace poor, Hispanic families, many of whom have emigrated from Mexico and Central America.9 There’s a particular liminality that accompanies poverty and especially poverty within immigrant families where home and permanence have been left behind in Central America. However, that is exactly what is being threatened by gentrification that is occurring within this area through rent/price increases and the displacement of social capital in the form of family, friends, and neighbors who are forced to move.

Sacred Space, Liturgical Movement, and Urban Housing

Houses and Homemaking

In their book Beyond Homelessness the authors Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh examine the phenomenology of home and determine eight elements that characterize it. Among them appear the words “permanence, stories, and embodied inhabitation.” These words remind us that home is a place of stability. It is a place where stories are told. Those stories may be humorous or sorrowful. They may tell of the premature death of a child, or of children’s snowball fights just after Christmas dinner. But regardless of the content, it is stories, perhaps more than anything else, that form our understanding of what it means to be at home. Moreover, home is also a place of embodied inhabitation, as the authors write, “We live not as strangers to our place, but fully in our place as knowledgeable and caring dwellers. Home, we have said, requires care and cultivation, but that care and cultivation is always located in a particular place.”

Here we are confronted, once again, with that phrase “particularity of place,” and it reminds us that our stability and stories contribute to our embodied inhabitation, but that inhabitation in always connected to a place. So then, we are brought back to the question of specialness. Are our homes, as places, special? I think that sociologically one could make the argument that displacement disrupts our stability, stories, and embodied inhabitation, moreover, it is a disorienting event in the life of a home; however, the purpose of this paper is to understand home in relation to the development and process of Christian liturgy. How is liturgy connected to urban housing and homemaking in the city? Remembering O’Donovan, I am reminded of his words regarding particularity and universality as he writes, “The flesh of Jesus was particular as was no other flesh . . . . A universalism that responds to God’s initiative has taken its beginning from the historical fact of an elect man in an elect place.” And this is the point of the liturgy, the particularity of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Such liturgical movement that proceeds in a particular direction towards the Eucharist is a liturgy that tells a universal story of a particular embodied inhabitation (or Incarnation) that declared universal specialness to homemaking as an extension of the particularity of Christian place.

The Eucharist and Liturgical Homemaking

It’s Sunday morning, you’re seated in silence while waiting for the service to commence. There are others seated in silence around you. The music begins and everyone stands as a crucifer processes along with servers and ministers down the center aisle to the chancel. Inside the chancel there are various things that occupy space. There is the centerpiece, the Eucharistic table. A credence table with bread, wine, and water. The ministers and servers are robed and walk in a particularly reverent form. Things are slow and deliberate. Things are placed in a particular way, and things are done in particular ways that denote specialness – the place becomes sacred through action. These actions tell a story and within the actions the story itself is read and spoken Sunday after Sunday. Perhaps Christian art surrounds you where you sit and you begin to move from image to image, learning the story through color and light all while music envelops you, repeating the story to your ears. And through time and experience the liturgy migrates into your very being until it is inseparable from your own story. The participant now becomes the performer of the liturgy inside and outside the church building. As William McAlpine writes, “Many of the activities that occur in ‘places,’ particularly sacred places, are designed and exercised as a means of acting out a myth, custom, or rite deemed essential to those participating.”

Pope Benedict XVI in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy describes Christian liturgy and worship as “[Giving] us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours . . . . [it] has the character of anticipation.” This anticipatory understanding of liturgy is certainly an aspect of how such Christian rituals should be understood; however, William Cavanaugh writes under the heading “Christian Liturgy Is Not Sacred,” these words: “Christian liturgy knows no distinction between sacred and secular, spiritual and material. To participate in the liturgy is to bless God as God blessed all of material creation, to respond to God’s blessing by blessing God.” These two statements are interesting because they, seemingly, represent two different understandings of Christian liturgy. One maintains liturgy as “other-worldly,” while Cavanaugh’s understanding is very “this-worldly.” Now, Cavanaugh is interacting with the theme of Alexander Schmemann’s The World As Sacrament, in declaring that “the world [is] the material of one all-embracing Eucharist” and he would doubtless adjudicate too narrowly between the Pope’s understanding and his own; however, these two descriptions together form something quite important for our understanding of the role of Christian liturgy in relation to urban housing.

The central act of Christian liturgy and worship is the Eucharist, and when beginning a reflection on ritual space, liturgical movement, and urban housing there is no better point from which to begin. The Eucharist brings together elements of both Pope Benedict’s understanding of liturgy and Cavanaugh’s in relation to Christ’s presence in heaven and our anticipation for his return and restoration of all things on earth, however, the Eucharist is also a rite performed on earth and it is for the people and things of the earth. Moreover, the Eucharist is a rite that comes from particularity, but one which extends universally. It is here that Schmemann offers an apt reflection: “Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. A meal is still a rite – the last ‘natural sacrament’ of family and friendship, of life that is more than ‘eating’ and ‘drinking.’” So then, from gathering around the table of particularity, we participate in a celebratory meal that is then taken out from the church and performed in our communities and homes, so that through the days and weeks and years of our lives there is a continual movement from the liturgy to the home.

In the Eucharistic liturgy there is also the element of inclusion and embrace, it is a celebration of homecoming where Christ is present with his people and in his people. Here there is diversity and variety in age, ethnic, and socioeconomic identity. It is a celebration where there is a giving and reception of Christ. And Cavanaugh points out that unlike capitalist economies, “In the divine economy . . . the gift is not alienated from the giver, but the giver is in the gift, goes with the gift . . . . this type of giving is perfected as the dualism of giver and recipient are collapsed; Christ is the perfect return of God to God.” So then, there is no Eucharistic transaction which reflects or creates a disparity between the giver and receiver, nor is there a return. Furthermore, the Eucharist is not property that can be bought or sold. Christ is not a bank, nor is he a property developer, but rather he is the gift and in him there is homecoming and an embodied inhabitation of God with creation, for creation, and for God. Here Cavanaugh concludes that “property and dominium are thus radically questioned.”

There is another element of the Eucharistic liturgy that questions the way that we think about our urban dwellings; it is the element in the Eucharistic prayer known as the anamnesis. This word means in essence “to remember.” As the Eucharistic liturgy is spoken there is a remembrance of Christ; however, this memory is not solely located in those moments directly preceding his crucifixion, but rather they are located in the fullness of his person, his life and work including his death and resurrection. Moreover, in the anamnesis we are called to remember the future as well as it becomes what Geoffrey Wainwright refers to as a “‘throwing forward’ of Christ’s final advent into the present.”

Under the poignant heading of “Martyrdom and Eucharist,” Cavanaugh stresses the importance of understanding the anamnesis not only as remembering the past or anticipating the future, but that this element of Eucharistic liturgy is “the making present of a past event.” It calls into present the life of Christ, so that when we partake of him we partake of his life and ministry, death and resurrection, and we partake of his realized rule over the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3.10). Bruce Morrill concludes that “as imitation of Christ, faith is itself a praxis, a purposeful way of life shaped by the definite content of narrative memories about Jesus . . . . [and] just as the narrative memory of Jesus is of his kenotic service in solidarity with the suffering even unto death, so the imitatio Christi is about a life lived with interest in the suffering of others.”

A Liberating Liturgy: Urban Housing and Gentrification

I suppose the proper question now is “So what?” What do Abraham and exile or Eucharist and liturgy have to do with urban housing and gentrification? To begin I would point back to the Old Testament and suggest that it is precisely the story of Israel that teaches the church to look beyond its walls and into the neighborhood and see the plurality of places that God’s has called sacred. To see people, their homes and communities as sacred spaces, and to understand that they are sacred because in heaven and in earth “Christ fills all things” (Eph. 4.10; Col. 1.17; Ps. 119.57;64). The church is witness to this through it liturgical activity as it remembers and performs the story of Israel and Christ and the world through the movement of the liturgy each week. It is the church that remembers and enacts the life and work of Christ in their community, even as they have consumed him in the Eucharist, so they become Christ to those outside the church’s walls.

I have several suggestions, specific to East Dallas and particularly the area of Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh, for how the church can begin to “prophetically imagine” new possibilities for enacting community transformation in the form of liturgical centeredness. First, remembering the story of Abraham and Israel, the church must radically rethink the nature of national boundaries. This is particularly important when considering that the neighborhood of Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh is predominantly Hispanic. Christianity is not a national religion. And the church cannot support immigration policies, federal or local, that are unjust to the immigrant and consider itself remaining committed to the witness of Jesus Christ. Christ judges such exclusionary practices most pointedly through Eucharistic practice (1 Cor. 11.17-33).

Secondly, the Eucharist is not a transaction, nor does it reflect or create a disparity between gift and giver. Rather, in the Eucharist the gift and giver are one and we receive them both. Moreover, as Cavanaugh writes, “Christ himself is found not only in the center but at the margins of the Body, radically identified with the ‘least of my brothers and sisters’ (see Mt. 25.31-46) with whom all members suffer and rejoice.” In a gentrifying community such as Knox-Henderson/Fitzhugh, transactions are happening beyond the reach of the inhabitants of the neighborhood, and by their very nature those transactions create a disparity between haves and have-nots. The Hispanic construction worker and his family are not a family of means, nor is their home important. They can relocate. However, through the Eucharist the church is necessarily connected to its neighbors, and it is called to be in solidarity with those whose homes are being threatened and, as Christ, be present with them along the periphery and the margins.

This also means that the church must think creatively about ways in which to obliterate distinctions between giver and receiver. There is great difficulty in understanding how to approach this imperative; however, when we limit ourselves to a particular, local community then opportunities can become more accessible. For example, some churches have cultivated communal gardens in urban spaces to become common meeting and working places for parishioners and their neighbors. Another example is an urban church in Toronto that operates a lunch program for at-risk or homeless persons uses a rotation of kitchen staff including volunteers and the program’s guests, so that there is always a balance of both. They also incorporate guests into their leadership and planning sessions allowing them a voice in leadership, thus averting unnecessary alienation. This is one way that this particular church has discerned opportunities to foster communal development.

Thirdly, in relation to the disparity between giver and receiver, the church must understand the community in which it is situated. What are its streets like? Who are it’s people? Ethnic and socioeconomic identity aside, for Christ knows no such distinction, how can the church use its liturgy to connect with the material experiences of its neighbors? Where do they intersect? When one walks the streets of Knox-Henderson or Fitzhugh, what music does he or she hear? What are people doing on Monday, Friday, or Saturday nights? How can the church incorporate such things into its life in the community? One example may be to take the liturgy from the church building and into the sacred spaces that surround it. Another may be to use Antonia Lynn’s example of using urban streets as a labyrinth for urban prayer.

Fourthly, in the section concerning the anamnesis we reflected on the nature of remembrance and particularly how through the anamnesis we call into present the life of Christ, so that when we partake of him we partake of his life and ministry, death and resurrection, and we partake of his realized supremacy over the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3.10). When the church partakes of Christ’s realized rule through the Eucharist, it is empowered to engage with what Walter Wink names “domination systems.” Gentrification can be such a system that consumes property through displacement and disorientation. It can disrupt families and social networks and can ultimately create homelessness. Wink writes that domination systems such as these “always induce a sense of powerlessness.” However, as he notes, “The church has no more important task than to expose these delusionary assumptions as the Dragon’s game.” Having such a prophetic imagination and voice within the community will only come through the power of Christ, remembered and received in the Eucharist, and enacted in the life of the community.


William Cavanaugh writes, “The role of the church is not merely to make policy recommendations to the state, but to embody a different sort of politics, so that the world may be able to see a truthful politics and be transformed. From week to week we hear a story repeated in the liturgy, a story of the sacredness of Israel and the sacredness of the world, a story that remembers and calls to present the life of Christ which we embody, performing his actions in our communities and neighborhoods. And in that performance we declare that all space is sacred and especially the dwelling places of those who are along the periphery and margins of society, for it is in them that Christ is particularly present. We engage in warfare, but not the sort that is common to the nation-state, but “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world” (Eph. 6.12 KJV). It is through the power of Christ in the Eucharist that we are called perform his works, and it is through Christ that we are called to embody his life to the world.

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.


1 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly, Gentrification (New York: Routledge, 2008), xv.

2 Ibid, 135.

3 Rowland Atkinson and Gary Bridge, eds., Gentrification in a Global Context: The New Urban Colonialism (New York: Routledge, 2005), 5.

4 Marsha Prior and Robert V. Kemper, “From Freedman’s Town to Uptown: Community Transformation and Gentrification in Dallas, Texas,” Urban Anthropology and Studies of Cultural Systems and World Economic Development, 34 no. 2/3 (Summer-Fall 2005): 183.

5 Steve Brown, “Fitzhugh’s Gentrification Moves Into Retail Site Makeovers,” The Dallas Morning News 25 June 2010.

6 “Scorecards,” Dallas Independent School District, http://www.dallasisd.org/scorecards (accessed December 8, 2012).

7 “Free and Reduced Price Meals,” Dallas Independent School District, http://www.dallasisd.org/Page/931 (accessed December 8, 2012).

8 “Scorecards,” Dallas Independent School District.

9 I understand this to be indicated by the percentage of students that are “Limited-English-Proficient” students in the district. For example, 31% of the students at Robert E. Lee Elementary are “Limited-English,” while the district as a whole is at 38%.


Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 56-64.

Oliver O’Donovan, “Loss of a Sense of Place,” 318.

William R. McAlpine, Sacred Space for the Missional Church: Engaging Culture through the Built Environment (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 127.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 21.

William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 119.

Alexander Schmemann, The World As Sacrament (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1966), 16.

William T. Cavanaugh, “The City,” Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Catharine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (New York: Routledge, 1999), 195.

Geoffrey Wainwright, Eucharist and Eschatology (London: Epworth Press, 1971), 92.

William T. Cavanaugh, “Dying For The Eucharist Or Being Killed By It? Romero’s Challenge To First-World Christians,” Theology Today, 58, no. 2 (July 2001): 182.

Bruce T. Morrill, Anamnesis As Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology In Dialogue (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 2000), 189.

Antonia Lynn, “Prayer in the Streets: The Labyrinth as Symbol and Tool for an Urban Prayer Life,” Discovering the Spirit in the City, ed. Andrew Walker and Aaron Kennedy (New York: Continuum, 2010), 16-28.

Walter Wink, “Unmasking the Domination System,” Urban Theology: A Reader, ed. Michael Northcott (London: Cassell, 1998), 143.


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