A few years ago, I was enjoying a Quarter Pounder meal with an old friend at a McDonalds located across the street from a Mega-Church in North Dallas. This McDonalds had been remodeled to serve that social location. Its countertops, floors, and other surfaces were polished granite. It featured polished brass fixtures, fine tables and chairs. The menus were electronic. The place was immaculate.
As we ate, my friend explained that the church across the street had tens of thousands of members. The immense facility featured a shopping center, a gymnasium, a school, and the church had a soccer league with multiple competing teams, among other features.
I told him, “This McDonalds is like that church. It’s really fancy and cost a lot of money, but my Quarter Pounder and those flies around the trash can are exactly the same as what I get back home in San Antonio.”
During my second year of seminary, I joined a downtown United Methodist Church as an affiliate member. I served on their evangelism committee. One committee meeting, the discussion surrounded a direct mail campaign. A map on the wall showed where the mail pieces would be sent. Conspicuously, the ZIP codes nearest the church were omitted from their campaign.
I did not know the term “redlining” then, but I was looking right at it.
Redlining was defined in the 1960’s by sociologist John McKnight to describe the practice of using demography and maps to systematically discriminate against people of color and lower income families on matters of insurance, lending, zoning and public services. The practice began much earlier, and is one of the most persistent aspects of systemic racism in American society.
In many American cities, redlining is responsible for much of how the city is organized. Decisions about where to place the city dump, the sewage treatment system, the railroads, warehouses, the jail, homeless shelters, parks, the zoo, the airport, hotels, all reflect the biases of redlining.
Such discrimination is illegal based on race, but it continues under other criteria related to the inequities disproportionately suffered by people of color, yielding the same result. In the case of the downtown church, their concern for evangelism was the average household income of individuals living in the area and whether those people could “pull their own weight” within their expensive predominantly White downtown church. The consequence of their bias was having more Hispanics working in their church cafeteria on Sundays than attending their worship services.
The question of means, of being able to pull one’s weight, or per-capita income or giving, continued to emerge throughout my experience of ministry. In most cases, the concern is not even grounded in real data.
A similar same discussion emerged in a church I was serving over proposed ministries that would have welcomed the 80% majority Hispanic population of that city. “Those people,” one member said, “don’t have the resources to support this church.”
I asked them, “How much does a full time employee of Dairy Queen make?” At that time, the answer was $15,000 per year. “So a tithe from that person would be $500 more than half the members here give, correct?”
It was never about money.
Redlining is evident in local church practice and has been the de-facto policy for selection of sites and quality for church construction for over a century.
RACIST USE OF DEMOGRAPHICS
The following criteria, easily obtained from any demography or marketing company, do not directly reference race, but can be structurally racist when used to create partiality within processes that select sites for new missions and evangelistic efforts:
- Average household income
- Crime rate
- Teen pregnancy rate
- School rankings
- Prevalence of Methodist identity
- Educational attainment
- Average home value
- Number of single-family dwellings
- Population density
- Language spoken
- Family size
REDLINING AND GENTRIFICATION
Gentrification may seem contrary to redlining, but it is the ultimate outcome of it. Redlining exacerbates patterns of inequity through denial of services, drives down local ownership. Gentrification preys upon this inequity, opening the door to predatory investors seeking to colonize the depressed area with mass purchases, significant improvements, changes that drive up property taxes, and the mass displacement of indigenous residents and their culture. New Church Starts soon follow patterns of gentrification, with “happening” new gentrified churches openly recruiting younger members from older, historic churches in the same area.
REDLINING AND LEADERSHIP
The choice of a location for headquarters often signals a socioeconomic norm for the organization as a whole. My church is located just a walking distance from the regional headquarters of H-E-B, a successful grocery chain that took intentional action toward anti-racism years ago in management and marketing practices, yielding growth that moved it into near monopoly status in South Texas. Today, enter any H-E-B and you will see the portraits of managers reflecting the diversity of the people shopping there. These are displayed with the same pride as the portraits of pastors hanging inside many Methodist churches.
Regarding those portraits, in one church a young person asked, “why are all the portraits black and white?”
I responded, “If only they were.”
When the main office of the Southwest Texas Conference was moved from Bandera Road to Huebner Road, the change in social location was presented as benefit of relocation. This change moved the center of conference administration to an area with four times the household income and a majority White neighborhood. It also moved it into a facility with a much higher cost per square foot.
REDLINING AND NEW CHURCHES
Redlining is often found in the process used to select sites for new churches and the relative amount of funding they receive.
The satellite church I referenced in the last chapter received around $100,000 a year in outside support until it was self-sufficient, including help to purchase property.
In comparison, when I was sent to Laredo, a border city that was 100 miles away from any UMC church with over 300 members, the project received declining salary and housing support and a $9000 one time grant. While other new church pastors purchased “church in the box” kits and constructed their new facilities on large acreages, I was spray painting used metal chairs in my garage and building our altar furnishings and pulpit with wood from Home Depot.
I remember one meeting of new church pastors held intentionally at an affluent new church site in Boerne, Texas. I traveled with the other mission pastor from Laredo who spoke only Spanish. We were welcomed with a fully catered meal of pork loin, steamed vegetables and potatoes, hot dinner rolls, and delicious dessert before being schooled by the pastor there on how to succeed. At the end of the meeting, the pastor pulled me aside, saying, “I don’t get why they sent you to Laredo. Mexicans are all Catholic.”
My experience of new church development did not approach the inequities experienced by Hispanic pastors. First generation immigrant pastors are often appointed to serve churches requiring full-time attention on a part-time or bi-vocational basis. Many are forced to hold very difficult jobs on the side, their spouses or pastoras expected to serve the church full-time without compensation or outside employment.
The pragmatic rationale for such inequity is that investments return in kind. A plant in a wealthier area will mean more revenue for less work, a quicker transition to self sufficiency, and greater long-term revenue from apportionments than a plant elsewhere.
The self-serving capitalist approach, driven by institutional and personal financial anxiety, is devoid of any Biblical basis and has not translated into long-term success. The declining support model combined with the syncretism of the cult of personality, has led to widespread patterns of burn-out and indebtedness leading to failures, clergy attrition, and foreclosures.
THE WHITE ELEPHANT
Redlining is not only used to discriminate in site selection for new churches. It is also employed in choices about the quality of meeting space. That choice permanently locks in socioeconomic bias, a bias that will persist even if the neighborhood transitions.
In Hispanic ministry circles, we call that the white elephant effect. An Anglo congregation constructs a fancy church structure during its heyday, but as the neighborhood transitions, it decides to relocate and offer its building to a congregation of new arrivals. The offer looks amazing, a beautiful church building. Certainly, such a beautiful space will help this church grow and prosper.
What the non-White new church fails to realize is that 1) they are inheriting every bit of obsolescence and neglect left behind by the Anglo church including soon to fail plumbing and HVAC systems, stained glass windows in need of re-leading, roof systems in need of replacement, foundation problems, and issues of asbestos remediation, and 2) they are taking over a place that even if it is renovated will have price per square foot (and maintenance liability) that it is outside the range of affordability for even the most generous of their constituencies.
When these congregations fail, many times in severely distressed church facilities, their non-White pastors are simply scapegoated for not bearing fruit. In fact, they were given a fruit basket literally made of granite, marble and lead.
FROM CHURCHES TO MINISTRIES
Redlining involves both space and status. It discriminates on the basis of geography as well as status. In this regard, it can even exist inside a local church, with different groups or missions being marginalized into inferior schedules, inferior meeting spaces, or funded with inferior means.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church began as a response to such marginalization within an Anglo-dominant congregation.
Structural redlining will seek to move people of color from empowering structures to paternalistic structures, shifting the dominant paradigm for mission from churches backward to ministries. This regression is especially egregious in contexts such as at the San Antonio Episcopal Area, where Hispanics are the politically, socially, and economically dominant population, largely speak English, and have every means to form and sustain congregations of every size.
Hispanic pastors working both in Hispanic churches and Hispanic ministries often refer to their work and calling as La Obra. They are building Hispanic communities, not merely providing ministry to Hispanics. Ministries are important, impacting many lives with important services and culturally appropriate worship opportunities, but these must build leaders and strengthen communities, not limit or marginalize them.
REDLINING AND EQUITY INVERSION
Equity inversion happens when compensation or investment is inversely proportional to merit or need. Redlining is a form of equity inversion, using inequity as a justification to deny investment and exacerbate inequity.
Inversion also exists in compensation patterns, evident when servants working among peoples who are most underrepresented, individuals possessing the cultural and language gifts most needed, deployed ministers encountering the most difficult contextual challenges, are least compensated or not compensated at all. This pattern is obvious to all, and in the greater organization, it disincentivizes the very outcomes our rhetoric claims to seek and reinforces the outcomes of structural racism. In Hispanic work, it means people will avoid learning Spanish in order to earn more.
IS REDLINING NECESSARY?
Leadership will frequently argue that the biases of redlining are mere pragmatism rather than racism, a necessary evil in order to avoid paternalistic dependency and plant only healthy, self-sustaining churches. Besides being congregationalist (and thus anti-Methodist), this assertion is also false. It begs the question as to why so many other Christian groups have done so well across the socioeconomic and ethnic spectrum. Over half of all new church starts in the Assemblies of God in the United States are planted among non-White populations, and Hispanics are more prevalent in the AOG than in society.
One hot day in Laredo, I decided to test this question: is there a baseline, bottom social location below which no church is viable?
I developed a simple mathematical model of a church in order to compute what the productivity or profitability of a meeting space would be, leaving clergy compensation (also arbitrary), out of the calculation.
I began with the figures most often used in redlining: the average household income, the size of the property, rental value of the property, attendance, the size of the church, per-capita giving.
The next step was to transform absolute quantities (cost of rent, revenue, attendance) into scalable values (rent per square foot, per-capita giving) and then contextualize these by introducing the redlining criteria of average income.
This allowed the earlier equation, based on the figures used in redlining, to transform into relative quantities that span all socioeconomic contexts. As I substituted the relative, contextualized quantities for the earlier ones, all of the redlining quantities cancelled out, and a beautiful formula emerged.
The productivity of a meeting space (P) was equal to the the rate of utilization (U) times the level of generosity of those participating (G) times the affordability of the meeting space (A).
P = UGA
Productivity was possible in any socioeconomic context as long as an affordable space was well used by generous people (and other fixed expenses like salaries were also affordable).
Have you ever wondered how the early classes and bands of Wesleyan Methodism did so well? They had lots of volunteer-led small, affordable meeting spaces packed with generous people. Have you wondered how all those independent and Pentecostal churches have done so well among non-White people and in working-class neighborhoods? Multiple worship services throughout the week in spartan worship centers.
The implications here are important even for established churches.
Ambition builds expensive, elaborate spaces that sit unused and empty most of the week or that are devoted to paternalistic ministries with no path into discipleship. On Sundays, utilities run in empty areas for hours at a time as the congregation moves from one part to another between Sunday School, Worship, and Fellowship.
That choice, the quality of the space, often made at the point of construction or expansion, locks in socioeconomic bias that remains even if a surrounding neighborhood changes, turning the once glorious temple into a white elephant that no subsequent population can afford to upkeep even if they are successful at evangelization and growth.
REDLINING BETRAYS THE GOSPEL
Even beyond the destructive biases that class and race bias introduce into church construction, church planting, and congregational redevelopment, more importantly, the structurally racist tactic of redlining betrays the premise of the apostolic mission of the church. Every human being is equally and infinitely worthy to hear the gospel and receive the grace of God.
God would not call us to this mission and then structure the laws of nature to prevent entire classes and races of people from ever enjoying Christian community. God does not redline.