Our Trespasses

“Hidden just below the surface of the missionary impulse is the politics of conquest. I inherited that legacy.” Greg Jarrell nimbly this surface tension in his essay about the the “missionary impulse.”

Our Trespasses 
By Greg Jarrell

On a crisp November morning in the year 1960, Charlotte Redevelopment Authority Director Vernon Sawyer walked up the steps into Friendship Baptist Church. He was bringing a message to Friendship this morning, though he had not alerted them to his visit prior to his arrival. A deacon in black suit, crisp white shirt, and black tie greeted him at the door, transforming his surprise at seeing a white man coming to church at Friendship into a look of welcome. Sawyer found the pastor and asked for permission to occupy the pulpit for a special announcement.

Sawyer was not bringing good news. Friendship, one of Charlotte’s most prominent Black churches, was going to be torn down as part of an Urban Renewal project. That federal program was going to pay for the city’s efforts to raze 238 acres of the historic Brooklyn neighborhood, home to more than 1,000 families, hundreds of businesses, a dozen churches, and more memories and sacred moments that could be counted.

Sawyer broke the news, and then tried to frame the news in terms that sounded like a special mission: “The time is getting late to make plans to rebuild your church,” but, “I’d like to point out one thing. Somewhere in the span of endless time, it was you who were chosen to lead in solving this problem in this crucial hour…. The challenge is before you.”[1]

Only a few years later, and only a few blocks down the street, the all-White First Baptist Church of Charlotte was at the end of years of conflict over moving from their prominent, but small, site on Charlotte’s Main Street. The congregation had nearly fled for the suburbs a few years earlier, but in a contentious meeting that nearly split the church, they decided to remain downtown. By 1965, they had located the site they wanted – nine acres in the newly cleared Urban Renewal area, just a block over from where Friendship Baptist had intended to stay, prior to Vernon Sawyer’s visit. The city was auctioning off the land following the eviction and displacement of every family and institution that had made its home there, all of them Black.

In a united and happy meeting, First Baptist voted to approve their move into the Urban Renewal area. Following the vote, they closed their business agenda by singing a hymn: “Lead on, O King eternal, the day of march has come…. the crown awaits the conquest; lead on, O God of might.”[2]

Interestingly, though, the primary arguments for First Baptist moving within downtown, and not out to the suburbs like many of their peers, were grounded in the language of mission. The church belongs downtown, one key leader argued, among “drunks, unclean people, people without the right clothes.”[3] That language chafes, but I get the impulse – as a member of a Catholic Worker-adjacent community, I’ve heard myself say similar things. I’ve talked extensively about God’s preferential option for the poor, about the importance of living together in solidarity with the oppressed, about how the Church is found among those who strive for liberation from the margins of the Empire. The language and the ideas are a bit different, but I’m still unsettled as to how close I am to the same legacy. Hidden just below the surface of the missionary impulse is the politics of conquest. I inherited that legacy.

In our intentional community, sixty years later and only three miles away from those historic Charlotte institutions, we’ve tried to reckon with the legacy of the missionary impulse. Then, displacement of Black people came in the form of Urban Renewal; now it is happening through gentrification. Our community has made the fight against gentrification our central focus. It hasn’t worked. The trickle of displacement has become a gaping wound. There are no solutions in sight.

We’re left to wonder whether two decades of our efforts have only been cosmetic, an attempt to spare ourselves the x-ray image that might show us how little deep the cancer of White supremacy runs in us. Have our attempts at solidarity merely obscured in our own eyes the history of missionary conquest that courses through our veins?

We’ve struggled against it, done our best to justify ourselves and our presence, but we cannot avoid it: White supremacy comes attached to White people. My presence on sidewalks and porches is a sign of safety to the newest batch of conquerors as they ride through, looking for real estate deals. It is also a signifier of the coming damage to my Black neighbors, as yet another generation faces displacement from places they called ‘home.’ I’ve worked so hard against those impacts. I’ve tried not to be White. But nobody – my old neighbors, my new neighbors, “the market” – is fooled. White supremacy will use every one of us to grab title to every square inch of land on God’s good earth, our best efforts and intentions be damned. None of us racialized as White can be pure or exceptional. There is no escaping Whiteness, only abolishing it.

I think a lot about Vernon Sawyer’s cruel speech to Friendship Baptist now. Vicious politics still get framed as benevolent mission. The wrong pulpits get seized and the bulldozers run in the wrong places. A great reversal is upon us: the mission field of our moment is not the disinvested neighborhood, but the barren souls and frozen pews of those of us who think we are White.

The challenge is before all of us who have been taught we are White to get at the foundations, down deep into the stolen soil we inhabit.

[1] Charlotte Observer, 7 November 1960.
[2] Cited in FBC’s newsletter, The Church Voice, 25 Feb 1965.
[3] Charlotte Observer, 28 Oct 1963.


This essay was originally published by Geez Magazine.

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