Geographies of Joy: On Gentrification, Worship, and the Kitchen Table

Where do you find joy?

Where do you find joy? I don't mean, in this case, what practices bring you joy, what people cause joy to spring up in you, or what experiences have brought you joy. No. What physical space is a space of joy for you? What are your geographies of joy?

For me, it's the garden. I love waking up in the morning and watching the progression of the fuchsia blossoms, the true leaves sprouting on the tomato seedlings, the radishes peeking their red heads up over the soil. I find joy in the fact that when I pick a spinach leaf to sustain me, I'm actually not hurting the spinach but giving younger leaves more room to flourish and grow. It brings me joy to see plants from last season volunteering themselves in this one and reminding me of a past crop. My garden is a physical space of joy for me. 

Christian theologian Willie James Jennings, says "Joy is fundamentally tied to space." If joy is something that happens to us, arises within us, in the actual contexts of our lives then it happens in the spaces where we live.

"Spacelessness" and Segregation

We in the West (generally speaking) are a spaceless people. We don't think much about space. We don't value it. We move from place to place without a second thought. We tend to know places by names and numbers rather than landmarks, memories, and history.

But we don't just have a neutral relationship to space. As a society, we often use and abuse the land for economic gain, doing irreparable harm to the spaces that sustain our life. And we have not only hurt space, but used space to hurt people. In the U.S. in particular, we have driven Native Americans from their spaces to confine them in spaces of our government's choosing. We have stolen people from Africa to force them to build our spaces. And we have continued to segregate black folks and white folks not only during Jim Crow, but throughout the 70s and 80s in our explicit housing policies, and, implicitly through mass incarceration and "the war on drugs" right up until this very day. 

If we want fullness of joy, we cannot avoid thinking about space, not only because joy is fundamentally tied to space, but also because we have so frequently used space as a means of diminishing joy.

"Segregated joy is most often sequestered joy," Jennings says. It is joy with definitive boundaries established by the powerful. And those boundaries diminish both the joy of the oppressed and of the oppressor, because both are told "You can find joy here, but not there." In a world that has been, and remains to a remarkable degree, segregated, we can't just say, "We want to have joy together!" without thinking about where our real bodies are in actual space. Our geographies of joy have to overlap and become one if our joy is to be a united joy. 

This has huge ramifications for Christians (and, I think all people) as we think about geographies of joy in our cities, worshipping communities, and homes. 

City

In our cities, and in Oakland in particular, geographies of joy for historically marginalized people are being disrupted by the forces of gentrification. A friend of mine who grew up in Oakland once helped me understand the tragedy of gentrification when she said, "Gentrification is not just people of a particular ethnic group or income bracket moving into a particular neighborhood. It is the systematic displacement of centers of power and culture for historically marginalized people." Wanton gentrification means that an historical geography of joy for one person or community gets dismantled in order to create a brand new geography of joy for a different community that has more access to economic resources.

If you are new to Oakland (like me, since I've only called this place home for 4 years), how can you enter and help maintain the geography of joy that pre-dated you here? Can you advocate for affordable housing for locals to remain in their city? Can you frequent businesses that have been in your neighborhood for generations, rather than just the ones popping up to suit your tastes and budget? Will you get to know your neighbors who've been around a long time, listening to and honoring their stories of and names for your neighborhood?

Church

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The quest for a united joy also motivates us to create unsegregated public space for worshipping God. Worship is a profound act of joy, but if it's done in segregated silos it is diminished. That's why we worship together. We gather in one space that is not fundamentally mine or yours, but belongs to the God who made every person (whatever their income level, culture, personal history, race, or nationality) in his image. "[In worship] you come into a space that is not your own, and in some ways that space has claimed you as its own....[It is] a space is created not by you, but, in a strange kind of way, it's for you." says Jennings.

Worshipping together, across every kind of line that divides us, helps us to reimagine unbounded public space that is for all, not just for the select few because all space ultimately belongs to the God who created it and desires the unity of all his people.

Home

Finally, for many of us, home comes to mind as a geography of joy (or a place you wish was a geography of joy). It's a place you know well. It's a place where joyful memories are made around the dinner table or on the front porch. It's a place where nearly every tangible thing, every fabric, every color, every picture frame, becomes charged with stories that have shaped us.

Ceasefire Collective Community Meal 

Ceasefire Collective Community Meal 

How can we create space in our homes that expand the typical boundaries of joy? Who can we invite to share a meal, to stay with us, to play games at our house, or to BBQ in the backyard who doesn't ordinarily overlap our geographies of joy? Homes of creative hospitality can be radically subversive spaces in a world of segregational hostility. 

This weekend, as a church, we will be sharing our joy with our brothers and sisters from The Way Church during our family camp. This home on Bethel Island where we will be eating, playing games, worshipping together, recovering from heatstroke, and eating good Mexican food is going to become a new, common geography of joy for all of us at Oakland Communion and The Way. A space that combines home, church, and our hopes for the Town all in one space. May God use that space to increase our joy and the joy of all the geographies we inhabit.