taking the words of Jesus seriously

Excerpt by Coté Soerens from Gone for Good? Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition (Eerdmans Publishing, January 2024), Mark Elsdon, editor. Reprinted with permission.

Expanding Our Scope: Land as a Means for Repair through Equitable Development 

Real estate is not a theologically neutral matter. In the United States, land ownership is a powerful means of wealth creation with a notorious sinful origin. 

I like to think of buildings as “the Ring of Power” in The Lord of the Rings. Whenever I hear folks talking about a building they manage, I am reminded of how the ring Frodo and Gollum stewarded brought up different aspects of their personalities, depending on how healthy their attachment style and sense of self were. It looks similar when it comes to property. Whoever controls the land has power, but the land also exerts a certain kind of power upon the landowner. Without a pure, discerning heart like Frodo’s, one can succumb to the temptation to hold onto the land like Gollum and lose perspective of the community around it and our mandate to work for restoration and the reconciliation of all things according to the teachings of our faith. 

In Seattle, the city’s Equitable Development Initiative has set the ambitious goal of building the capacity of grassroots groups seeking to own land by providing grants for land acquisition and predevelopment. I have had the honor to serve on the Equitable Development Initiative board since 2017. As part of my role, I have joined others in reviewing applications by community groups requesting city funding to secure land to house creative initiatives that serve their communities in everything from housing to cultural and arts centers to child-care facilities. The Equitable Development Initiative is place-based, so groups need to be sure to serve their neighborhoods. During the same time period, I have sat through denominational meetings in which clergy and leadership complained about their underutilized, aging buildings. Where one is full of land and lacking ideas, the other is full ideas and longing for land. 

What if these denominations and these groups talked to each other? If, for example, denominations were to adopt an equitable development strategy to assess their property in the Seattle region for the sake of racial justice, then they could consider liquidating some of the many buildings in the north end with a view to reinvesting that money in real estate serving redlined neighborhoods. If, in addition to securing land, denominations were to adopt a place-based ecclesiology and develop means to collaborate with neighborhood groups in the south end that are full of great ideas on how to make real estate work for their community, including innovative means of ownership, I think we could witness a truly liberating partnership in many corners of Seattle. 

Now, if congregations were to adopt a place-based strategy and engage their neighborhoods from a perspective of collaboration and accountability to the local values, culture, diversity, and leadership, then congregations could lend their resources to facilitate community visioning of initiatives that respond directly to priorities identified by the people who live in those neighborhoods. 

This is precisely what we were able to do in South Park. While we did not have a church building to put at the service of our community, we did spend many years listening to and joining in collaboration with South Park residents to identify opportunities for equitable development. 

One of the main priorities we identified was the need for affordable housing and space for the arts. I started slowly by opening a coffee shop in 2018, Resistencia Coffee, as a place-making initiative that would provide space for residents to connect and that would contribute to the local economy by providing a platform for local food and arts vendors. As the community grew, our corner of the neighborhood became a hub for the arts, community development, and food access, revealing the importance of this particular place to the well-being of our residents. With this new awareness came fear—what if this building gets sold to a random developer with no accountability to South Park? 

This is when my husband, Tim, and I partnered with our friends at the Cultural Space Agency, an innovative, mission-driven, public development agency that seeks to promote access to land for the arts by communities of color in Seattle. We put together a deal and raised the funds for the Cultural Space Agency to purchase the building and secured this piece of land for community ownership and equitable development for generations to come! The opportunities this project presents for economic justice for residents of this scrappy, young, and brown, immigrant neighborhood in Seattle is overwhelming. 

Place-based ecclesiology can truly unlock our imagination to rethink our collective relationship to land. By understanding the important role of land and locating ourselves in our place, we are better able to think of concrete ways in which the gospel and our mission as the body of Christ can become incarnate in the neighborhoods we get to love. In doing so, our strategies can be guided by real people, who are part of real stories, in real places. But please note that we really can’t let go of our responsibility as the church. What kind of story will we unfold for the church in North America? What will be the redemptive arc in the saga of colonization, land, neighborhood, and liberation? We get to make a dent together, if we shift our attention to God, our neighbors, and back to the land. 

About The Author


Coté Soerens is a social innovator and graphic facilitator who has worked leading and guiding social change designed for the flourishing of communities. At the heart of her work is the democratizing and rethinking of infrastructures that sustain healthy communities. She founded and led Puentes, a non-profit designed to democratize mental health needs within the immigrant community. Coté also founded Resistencia Coffee, a place-making hub for community development in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle. She currently leads the Center for Transformative Neighborhoods at Trinity Christian College, to help teams and institutions turn their vision into concrete initiatives that lead to neighborhood flourishing and mutual delight. Coté lives in Chicago with her husband Tim, and their three rambunctious boys and dog where she spends her free time doodling as much as she can.

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