Dwelling Alongside our Neighbors in West Harlem

December 14, 2017
w harlem

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

(Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)

We know from God's Word that He is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) without having people from every tribe, nation, people, and language around His throne in worshipful song (Revelation 5:9, 7:9-10).

More than 10 years ago now, God sent my family to West Harlem to make disciples—and, in that time, He’s been growing our love, increasing our boldness, and teaching us to live gospel-centered lives for our neighbors.

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Harlem is divided into three neighborhoods—West, Central, and East Harlem—and has a rich and beautiful history as the center of African American art and culture. The jazz of Duke Ellington, the poetry of Langston Hughes, the music of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle—these are just a fraction of the many great works of art that have come out of Harlem.

But in the past decade, Harlem (generally) and West Harlem (specifically) have undergone some pretty significant changes. Today, the largest percentage of residents in West Harlem are Hispanic, about a quarter are African American, and just over a quarter are White—a contrast from the 1950s when 90 percent of West Harlem residents were African American.

As more and more people with more and more money have moved into the neighborhood, so have new restaurants, coffee shops, and local pubs. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing. But with the rampant gentrification of West Harlem has come the displacement of people who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood their families have called home for generations.

The negative effects of gentrification cannot be ignored. As a privileged white man, it has been crucial for me to acknowledge and understand how my own actions impact my neighbors both at a personal level and a systemic level.

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My wife and I have done our best to learn from and love our West Harlem neighbors well. It truly is the people—from so many different cultures and with incredible stories of hope and resiliency—that makes West Harlem beautiful to us.

Take, for example, Ms. Maggie, who founded our community garden and was one of the first to welcome us. She transformed a demolished building into a beautiful community garden that hosts neighborhood barbecues, children’s events, and local artist’s exhibitions. Or Al, a superintendent on our block who takes care of the trash at multiple buildings and mentors a few younger men in the neighborhood.

Take Abdul, from Yemen, who laughs at our broken Arabic; Reza, from Bangladesh, who works at the donut shop and gives kids free treats; Miriam the abuela who only speaks Spanish and always buys our girls candy when she sees them. Or Moises, the young businessman who grew his restaurant to four locations before facing economic and personal challenges that closed two. These are some of the many beautiful people who call West Harlem home.

As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor. And, so, we endeavor to live in such a way that we’re not contributing to the displacement of our neighbors who have been here for decades—centuries, even—but rather that we are uplifting, learning from, and together building toward the right future while preserving the beautiful history of this place.

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Of course, along with the beauty, there is also brokenness in West Harlem, as everywhere, which is evidenced in both the systemic issues and the impact of gentrification here. But all who call West Harlem home—both the gentrified and the gentrifier—are in need of a greater love and a greater hope than any one organization or agency can offer.

Our passion for our neighbors stems from Christ's desire to seek and save the lost, and the encouragement of our church, Apostles Uptown, to do more than just sleep in our neighborhood, but to be in our neighborhood, dwelling with and alongside our neighbors. As Christians, we are called to know and love our neighbors and to provide opportunities for them to hear, experience, and respond to the gospel.

For us, that looks like serving alongside community leaders to host events in local gardens, walking the streets to pray for our neighborhood, meeting in homes to eat and fellowship, and finding opportunities to cross paths with neighbors in as many ways as possible.

Having a biblical perspective motivating our actions has made us passionate about learning stories, building friendships, and dreaming about the future. As we pick up our cross and follow Christ, the living Word of God removes blinding stereotypes and brings into focus the beauty of the neighborhood.

Our food is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34), to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), to live ready to share the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15), and to sacrificially love our neighbors as Christ loved us (John 13:34).

Pray for West Harlem
  • Pray that the systems in place would be governed by righteous leaders who care about the lowliest among us in a way that protects freedom, instills justice, and provides opportunities for all families.
  • Pray for the people of West Harlem, both the gentrifier and the gentrified, that they would be repeatedly exposed to the gospel, respond to the good news, and be transformed in such a way that their lives reflect Christ as Lord over all.
  • Pray that the church in West Harlem would not be a monastic-type community, but one that is centered on and motivated by the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. Would we long for revival as in the old hymn, Macedonia: "O Lord, constrain and move Your Church the glad news to impart! And Lord, as now You stir Your Church, begin within my heart."

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Adam Gahagan and his wife, Evita, live in West Harlem with their four children. Adam works in the financial services industry and volunteers as a lay elder at Apostles Church Uptown, one of HFNY's partner churches. Evita homeschools their children and serves with Apostles family ministry.

Lead image by hettie.