When students come to School for Conversion from up the hill at Duke University or from Cuba (as they did a couple weeks ago) or from Kansas City and Chattanooga (as they did the week after that), our job is to help them imagine what it means to live the way of Jesus in a space that you don’t own.
We always tell the story of Mr. Wall, the former slave around whom Walltown grew up. We introduce folks to St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church, the institution that black folks owned collectively through all the years when they could not get a mortgage as individuals or families. We tell the story of Mayor Daye, elected by people who organized their own town council when City Hall would not see them. We remember Jay Lynn Alexander, the janitor-by-day who built a community center for children in the evenings, raising the money to finance it from his neighbors.
But we always also tell the story of Walltown’s “new neighbors”—the white folks who started buying houses here about 10 years ago. People who look like me. “Low-income” graduate students, many of them were first-time homeowners. But they did not have to think about what it means to own a home in a place where a community has lived without the right of ownership.
Children of Columbus, we rarely think about whether it’s even possible to “own” land or what it does to our imagination to believe that we can.
But this is what we are learning at the School for Conversion: ownership, which implies power, does not necessarily mean owning the history of a place. In fact, ownership can blind people with power to the story of others.