PART 4. Gentrifying For Jesus: Louisville’s Southern Baptist Empire and Faith-Based Investing

by Adrian Silbernagel
he/him
adiran@queerkentucky.com

image source: Washington Post

Note from Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director of Queer Kentucky, Spencer Jenkins: Queer Kentucky has had past relationships with some of the subjects within this article. Gill Holland previously donated $1,000 to Queer Kentucky in 2020 and also donated $1,000 to TAUNT, an archived project under the Queer Kentucky umbrella. We have also attempted to work with Access Ventures, Bryce Butler, and his team several times throughout the years. Scarlet’s Hope’s Rachelle Starr (whom we have not attempted to work with), and Bryce Butler have been reached out to, but have not responded for comment. We understand that those mentioned in the article have done some great work for Louisville, and they also embody ideologies that harm the LGBTQ+ community. During a coffee meeting in 2019, Bryce and I met at Please & Thank You. When I asked him about his time at Sojourn Church as lead pastor, I said, “Was the conversion therapy under your watch?” His response was, “Be more specific.”

We hope people and organizations that evangelize harmful ideologies will choose to work with organizations like us, to at least make strides of inclusion in their workplace.

This is part four of “Class Struggle and Religious Bigotry: Field Notes on Louisville’s Coffee Scene.” In part two, we mapped out the ties between two powerful local coffee chains and two powerful religious institutions in Louisville: Sunergos and Quills and Sojourn Church and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the present and final installment, we will map the ties between those same religious institutions and Access Ventures, another tentacle of the local Southern Baptist Empire that’s out here doing the Lord’s work: gentrifying neighborhoods and funding white ladies’ anti-sex work crusades. 

If this segue into redlining, gentrification, and the non-profit industrial complex seems to deviate from the rest of the series, I challenge you to ask why that is. Could it be that we are programmed, as individuals and organizations, to zoom in on particular social issues and address them as if in a vacuum, like a scientist whose job is to research the mating habits of a particular bug? Homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, classism: these are not isolated events in nature. They are interlocking structures that were produced and maintained, for a particular reason: to preserve the capitalist and white supremacist social order. Approaching them in isolation, like areas of specialization in academic research, is not just ineffective, it’s counterproductive. This is precisely why we are encouraged to approach them this way: it allows us to feel like we are making a difference without actually becoming a threat to the powers that be.

A brief history of plantation capitalism in Louisville

Just as Sunergos conceals its ties to religious institutions like Sojourn, and just as Sojourn conceals its ties to racist and homophobic institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention, so do the leaders within those institutions conceal their roles in racial capitalism. A concept based on Black Marxist Cedric J. Robison’s assertion that “racial ideologies shape every aspect of capitalism,” racial capitalism is “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.” The exact shape that racial capitalism takes depends on a place’s demographics and history. In Southern cities, like Louisville, that were hubs of the slave trade in the antebellum era, racial capitalism takes the shape of plantation capitalism.

The researchers at Root Cause Research Center (RCRC), a team of investigators and tenant organizers based in Louisville, KY, define plantation capitalism as “a social and economic management system in Southern cities where the descendants of planter families maintain political and economic dynasties largely by keeping Black workers in extreme poverty, landless, and without political power through extractive policies and police terrorism.” According to RCRC, the way that, for example, private developers launch nonprofits to access philanthropic capital and government support, is an example of how aforementioned dynasties hoard resources and exercise political control over time. For a clear understanding of how Sojourn fits into this regime, we need to go back to the beginning.

In 1914, Louisville passed a residential segregation ordinance that dictated that white people and Black people could not occupy properties on streets where a majority of the other race already lived. This ordinance was passed in response to the influx of African Americans who were fleeing the deep South. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ordinance in 1917, homeowner associations in Louisville began implementing discriminatory restrictive covenants to keep their neighborhoods white. Police took it upon themselves to help enforce racial boundaries. From 1924 to 1950, the Realtor Code of Ethics read “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing any race whose presence would be a detriment to property values.” 

Segregation, coupled with economic divestment and political disenfranchisement, devastated Black neighborhoods, depriving residents of access to public resources and amenities, transportation, and opportunities, decreasing property values, and further entrenching the community in generational poverty. In 1932, Louisville hired a famous urban developer to conduct a study called “The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville” which blamed Black people for their impoverished living conditions.  “If it were possible to create among the Negro masses a real desire for decent accommodations, the slums would automatically eliminate themselves,” it said. A year later, the city started demolishing parts of Louisville’s Russell neighborhood and constructing the Beecher Terrace Housing Projects and the six-lane thoroughfare separating downtown from the West end, which came to be known as the 9th street divide.

Meanwhile, a new form of housing discrimination was on the rise: redlining, the discriminatory practice of denying housing loans to an area based on its class and racial makeup, a practice which began during the Great Depression when the Home Owners Loan Corporation was created to make homeownership more available to Americans. Josh Poe, former urban planner and founder of Root Cause Research Center, uncovered redlined maps of 1930s Louisville in the National Archives in Washington D.C. (which had been kept private for decades) and paid to have copies sent to Louisville. As Anne Marshall explains in “Dividing Lines,” a 2017 article on redlining in Louisville that features Poe, red clusters on those maps indicate areas that banks channeled money away from, namely poor, Black, and/or Jewish-occupied neighborhoods, including Russell, Portland, Smoketown, and Shelby Park. Green and blue neighborhoods, primarily in the East end, were coveted for their good housing stock and lack of Black or Jewish populations. Yellow areas were of neutral value and seen as a cushion between the red and blue/green neighborhoods.

Though redlining officially ended in 1951, it would be followed by urban renewal, or as it is known in Black communities, “negro removal.” As cities started to experience the social costs of redlining (increased rates of poverty and crime) they responded by increasing police presence in redlined areas and demolishing buildings that they didn’t believe to be worth restoring. As Poe and Bellamy note in their paper Plantation Urbanism: Legacy, property and policing in Louisville, Kentucky, though 60% of the housing in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood was not dilapidated enough to justify demolition, the city determined that the social status of the residents justified complete demolition of large sections of the neighborhood. Here “social status” was based largely on qualitative observations made by police (i.e. subjective perceptions of poverty and crime) rather than on the physical condition of dwellings. This became the basis for the wholesale destruction of the entire eastern portion of the neighborhood. The same principles and practices were used to justify the demolition of the Clarksdale Housing Project and the gentrification of the part of Phoenix Hill that is now known as “NuLu,” and the ongoing gentrification of the Portland and Shelby Park neighborhoods.

Phoenix Hill (now known as “NuLu”)
Phoenix Hill (now known as “NuLu”)
Clarksdale Housing Projects
“NuLu” – formerly known as Phoenix Hill

Gentrification isn’t about reversing the damage caused by divestment and systemic neglect for the people who were directly impacted by it, nor is it an effective method of reducing violent crime rates, which overall have risen to an all-time high in Louisville. It’s about relocating poverty and crime from areas deemed as having wealth-building potential. This is done at the continued expense of Black and poor people, who are forced out of their homes and relocated to low-income housing in other divested neighborhoods, frequently resulting in tensions with the existing residents and the subsequent increase in violent crime in those neighborhoods. Similar motives (and rationalizations) were at play in the 2002 Louisville/Jefferson County Merger: to hide Louisville’s poverty so as to make the city more appealing to attract outside capital. After the merger, the Greater Louisville Project was formed for the same purpose: to use research and data to improve the city’s optics and thereby, as RCRC puts it, “lift census tracts—not people—out of poverty.”

As of 2020, the overall median household income for the Russell neighborhood was below $20,000 per year. The population of the Russell neighborhood was over 90% Black, while only 18% of the land in Russell was owned by Russell residents. Most of this land is controlled by out-of-state development companies, meaning that the rents paid by Russell residents are essentially extracted as passive income for white absentee landlords. This situation is only getting worse as the housing market becomes more and more privatized, and the public sector more and more gutted.

In 2022 America, housing is not a human right, but a form of passive income for the rich. When rent becomes too high to afford, low-income renters are coerced into buying homes through predatory inclusion models, putting them further into debt while private lenders profit off of their loan interest. In low-income areas where private capital is more risk-sensitive, investors rely on government subsidies and philanthropy to protect their investments. Since the majority of public funds are now used as collateral by private investors looking to “strategically invest” in low-income areas, the only remaining safety net for poor people comes from non-profits and philanthropists: neither of which are reliable in a true crisis. Meanwhile, the same investors create or invest in (sometimes incredibly problematic) non-profits to hide private capital and avoid taxation. Philanthropists are taken care of by this setup as well since what they lose in private capital, they gain in political power and influence.

Only the wealthy benefit from the privatization of the housing market, and in Southern cities like Louisville, most of that wealth is hoarded by plantation dynasties and stained with the blood of victims of police brutality.  Take Louisville’s Brown Family, which owns the Brown Forman whiskey distillery and is listed on the Forbes list of US wealthiest families. Root Cause Researchers found that J.T.S. Brown was a major in the Confederate army, and his father, William Brown, enslaved many people. The Brown Family has also played a major role in urban development in Louisville. 

Brown Family OGs

Real estate developer and Brown Family member Gill Holland, also known as the “Godfather of NuLu” and the “Prince of Portland,” is behind the demolition of the Clarksdale Housing Project, the expansion of NuLu, the redevelopment of Portland, and the redevelopment of Russell, for which he leveraged a thirty million dollar grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development along with investments from Louisville Metro Government and many large philanthropic donations. The Brown Family remains complicit, if not actively involved, in the displacement of Black Louisvillians and Louisville’s reputation as a city known for its police brutality. There is mounting evidence that the Vision Russell initiative contributed to the deadly police raid on Breonna Taylor’s home as just one example.

The displacement of Black residents is not an accident, an unforeseen and unfortunate consequence of gentrification. As former Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley said on TV back in the seventies, it’s a process that is “designed to drive the Negro back from the central [business district].” Not a lot has changed.

1968 Louisville Protests
2020 Louisville protests

Sojourn descends on Shelby Park

In 2012, Sojourn Church moved its midtown location from the Germantown neighborhood to Shelby Park. Kaitlyn Soligan Owens, a queer and Jewish writer and activist who grew up experiencing the effects of gentrification in Boston, and who now lives and co-owns a bar in Shelby Park, describes Sojourn’s entrance into the neighborhood as “the clear push by a white evangelical church that began in the East End to move into a low-to-moderate income neighborhood that at least some of them held in fairly obvious disdain….correctly identified by residents as gentrification.”

Sojourn Midtown in Shelby Park
Inside Sojourn

As Sojourn Church settled into its new surroundings, it encouraged its (predominantly white) congregants to buy homes in Shelby Park. Sojourner Nathan Ivey told WAVE 3 News that the church was “literally calling members of our congregation to move into these restored homes and to engage the neighborhood residents to enter into deep relationships and have them over for meals and journey with them over the long haul.” The white saviorism in this statement echoes through the media quotes from Sojourners who “followed the call” to move to Shelby Park: 

“It’s a hard thing to ask a young family to do this … to move into an iffy neighborhood. But we’ve been given everything in Christ and have nothing to lose.” 

“They’re from here, they live here, they have a heart for this neighborhood. If we begin to listen to them and empower them, we want to help them reach their goals.” 

“We’re gonna do this cool event on my street and we’re gonna do that cool thing, and I’m gonna bake bread for sixteen neighbors in order to get sixteen prayer requests” 

The last quote comes from a woman named Jordan, who is featured on a podcast episode called Where the Gospel Meets Gentrification. The episode is hosted by Love Thy Neighborhood, a Louisville-based Southern Baptist Christian non-profit founded and directed by Sojourner Jesse Eubanks. The website describes Love Thy Neighborhood as an “urban missions gap year program” that seeks to “provide young adults ages 18 to 30 with social justice internships and Christian community.” In the gentrification episode, Jordan dialogues with Eubanks and a woman named Rachel Szabo: all of whom were some of the first Sojourners to move to Shelby Park.

When Jordan was in her early twenties, she and her husband decided to “embody God’s call to justice” and buy a home in Shelby Park. Though her family and friends had concerns about them living in such a “rough” neighborhood, Jordan believed they’d been called there by God. As Eubanks puts it: “God cares about ‘the least of these,’ and she wanted to model that.”

At first, Jordan felt out of place in Shelby Park. “At that time I was the only one coming home with Trader Joe’s shopping bags…everyone else would buy groceries at the neighborhood corner store,” she says. But then one morning she took her first walk through the park that the neighborhood is named after (which, Eubanks adds, was designed by Fred Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who also designed Central Park in New York City) and she was astonished by just how beautiful it was. At that moment, Jordan “just felt just so assured, even amidst the push-back we had received, that this is my home.” 

Back at home, Jordan “was just like, you know….we’re gonna do this cool event on my street, and we’re gonna do that cool thing, and I’m gonna bake bread for sixteen neighbors in order to get sixteen prayer requests….and I was gonna be—I don’t know what I was gonna be, but something was gonna happen because I showed up.”

Here Eubanks inserts this commentary: “It’s important to remember that Jordan’s intentions—they’re good. She genuinely wants to love her neighbors. She genuinely wants them to know Jesus. There is no ulterior motive there. But growth doesn’t come without change, and in order for there to be growth in Shelby Park, there’s gonna have to be change. And Jordan wasn’t the only one who wanted to bring about this good change to her neighborhood. Part of the incoming change came from another Christian: Bryce Butler.”

Bryce Butler and Access Ventures 

“Gentrification…seeks a mandatory peace: neighborhoods with clean streets and neatly contained trees; benches that suit a harried secretary on their lunch break but prevent the homeless from lying down to sleep…certainly nothing for truly queer folx who play with and problematize gender, their very existence a challenge to gentrification’s normative capitalist project.” 

– Kaitlyn Soligan Owens

One of the major forces behind the gentrification of Shelby Park is Bryce Butler, co-founder and managing director of the venture capital investment firm Access Ventures, and former pastor at Sojourn. He’s now a member of Hurstbourne Baptist Church. Like Sojourn, Hurstbourne Baptist belongs to the notoriously homophobic Southern Baptist Convention. Butler is also a former-U.S. Army Officer (as all his online bios highlight) and a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary alumnus. 

Bryce Butler with his tank platoon in South Korea (2004)
Excerpt from a speech Butler gave at the 2018 Indiana University Southeast Veteran’s Day Luncheon

In an article on Southern’s website, Butler says that Access Ventures “strategically invests in businesses and initiatives that create community value and human flourishing.” According to Butler, a crucial part of this “strategy” is the shift from traditional investing (which he calls “two-pocket investing”) to the “one-pocket model.” If investors traditionally treat philanthropy or charity as an afterthought, something one does with the money that’s left over after investing, then one-pocket investing does both things (investing and philanthropy/charity) in the same transaction. If this seems like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Investment implies a monetary return; philanthropy and charity are donations. What Butler actually means is that he takes the aim of philanthropy (the elimination of social problems) and the aim of charity (the elimination of human suffering) and invests with those things in mind. “Organizations and individuals don’t have to compromise their missions and values to achieve a financial return,” he says. According to Butler, this new approach to investing involves “Moving beyond understanding money as a tool and towards understanding money as an expression of our core identity.”

What Butler calls “one-pocket investing” I would call a marketing model for ethical consumerism or corporate allyship. It brings to mind rainbow capitalism, or how businesses that have no real involvement with the community (aside from exploiting poor queer workers) appropriate queer symbols to make a profit. It also brings to mind certain coffee shops that broadcast the fact that their coffee is Fair Trade (which is better than nothing, but also nothing to write home about) all the while severely underpaying their workers and sabotaging their unionizing efforts.

Over a two-year period, Access Ventures invested $4 million in efforts to help gentrify Shelby Park, a process which by then was well underway thanks to Sojourn, where, again, Butler used to be a pastor. By 2014, the firm had purchased 17 units in the neighborhood, including apartments, houses, and commercial properties, and five venture capital companies. One of the commercial properties became home to The Park, a members-only shared workspace with complimentary wine and Four Roses on every floor. Another commercial property was inhabited by Scarlet’s Bakery, a Christian non-profit bakery (more on that shortly) whose purpose is to minister to (i.e. save/convert) sex workers. Both The Park and Scarlet’s Bakery have since closed. Blessed be the fruit.

Access Ventures’ five-year progress report, which was published before said closures, describes the various “creative solutions” they used to cut costs and mitigate the risks of investing in distressed real estate properties. These solutions included enlisting a “nontraditional workforce” from whom they were able to extract $89,000 worth of free manual labor. Additionally, they “partnered” with halfway houses to provide “jobs and training for people who needed an on-ramp to employment.” But in retrospect, they realized that “changes to this system are needed in order to ensure we do not inappropriately burden these individuals and continue to encourage ‘off-the-book’ employment or uninsured contract work.” 

It is worth noting that these so-called “creative solutions” (which I would call good old-fashioned exploitation) are what allow Butler to occasionally put other values ahead of profit, or appear to anyway. In reality, the losses he appears to be taking for the greater good are actually just being passed off to other, less privileged people. And there is nothing new, creative, or nontraditional about manipulating people to do free labor or exploiting the labor of people who have no other option.

All in all, Butler believes that Shelby Park has been “a successful effort,” and he looks forward to “replicating our success across other neighborhoods.” The police are no doubt here for this. “The issues go hand-in-hand because abandoned homes can attract crime,” said Chris Kitchen, Louisville Metro Police’s direct resource officer for Shelby Park’s division. “It’s the broken window theory. We need to get them boarded up so that they don’t have a place to hang out. It helps move crime along.” You hardly have to read between the lines to know that “move crime along” just means “get rid of the poor and/or Black people.” Perhaps that’s what Butler means by “a successful effort.”

Five years later 

In June of 2019, an article ran in Louisville Magazine titled, “Shelby Park Real Estate Is ‘On Fire.’ Is That a Good Thing?” By that time, home prices in Shelby Park had risen by 67 percent, the white population by 40 percent, and all sorts of new businesses were popping up. 

By the end of the podcast, Jordan is unable to hide (or hide from) her white guilt. “Everything is just getting a lot more swag, I guess,” she says, noting the increase in businesses, white people, and cost of living in Shelby Park. She mentions that only two of her original neighbors still live in the neighborhood, and they may not be there too much longer because the property taxes have gotten so high. “Yeah sure it all seems positive…but the reality is it comes at a cost—especially when it comes to housing. Now those houses have been, you know, owned by some development company and flipped and resold for more money….at the end of the day it was more middle-class white folks moving into the neighborhood, and in its most basic definition that is gentrification.” 

Inside Sojourn
Inside Sojourn

Eubanks continues to rationalize that it’s not all that bad: “the ongoing concern is not about these new wonderful businesses. It’s just, where does somebody who’s grown up without an education, and you know, doesn’t go to coffee shops, like where do they fit in this picture.” The answer, of course, is that they don’t fit. In a moment of transparency, Eubanks tells a story about a neighbor who sold popcorn on the side to make money. Sojourn was throwing an indie film festival, and his wife thought it would be a cool idea to have their neighbor sell popcorn at the festival. It was a resounding “no” from the other congregants. Eubanks recalls: “the bottom line was she wasn’t cool enough…it was not the right aesthetic. We didn’t want her selling her, you know, cheap popcorn from the corner store when we’re trying to portray a certain kind of hipster image.” Here we see a glimmer of remorse, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He abruptly redirects the conversation to the corrective actions the church has since taken.

Eubanks explains that, in an effort to do better, Sojourn enlisted a non-profit called Seed to Oaks that trains and equips churches to be involved in their communities, and in addition helps them conduct neighborhood surveys to find out what the residents wants and needs are. Spoiler alert: the founder and director of Seed to Oaks is a white straight male Sojourner, an SBTS alumnus, and the co-founder of Access Ventures. It appears the acorn didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Nathan Ivey, founder of Seed to Oaks
From Seed to Oaks’s Facebook page
Nathan Ivey with other members of the Southern Baptist Convention

Jordan recalls another event that still haunts her. There was a historic church on her street whose attendance was declining when she moved in. She’d always intended to visit the church, to get involved and show her support, but she never followed through with it. Then one day, the church was gone. It had been bulldozed over and was now an empty lot where three brand new houses would sell for 300k a piece. “I don’t know that you can say that there is a good point to that story. There’s not a happy ending. Gentrification is displacement… and displacing people from their homes…is not good.” 

By 2016, Access Ventures had intentionally slowed down property renovation projects in order to evaluate how their work has affected the area. “We could dump more money, so to speak, into real estate,” Butler says. “But that’s not the end goal. What I would love to see is a preservation of the diversity that already exists and a better recognition that Shelby Park is here.” Alas, that ship has sailed, for now anyway. There have been no major updates about the renovations on the website or in the news since Butler made this statement in 2016. As we saw, the neighborhood’s demographics have already changed significantly, and the only noteworthy stories I can find are think pieces on gentrification.

Louisville’s cringiest non-profit comes to Shelby Park

Scarlet Hope was born in 2007, when founder Rachelle Starre called her husband, elated, to announce: “The Lord has called me to serve women in the sex industry!” According to the ministry’s website, Starre—who also goes to Soujourn—has made a career doing this very thing, namely going into strip clubs and “sharing the hope and love of Jesus, leading them [sex workers] through discipleship, providing career development in our social enterprise, and equipping a network of churches, ministries, and individuals to reach and empower women in their own communities.” 

Scarlet Hope volunteers “reach out to prostitutes by handing out roses, business cards and gift bags with hygiene products that include shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste” and by “texting phone numbers prostitutes place in online ads and [telling] them Jesus loves them.” This incorrect use of “prostitute” as an umbrella term for all types of sex workers is just one of countless microaggressions that Starre and her team are guilty of. Other offenses include: treating sex workers as a monolith, categorically referring to their workspaces as”dark” and sinful places and their career choice as a “lifestyle;” assuming that every sex worker is lost or broken and needs, not just support, but to be rescued and rehabilitated (and born again of course); continuously referring to sex workers at large as women, only mentioning male sex workers as an afterthought, and completely overlooking (or intentionally leaving out) the many trans and non-binary people who do sex work; cold calling and texting the work phones that sex workers list in their ads to proselytize to them; showing up in their workplaces with the same agenda, without the intent of paying for their services (I highly doubt they tip the strippers they minister to) and calling the workers who do not gratefully receive their help “rude.” And then there’s that whole gentrification thing.

Rachelle Starre (second from left) with Scarlet Hope staff
Rachelle Starre (fourth from left) with Scarlet Hope staff

Scarlet’s Bakery—an offshoot of Scarlet Hope— opened its first location in Shelby Park in 2015, just two years after Sojourn (which Starre attends) made itself at home. Starre received private investments from Access Ventures, who strategically placed the bakery at a busier intersection near several other new businesses. Starre also managed to raise $200,000 in starting funds thanks to Southern Seminary.

Starre would go on to open a second storefront in St. Matthew’s. Both locations closed during COVID, and their Facebook has been inactive since January 2021. Kaitlyn Soligan Owens, the queer writer and business owner quoted earlier, describes the event: “Scarlet’s Bakery has closed, leaving an empty building across the street from my bar. It has a for-lease sign, but we suspect the owners are considering a sale. My partner told me that one recent weekend, she watched a series of cars pull up, black car after black car, more than one a Mercedes or a BMW, as white people got out and shaded their eyes, then followed someone inside, to look around.”

This is just a theory, but maybe the reason the stores didn’t make it is because working at a cookie bakery isn’t the career opportunity Starre thinks it is, especially for a single parent who is used to making $30-70k annually as a sex worker. Scarlet Hope’s career development programs are “30 hours/week for 12 months and each woman in the program receives an hourly wage for her time spent working in the classroom and on-the-job training.” As of 2017, Starre paid the workers $10 an hour. At $10/hour and 30 hours per week, their annual salary is $15,600. A liveable income for a single adult in KY is almost twice this amount. A liveable income for a single mother with two children in Kentucky is $76,620. 

There is virtually no financial information on the website, so it’s unclear how many people Scarlet Hope employs, and what the return is for the non-profit. However, you can find roughly $75,000 of grants that have come through via the Gheens Foundation. There are also no targets or metrics available, no outcomes or standards of evaluation,  no detailed information about what participants do in the program or how they are evaluated, who qualifies for the program, what sorts of contracts they have to sign, what skill sets are taught to them, what the teacher’s qualifications are, how childcare is handled, whether trans or queer people are welcome, whether people of other faiths or no faith are expected to convert, how payroll works. One thing we do know for certain is that Scarlet Hope claimed over a million dollars in contributions each of the past two tax years.

As we have seen, both Rachelle Starre and Bryce Butler are deeply entangled with Sojourn and Southern, two white institutions that are the literal products of slavery and segregation. As such, they serve as another example of how plantation capitalism works. By “strategically investing” and only sharing their wealth with others who belong to their small, incestuous network, they are able to expand their empire.

Rachelle Starre, founder of Scarlet Hope and Scarlet’s Bakery

White Sojourners grapple with white guilt

“Christians don’t know how to do diversity, all we know how to do is to come in and become an infestation…we don’t play well with others; we tell ourselves we’re going to but when push comes to shove we just think we’re the stuff, you know, we just think we know best, and we think we know the way to get things done.” laments Jordan, adding that while she didn’t want her neighbors to be pushed out, “sadly that seems to be exactly what has happened.”

I was pleasantly surprised by the moments of self-awareness that the Sojourners on the podcast demonstrated regarding their contribution to the gentrification of Shelby Park. Unfortunately, this burgeoning self-awareness didn’t catalyze an anti-capitalist awakening.

Eubanks remarks that just as Jordan had to “grieve for the loss of her neighbors…she also grieves over her own role in perpetuating this narrative of displacement”—and from there we lose them. 

Szabo chimes in: “I think it can be so easy for us to just spend time trying to point out the villains in the narrative…all these rich white people that are moving in and pushing people out, right. Like that’s not what God has called us to do…God has prepared good works for us to do and Jordan is not sugarcoating this narrative at all, but she’s also not going to sit around and point fingers, like, instead, she’s going to live out her Christian Faith by loving God and loving the people that are around her.”

Jordan: I was sitting with my long time next door neighbor Tandy we are just having coffee and talking and it hit me that he and I have been doing that together for 13 years now and he has watched my kids grow…and all of a sudden I just had, like, this coming home moment…coming home to myself and to God, like, yeah, he did actually call me there thirteen years ago. He did actually plant me there. I’m still home in my neighborhood and I’m excited to be planted in this place.”

This conclusion, which you were probably anticipating, cancels out all of the grappling and reckoning that preceded it. The entire episode now seems disingenuous: an opportunity for these Christians to feign concern for the poor Black people they helped displace, instead of sitting with their guilt and interrogating their allegiance to Sojourn and the other institutions that are driving the gentrification. I used to drive myself crazy trying to understand how this was possible.

And the original residents of Shelby Park—how do they think Butler’s project is going? For some reason, very little documentation exists of their perspective. Maybe it’s because so many of them don’t live there anymore. Or maybe, as the researchers at RCRC argue, their silence serves another purpose:

Central to these patterns are narratives that service plantation urbanism’s practitioners as the paternal benefactors of Black and poor communities, meanwhile corralling dissent, co-opting resistance through philanthropic donor relationships, gatekeeping and erasing counter-narratives of Black lead initiatives.

Organizer Talesha Wilson in front a line of LMPD officers at the Occupy NuLu demonstration (2020)
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