Sitting on the porch of his west Charlotte home on a Wednesday evening as dusk falls and his kids play with friends a few feet over, Greg Jarrell looks out on his small piece of land at the intersection of Tuckaseegee Road and Parkway Avenue in the Enderly Park neighborhood and knows that he made an impact, no matter how small.
In the nearly 15 years since Jarrell moved into the house with his wife Helms in 2005, the two have witnessed scenes of growth, death, hope, despair, gentrification, joy, displacement, love and hate. On this night, a group of about 15 kids have just left his home after Wednesday night devotional, a weekly gathering of neighborhood youth hosted by the Queen City Family Tree, a nonprofit community organization that Greg and Helms run out of their home.
In that moment, Jarrell looks like the antithesis of the celebrity pastors who have become so popular in Charlotte and across the country. Whereas Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick wears $1,000 sneakers and lives in a mansion worth millions in a Union County suburb, profiting off the success of his multi-site megachurch, here’s Greg, wearing an old T-shirt he’s had since college and worn Nike running shoes; a thrift shop find that one neighborhood youth jokingly calls “the Stoplight 11s” because of their bright green and red colors.
For Jarrell — who was raised in the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) then attended the Baptist Theological Seminary, a progressive offshoot launched in 1989 by people who didn’t like the conservative resurgence within SBC — God’s work isn’t done in million-dollar facilities through headsets and speaker systems, but in living rooms like his.
When I ask if he leads or belongs to any church, he simply looks around at his porch and says, “This is our work.”
But what does “this” look like?
At Wednesday’s devotional, hosted by Helms and Family Tree youth facilitator Kayla Pinson, the group of kids — most of which were high-school-aged — ate dinner in the Family Tree house then headed across the street to the lawn of the Nazareth Outreach Baptist Church to play kickball and ultimate frisbee.
After the games, the group gathered back into the Jarrells’ living room for a discussion led by Pinson that touched on a wide range of topics ranging from colonialism to environmental issues to veganism to whether or not it’s right to kill a bear in self-defense.
As the conversation came to a close, Pinson introduced a sentence with blanks to fill in: “We honor the ____ people on whose land we stand. We are grateful for _____. We acknowledge those who endured ______ to build this.” A few of the teens helped fill in the blanks before they all filed out the front door, another devotional in the books.
Pinson and Helms also run Here 4 Good, an afterschool program at West Charlotte High School in which students come together to discuss community issues and solutions.
At one Here 4 Good gathering on a recent Thursday afternoon, seven kids sat on pillows on the floor of a trailer at the high school and snacked on pretzels, fruit snacks, crackers and Capri Suns. One student took a playful ribbing from Pinson and Helms when she said she didn’t know who Lauryn Hill was. The two singled out a male student for his extraordinary kindness that day, then asked everyone to name something they had done that day that they were proud of.
After a short discussion, Pinson played a five-and-a-half-minute-long YouTube cartoon that depicts the residents of a struggling community acepting help from an outside nonprofit organization, which funds the construction of a soap factory that displaces some residents and only helps others for the short-term. The video is meant to explain the benefits of asset-based community development, in which residents take ownership over their own communities and the projects meant to help that community. It’s an approach that informs all the work being done within Queen City Family Tree.
Pinson began her work with the Family Tree during 2016 as an intern at the Freedom School, a nationwide literacy-based summer school that the Family Tree runs locally. Helms saw how much Pinson connected with the youths she worked with and invited her on to help run Wednesday devotionals and Here 4 Good.
Taking her title of facilitator to heart, Pinson is sure to let students control the path that the groups go down. For example, following the shooting of Danquirs Franklin by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer near the West Charlotte campus in March, Pinson led a discussion at Here 4 Good during which students came to the conclusion that perhaps Franklin didn’t know his rights or what he was supposed to do when confronted by screaming officers. They asked if they could host a “Know Your Rights” workshop, and Pinson got in touch with an officer who runs such workshops so that they could organize one at West Charlotte.
“Here 4 Good is about being positive, sharing your talents and using that to uplift everything that’s around you,” Pinson says. “I tell these young people all the time that they are the most powerful people in the world and they’re just sitting on it and they’re building it up, and as long as they are committed to improving and proving that positivity and that power, then the world will change; the world has no choice but to change.”
Back at the Family Tree house, 16-year-old Tracy, a junior at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in west Charlotte, said he started attending devotionals five years prior when he first moved to Enderly Park, just a block from the Family Tree house.
Tracy said he enjoys coming to the Family Tree because there are days when “it feels like life has been so stale,” between juggling school and his three part-time jobs. Though Tracy excels at the games they play every Wednesday, the discussions are what brings him back each week.
“It’s a reasonable conversation, because you can’t find that too much these days,” Tracy said. “People ain’t really talking about stuff about the earth, or geography and stuff like that, because I talk proper in some instances, and I want to have a reasonable conversation. Sometimes you want to laugh in conversation. You can laugh, but sometimes you want to have a conversation and sit there like, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know, what do you think?’ because you don’t get that too much these days.”
Since 2005, countless children like Tracy have passed through the Queen City Family Tree. In Greg’s book, A Riff of Love, released in August 2018, he tells some of their stories, interwoven with insights from the jazz world, as Jarrell is a talented saxophonist who can be found performing around town regularly.
In one chapter, Greg tells the devastating tale of Khalil, a 13-year-old boy who was part of Queen City Family Tree before being shot and killed at a bus stop in front of the house one early morning in August 2012. He also tells of Alicia, an ambitious young woman who aspires to launch an organization that addresses youth violence in response to Khalil’s murder.
But behind every story in the book, and behind all the one-on-one work that the Jarrells do with area youths, lies bigger systemic issues.
Greg writes: “In Enderly Park, cruel conditions make children here more prone to suffering interpersonal and institutional violence than their peers almost anywhere else in the city. Those conditions were created and are maintained by powers beyond Alicia’s reach. They are the direct result of deliberate public policy decisions made by people who do not have to live with the harshest consequences of those decisions. They will only be undone by deliberate decisions that finally take seriously the responsibility to every child to build the best possible streets in the best possible neighborhoods.”
Just as Jarrell writes of the long history of Enderly Park — the red-lining and disinvestment that over decades did away with opportunity and bred poverty and sometimes crime — he also tells the story of its present and future, a time in which city leaders and developers have shown renewed interest in Enderly Park.
As the city continues to experience rapid growth, neighborhoods like Enderly Park — less than three miles from Uptown — are attracting attention from young professionals and families that wouldn’t have considered moving to west Charlotte just 10 years ago.
These changes are more than one family can confront on their own, which is why the Jarrells also advocate and organize for larger movements and organizations like the Housing Justice Coalition Charlotte and the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice — groups that work to affect large-scale changes while Greg and Helms do what they can at a grassroots level.
Part of that grassroots work involves looking out for those already affected by gentrification in Enderly Park. One way Greg and Helms try to push back against displacement is by renting out six properties they own at rates equal to around 25-30% of the area median income to families and residents who have been pushed out of their homes due to rising housing costs.
In his book, Greg writes about the appearance of fences around the homes and yards of new neighbors, unaware (or uninterested) that they are blocking off paths used by residents for years, paths that connect the community in multiple ways. When I visited Greg in January, a string of letters from code enforcement had recently begun arriving in the mailboxes of neighbors, citing them for trivial violations, the cost to repair which would be beyond the means of most. As Greg pointed out, code enforcement does not patrol neighborhoods looking for violations. They were responding to calls, either from new neighbors, real estate agents or potential developers.
“If you look back three years ago, then it seems like this neighborhood change happened really quickly,” he said. “In real estate terms, those changes are fast. But on a daily basis it feels like death by a thousand paper cuts.”
He pointed out that the city had not invested in Enderly Park in decades, save for a single bike lane and a few new sidewalks.
“We’ve got children who don’t have enough calories in a day, families who can’t maintain a place to live, and this long-term disinvestment from both public and private people. Then all of a sudden, things that those people with power couldn’t be bothered to care about for decades become a big deal,” Greg said. “‘So it’s kind of like, what changed? What’s the difference now? Well, the difference is that now white people are interested in investing in this neighborhood again.”
For those who don’t know Greg, the statement would warrant a double take. After all, he and his white wife and two white kids could be viewed as Enderly Park’s first gentrifiers, right? Greg wrote about how he’s become aware that real estate agents will drive prospective home buyers by the Family Tree house and slow down if his family is hanging around outside. However, the Jarrells aren’t in Enderly Park to make white people feel comfortable.
After Wednesday’s devotional, Greg tells me that a few days prior a white neighbor had come to him to discuss the behavior of a black child she knew to hang around the Family Tree.
“My job in that situation is not to mediate but really to challenge her as one white person to another; to say, ‘I want you to think about the context of what you’re saying, the language that you’re using, the way that the language that you use dehumanizes,’” Greg says. “I didn’t say it this way, but it really contains the language of colonialism and the oppressive project that our people have been a part of.”
When Greg speaks about “our people,” he’s not only referring to white people, but the Southern Baptist Convention from whence he came. While he cherishes the positives that he picked up from his evangelical upbringing, he is quick to recognize the darker side — or “shadow side,” as he calls it — of the Baptist church and Christianity as a whole.
He says the Doctrine of Discovery — rooted in a papal decree from Pope Nicholas V in 1452 that sanctioned and encouraged the conquest, colonization and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples — “invented racism,” and refers to it as “the project that we’ve inherited.”
Unsurprisingly, these views put Greg at odds with more traditional religious leaders of the South. That doesn’t bother him, however, because it’s those people that need to be set straight in their understanding of Christianity, he says.
“It’s a fairly basic theological claim that God stands on the side of the oppressed, so for us to be in this situation and to utilize Christian language means first to recognize that we’re the ones that need to get on God’s side — as middle class white folks who have been living here for a long time — and not to try to draw people into what could easily turn into yet another colonial project,” he says. “The best thing I think we can do is to hold up a mirror to young people to whom our society says, ‘Your life doesn’t matter,’ and just show them the beauty of themselves and all their giftedness, and to work with them in reflecting all those gifts back on the world.”
But how is Greg to measure his success? How can he compete with celebrity pastors preaching the Lord’s word to thousands of people on any given Sunday? Again, it depends on who you think needs saving.
“The classic Christian question that white Christians will ask is, ‘How many people have been saved because of your work?’ So I say, ‘Well, I have.’”