When Seattle Mennonite Church purchased a house in what a member of its property team described as “a pretty undesirable part of town” about 45 years ago, the Mennonite Church USA congregation never dreamed it would eventually be worth $2 million.
While the house served as a home base for many Mennonite Voluntary Service workers and other volunteers since then, its Capitol Hill neighborhood gentrified, developing into one of the city’s major nightlife scenes.
By 2020, the property was assessed at $2 million as a teardown. It was around this time that SMC took a sabbatical from running the MVS unit, which was receiving fewer volunteers, creating space for the house’s purpose to evolve.
Following years of discernment, the predominantly white congregation decided to give the property to the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, free with no strings attached.
TWOCSN described this as a “radical act of wealth redistribution” and an “act of accountability toward the BIPOC trans community.” The group had already begun a $2 million capital campaign to fund its vision for a “House of Constance” that would create housing and support services for Black and brown transgender people.
When Seattle Mennonite celebrated its 50th anniversary several years earlier, the congregation adopted a theme of Jubilee, based on the biblical call to redistribute resources.
“We decided, let’s look at our wealth through the lens of Jubilee and do some listening together for what God’s invitation might be at this, the Jubilee year of our community,” said Pastor Megan Ramer. “One of the focus areas was ‘pathways toward reparations.’ I think this helped prepare us to think about how the huge wealth that we owned in the house was an opportunity to do some repair.”
The congregation dug into the history of the Capitol Hill neighborhood and realized how it represented the city’s history of racial inequity.
Congregational chair Greg Thiessen said it was important to ground the process in the story of how the church acquired the property.
He cited the congregation’s study on dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, a historic framework that was used to justify displacing Indigenous people from their lands. The MVS house property sat on unceded ancestral lands of the Coast Salish and Duwamish peoples.
Seattle Mennonite learned the property was just north of Seattle’s historic “redline” that banks used to deny lending to people of color. The neighborhood used covenants preventing the sale or rental of property to people of color. When Seattle Mennonite used a loan from the Mennonite Church to buy the house for $24,000, banks repeatedly denied loans to nearby Black churches.
Capitol Hill was also a historically LGBTQ neighborhood.
“In the extreme gentrification of Seattle, the neighborhood has become less of a safe place for populations who can be very vulnerable, like trans women of color,” said Lisa Bade, also a member of the Seattle Mennonite property team. “There was an awareness of how that safe space was being taken away.”
Violence against trans people has risen in recent years. An unprecedented wave of anti-LGBTQ bills has been proposed across the U.S., with 150 aimed at restricting the rights of trans people since the beginning of 2023.
Ramer said the congregation came to understand that they owned the land through “the poisoned fruits of settler colonialism” and “the benefit of systemic racism.”
In spring 2021, Seattle Mennonite formally agreed that the house was an opportunity to make a reparative act. The congregation commissioned a property team to consult with local BIPOC community leaders.
Not only did TWOCSN have an immediate need for a house that aligned with SMC’s values, but the group had already raised money that could go toward the house’s needed repairs.
“We had complete unanimous consensus from everybody, either affirmation or trust,” Ramer said. In the spiritual discernment process the congregation uses, to vote “trust” is to express that though someone may not have chosen this individually, they trust the discernment of God’s call.
Other congregations have also taken steps toward mutual aid and community engagement with properties.
“It is inspiring to witness how many of our churches across the denomination are responding to the Spirit’s call toward repair by not only sharing but releasing their resources to their communities,” said Sue Park-Hur, MC USA director of racial/ethnic engagement. “This work of release is good news for all involved.”
She emphasized the importance of moving from learning and confessing about injustice toward action.
“Confession and acknowledgment are where we begin, but it is incomplete if we do not work toward concrete steps of restoration and repair,” she said.
Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Mich., collected over $100,000 for disbursement as a reparative act to “communities dealing with the legacy of stolen land and stolen people.” The International Guest House in Washington, D.C., was sold for $1.35 million in 2020, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference redistributed these funds to MC USA’s Justice Fund and Allegheny congregations. San Antonio Mennonite Church developed its property into a hospitality house for asylum seekers released from detention.
Where there were once 150 MVS units, five remain that continue with strong community investment.
Marisa Smucker, interim executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, which sponsors the MVS program, pointed to the “ripple effect” that takes place in the MVS houses that are still going strong, as well as those that shift and change like Seattle’s.
“Every time someone comes into a place, it changes the character of the place and, reciprocally, the person is changed,” she said. “Conditions change, people change — that’s transformation, that’s growth.
“As an organization and as individuals, we honor the past and the good work that has been done and, as we see cultural changes and needs, we try to respond in a way that fulfills what God is calling us to do.”
Seattle Mennonite officially gave their former MVS house to TWOCSN at the end of 2022.
“It’s really exciting now that the Seattle MVS house is becoming the House of Constance and has this whole new life ahead of it,” Ramer said. “In some ways, it will be doing the same thing that it has done for decades, which is to create a home for people to live in community with one another and support other local movements for justice and peacemaking and service.”