Over the last decade, I’ve seen a dramatic draw toward Nashville with over 30,000 moving here in one year. That’s 82 people per day, bringing Nashville to a population of 1.8 million. This make our city one of the fastest-growing areas in the U.S! They come for the music scene, rolling green hills, and a sense of community.
During an illuminating conversation with founder and CEO of Raphah Institute, Travis Claybrooks, we discussed the positive and negative changes to this wide-spread growth.
Travis, who is a self-identified “unicorn,” grew up in North Nashville and remembers playing with his cousins in their East Nashville neighborhood. He went away to college, returned to Belmont College, served as a Nashville police officer in the late 90’s, and has gone on to merge his passion for restorative justice and to reflect the presence of God by founding Raphah Institute.
“Raphah Institute,” Travis explains, “is a local non-profit that is concerned with community healing from social, societal, system-level harm.” The institute’s heartbeat is to confront criminal harm at its root cause, beginning with where the harm began. To date, Raphah has supported over 150 people in the judicial system with effective programs that invite healing and restoration.
Where did Travis begin seeing criminal harm first-hand?
Travis remembers watching the city grow when he was in his early years as a police officer. The 90’s brought the building of the Bridgestone Arena, the Titans Stadium, more housing, and increased economic wealth. I laugh when I think about how downtown Broadway went from bustling only on the weekends to buzzing 24/7.
However, with the popularity of Nashville on the rise, the effect is positive in many ways. But it still brings its hardships. Today, we’re seeing many families who grew up in the city can no longer afford to live here.
With Growth Comes Gentrification
Gentrification is making it nearly impossible for marginalized and lower-economic Nashville residents to stay in their homes or afford the raised prices.
“Growth can be a good thing for a city and it can also bring a set of challenges.” Claybrooks said. “It isn’t the change that’s bad, it’s the reality that not everyone has benefitted from those changes.” With more people moving into older Nashville neighborhoods and forcing the original neighbors away, gentrification is on the rise. Many of the families living in older neighborhoods were loyal renters but couldn’t afford to buy. When the rent skyrocketed, they lost their homes, propelling individuals and families into homelessness, and worse, crime.
As one who is intent on valuing the homeless population and offering constructive resources, I was surprised to learn during my conversation with Travis that while police calls increased with Nashville’s growth, many of the calls didn’t include arresting criminals, but rather, responses to people who didn’t have housing. Their family was no longer an option because they, too, had lost their generational homes.
Policing became the response to housing issues and addiction issues. The larger, underlying issue? People were forced into homelessness and became desperate. Arrest and incarceration suddenly became the community’s response to health care and mental health issues. As Travis experienced, “It became evident that we weren’t going to arrest our way out of the challenges we were facing.”
In addition to non-profits like Raphah Institute, I’m inspired by brave minorities who are speaking up for their city, like long-time Nashville resident, Tanya Wade-Moody, who went to heroic lengths in attempts to save her single-family neighborhood from condos and “tall and skinnies looming over them.” In the Tennessee Tribune article, Gentrification in North Nashville, Moody implored the Planning Commission with a signed petition from 75 neighbors, to halt the opposed plan to build an apartment complex at the end of their humble street. She was met with an anonymous response.
“Not a single person on the 41-member City Council voted to preserve the old neighborhood so people could keep living where they raised their children, grow old, and leave their house to the next generation.”
Homelessness is not the only gentrification symptom. As we lose generational families, we lose the beauty of the long-term, tight-knit connection they sow into Nashville’s soil. Increased wealth can build and develop homes but in no way can it replace loyalty to one’s neighborhood. Restoration is the only way to bring healing.
Travis believes the same. “Raphah Institute was a calling of my heart’s cry to integrate the Jesus I knew, and the city’s need.”
As Nashville continues to grow and change, our city will be in dire need of non-profits like Raphah Institute, founded on a framework of healing and putting individuals – homeless and criminal alike- back together.
The God Who Heals
Isn’t it striking that Raphah is also one of the names for God? Jehovah Raphah. The God who heals and mends. This is the power of how God steps in and does what only He can do. When Jesus invited his disciples to be a presence of God on earth, he commanded them to offer healing ministries, He was speaking to those experiencing gentrification. Those being forced from their homes.
A theological framework that waits on God to do something leaves us waiting, but a theology of experiencing God’s presence by serving those in need in the middle of real life? This is our kingdom calling.
As Travis joked, “We can sit in our pews all day but God has called us to do the work of the kingdom. If we are engaged and advancing this kingdom, He is doing the same thing.
I’m proud of what Travis Claybrooks is doing with Raphah Institue. They are ensuring that individuals are loved. That they have dignity. I know this grace personally and have experienced restoration in my own life. God saw something in me and died for me. When we encounter people who are hurting, rather than lock them up, we can show them the love of God through reminding them of their value and significance. Every person is worthy of receiving healing and restoration.
In the compassionate words of Travis Claybrooks, “We don’t turn around and walk away, we lean in and press in on the changes that need to be made.” Our next right steps? May they be toward who the homeless can be. We are here to ensure they are offered healing, not punishment.
Learn more about what Travis Claybrooks is doing for Nashville with Raphah Institute by listening to the latest episode of the Real Hope podcast. As our city grows, may our desire for healing expand all the more.