In my seventh year in Chicago, while in the midst of the Vietnamese refugee re-location project, I was called by David Clark, District Superintendent in another district, and asked to consider coming to a church in Detroit’s inner city. This was quite a different situation from Chicago in almost every way. Chicago, under Mayor Daley, was a well run city. People worked, raised their families and were frequently involved in community organizations. Even so there were of course massive problems in Chicago, problems large enough to challenge thousands of pastors and workers for their entire lives and I don’t wish to understate that reality.
Detroit however sat in contrast to Chicago, for Detroit was then beginning the slide to its current decrepitude. Riots has seared the soul of the city. White flight took on epidemic proportions and was encouraged by various policies. City government had as its goal to establish political power and to skim money. I will never forget walking into a city hall office and reading a large sign which said something like this: “Employees are forbidden to talk to the FBI without permission of their supervisor.”
The church itself was a result of the split of Central Alliance -- the old mother church of the Alliance in Detroit. Wayne State University wished to buy the old church to make a parking lot and so the congregation sold and moved to Dearborn. But a small group stayed behind and took up residence in another large building which was already owned by the city and slated to be demolished for even more parking.This "stay behind" group was the church that called me. I answered the call and went.
When I arrived the whole city was politicized in a way which has only recently become familiar to wider society. The presence of the city government was like humidity on a hot day and I knew that we would not be able to establish ourselves or have any relevance without becoming immersed in the political milieu.
And so I did. To this day I display in my office a plaque of appreciation given to me by one of the community organizations. Voter registration drives, court injunctions to stop this or stop that, appearing before City Council and being on a first name basis with many, including the now well known United States Senator Carl Levin, I was there, fully present and active, I worked the system.
It was generally accepted by many that community political action was going to save Detroit. Individual houses would be spared demolition, work programs would be brought in, prostitution bars closed and “hot bed” hotels zoned out – by community action. And all of this happened, and more. If political action could save even a local society, Detroit would have been saved. But Detroit was not saved.
Perhaps Detroit activists have moved on from those dreamy days of believing in change through politics. An article on Detroit in The National Post September 13, 2010 reveals the current state of affairs. Individuals act to plant gardens or to develop farms, art projects are erected in empty areas, and local people band together to push out drug pushers from their neighbourhoods. Promises from the government are met with scepticism, a scepticism that I totally resonate with. From the article I sensed that there may be glimmers of hope, not that yet another Federal grant will be obtained, but that a modest sense of community may be formed in this once great city. People are doing good things, seeking to live healthful lives, bringing healing and joy where they can.
It seemed to me as I read The National Post article that the people being described were practicing something like what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” That is, they are trying to breath life into their society. This is something for us as Christians to think about in Canada. Can we breath health, temporal health and eternal health, into Canada?