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Matthew Bode

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Faith Groups Are A Detroit Lifeline

Posted: 02/17/2012 5:48 pm

Every now and then I get the strangest looks walking into a group of hip, relatively new Detroiters working on development plans for the city or our church neighborhood. The looks come because I am wearing my clerical collar. Even when without the uniform, my presence is often questioned with side glances, questioned expressions or hesitant greetings of, "Um, nice to see you."

What do you do with a clergy person at a development meeting? Or when planning new street art projects? Or building a board for a new non-profit? Am I there to give them lectures on abortion, gay marriage or contraception? (Pro, pro, and pro, just for the record.) Do they think I am going to take up a collection? (Well, only if they ask me.) Worse yet, will I try to "save" all of them in Jesus Christ? (I usually do not carry my life preserver.)

Spirit of Hope, the Christian community where I serve as pastor in Detroit, serves almost 11,000 free meals a year. We give out 50,000 pounds of food in our pantry. Thirty young men are mentored every year in our Pray and Play Basketball League. We built Spirit Farm, four city lots of love to grow food for ourselves and our neighbors that also beautifies a stark major intersection in the city. Forty people attend our weekly Spirit Spit Open Mic. Forty families are served each year with our own Sunshine Community Preschool. Countless neighborhood meetings, projects and programs are launched from our property annually. We clean up local vacant lots, parks and the streets. We provide a place for some to dry out from their addiction, be welcome in their HIV status and find power in their respective sexual orientations or gender expressions. Addicts who lost everything at the casino down the street come by for gas money or a ride. And yes, we do have Sunday morning worship where we praise God and participate in the sacrament.

So yes, we have opinions and a stake in the future of our neighborhood and our city. We will be at every table possible to influence the physical, cultural, environmental or spiritual direction of our community. Hundreds of small and middle-sized congregations all over Detroit are making a difference. When people fall through the cracks, we are there. And in Detroit, hundreds fall through the cracks every day.

While those who grew up in the city usually know the value of faith communities to Detroit, many newcomers near the center-city do not. Of course Christian leadership of the past several generations has done a phenomenal job of alienating, abusing and hurting people, something for a later blog post. Nevertheless, the micro-level work of countless churches has been essential to Detroit. Many neighborhoods would not exist today without them.

As Detroit development becomes more foundation-based and government grant-orientated, smaller organizations, including faith communities, are being left out of the conversation. It is our responsibility as those communities to make sure we are at the tables of influence and cross streets of decision-making. However, without community power-brokers paying attention to the faith-based work going on in their neighborhoods, they will miss a massive resource. Without the street-based voice and experience-soaked souls of the faith community, decision makers and resources holders will fail in understanding significant dynamics of the places they seek to transform. The largely hands-off approach of mega-church non-profit corporations, local foundations and government agencies cannot make up for personal relationships that are the building blocks of our communities. Of course faith communities are not the only places these relationships happen, but they are among the oldest, most stable and most reliable.

Still, many are hesitant to work with us. Yes, we will challenge. We will bring up issues of class and race, and the more progressive of us will also name gender and sexual orientation as places of justice that must be planned for in development projects. (I remember some years ago, as I began to speak at a development corporation meeting, a member cursed me out under his breath out for bringing up the issue of racial injustice, again.) However, it is better for difficult and life-changing conversations to happen at the beginning of a project than the end, when opportunities for buy-in and local support are long gone.

Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, members of the UCC, and hundreds, even thousands of others are here sweating and loving this city. We ignore them at our own peril.