Detroiters always come home. Living in the city, intrenched in our valiant efforts, we burn out, get angry, say we are done and go to great lengths to put the heartbreak behind us, through rear-view mirrors our final farewells cast. No matter how strong, visionary or devoted to truth, justice, or even a fleeting moment of psychological break-even we may be, Detroit eventually breaks even the stoutest of hearts. And yet, we return.
Over the years I have watched wave after wave of 'fresh troops' come into her bosom, on fire with dreams ignited by the scent of her ashes. The most carnal instinct erupts at the sight of embers and no flame: we rush in to keep the fires lit knowing somewhere in our DNA that our life depends on it. They arrive from any and all points beyond: taunted, haunted and doomed by her motto: 'Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.' Translation: We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes. Just as she pulls in the first-time-is-free clients, she also pulls back the repeat offenders. For those addicted to resurrection mythology, Detroit is your slipstream.
There are good addictions and there are bad. Detroit is a good one and I'm back for another hit. When I came into the city of my ancestors in 1988 I sought to rip apart her fabric thread by thread in all my cat-killing curiosity. I wanted to know Detroit politically, racially, aesthetically. It was daunting but deeply fulfilling for the span of 10 years. I fled and quickly returned in 1999, only to be met with a resounding 'not now' in my soul to which I answered with a firm foot to the accelerator pedal and the slow fade of her embers in my heart.
When in Detroit last I was agnostic, a wonderful protective device. Back then I drove the cobble streets fooling myself into thinking I was deep cover in my research of the city's guts, an urban surgeon let loose with her scalpel on a cold cadaver. If I could see it, I knew it. The architectural ruins of pie-eyed capitalists surrounded my explorations, kept company by grand mansions, conformist worker housing and the occasional lone brick church, spires relentlessly pointing skyward, asking us to shift our gaze from the surrounding hell to the heavens above. Intellectually and with a true open heart, I soaked up the scene I found myself immersed within. I lived it, owned it, sent it to the printer in my mind as a final draft.
Now, I know better. Fate returned me to Detroit as a Catholic. It is this that allows me to see Detroit within a frame I never imagined. Ever. It came to me as I sat in the nave at St. Albertus. I had caught glimpses of it over the course of my last sojourn in the city: a side-lot newly planted in spring vegetables; an open window four stories up, above three abandoned, Thornetta's voice falling out of it; the gentle nod of an elder as I waited, my wheels on the line at the cross-walk. But I didn't quite get it then. I do now.
I targeted St. Albertus for Mass that day for two reasons: First, they are a parish that no longer exists and therefore it is nearly impossible to enter so I had to take the opportunity while I could. Secondly, a devout group steadfastly continue to keep the structure alive by holding Mass once per month, more importantly, the Tridentine Mass in Latin which I am often hard pressed to find and attend.
As I approached the block of St. Aubin street adorned by St. Albertus, I found myself hoping for an attendant who might watch over the vehicles whilst we did our thing inside. St. Albertus is surrounded by the scenes of headlines, the scenes of the Detroit we all recognize: burned out houses, vacant lots of tall grass, a wandering soul in rags never afraid to make and hold eye contact with a passing motorist.
A 7-foot tall wrought iron fence surrounded the church, the front gate open for the occasion, massive padlocks dangling in wait for the Mass to end. On the exterior, St. Al looks a part of the landscape which surrounds it: spalled bricks, ledges shrunk from dry rot, her stained glass windows barely perceptible behind protective plexiglass, iron and years of soot. The massive arched entry doors are held by iron hinges, the decorative false hinges long scalped, leaving their 'ghost' outline impressions lest we forget.
To walk into any of the Historic Catholic Churches of Detroit is to experience something beyond words. To do so feels akin to a radical action. To do so constitutes the most astounding shock to the psyche, in real time. These days we are acclimated to adjusting our perceptions in nano-seconds as pixels and bytes infiltrate our brainscapes at alarming speed. But such is wholly a cerebral test of ones mind-width. To cross the threshold of St. Albertus, or any of these churches, is to go from the post-apocalyptic subject matter itself into a surviving sanctuary of unfathomable and pristine beauty, built in a time long past. To do so alters the senses in a way that renders the terms 'cyber' and 'virtual' a joke, something you immediately, almost violently wish to eliminate from your life as a pathetic passing fancy.
Nothing defines real or tactile as starkly as stepping across the threshold of St. Albertus or any of these spiritual oasis of deep beauty from the darkness of an endless urban night.
Sitting in the nave listening to the priest bellow in perfect Latin, I gazed out the open door of the South transept upon the barren field next door, a rusted water tower in the distance. This view from my pew in its totality constituted the very juxtaposition which I had sought for years to put into words for all those inquiring minds from locales beyond Detroit who inevitably asked me: Why Detroit?
Answer: Her beauty is only found from within.
You will never see what it is that keeps we Detroiters here, that thing that keeps us coming back if you continue to gaze upon her from a safe distance. Even when I walked her streets a decade ago, thinking I knew her, I didn't.
In these churches I have found the metaphor I have searched for, stated in architectural terms much more clearly than the human random acts of grace I previously referred to as markers of what kept me here. They are the metaphor I somehow knew was here, just beyond my perception, the one I needed to truly understand Detroit: that her beauty is found deep within, and that beauty has remained, untarnished, in spite of the forces of time and socio-economic travails, in spite of what one may see from the outside.
In Detroit, no matter what life brings, no matter how deep and ugly the scars, the heart of the city remains strong and true, a thing of beauty, a beacon of hope beyond destruction.
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