12/03/2012 09:19 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Reflections on Detroit: Call to Green Pastures

I have always been attracted to the city of Detroit, the culture, the teams and even the food it is indeed a special place so to a point it is where I proposed to my beloved spouse. Not everyone will find Detroit beautiful, but with its wide, often empty boulevards, its abandoned, ghost-like auto plants and high-rises, its semi-deserted neighborhoods and its once-celebrated downtown now jumbled by shuttered storefronts -- and the Renaissance Center -- it creates a sense of disbelief bordering on fantasy. It's either a vision of the future or, an impossibly strange anomaly, its best days over.

This week, I was honored to be apart of a discernment team for the National Youth Gathering(ELCA), that will bring close to 40,000 youth and leaders(over 90 percent Anglo) from around the country. The main purpose of this team was to look at Detroit for what it is and what it can become based on its history, culture and vision of the future. Even with me being gifted in urban ministry/analysis, Detroit at this point in its history is reminiscent of Venice. Like Venice, its demise has been imminent for some time, as crucial businesses and huge chunks of the population fled mostly after the 1967 uprising that caused "white flight" to the suburbs beyond eight mile.

Although I am a utopian dreamer, the history of Detroit especially since the 1943 riots on race has been a volatile one in affirming even in 2012 that even with the best efforts of conversation that the Beloved Community will not be transformed with our gathering in 2015. What gives rise to this very pragmatic critique can be found in the understanding of the 23rd Psalm in showing:

The warrior and the poet cannot occupy the same ground. The classical pianist doesn't understand wrestling. The linebacker can't comprehend a Renoir.

This is what makes the Psalms of David such a study in contrasts -- at least for those of us who have been nurtured amidst the bipolar thinking of modern minds.

But it was the postmodernist David who writes of green pastures and also caused Goliath's crimson blood to flow in the Valley of Elah.

The same David who was led beside the still waters also led men into battle for God and country.

The same David who followed God's presence on the righteous path called on the name of that same God on the battlefield. Even when the people wrote songs about him, they talked about how many people he killed.

David was the warrior, and yet he was the poet.

He was as equally skilled with lute as he was with lance. The "man after God's own heart" will not be contained by any of our culturally conditioned boxes of identity.

And so what do you see when you see a child of the inner city? What do you see in the defiant stare, what do you hear in the gangsta lyrics and what do you discern in the brooding hearts of the youth of the streets of our cities? Are they warriors throwing stones -- moving somewhere along the continuum of "fist, stick, knife, and gun" first articulated by urban missioner Geoffrey Canada? Are they the street fighters? Are they a menace to society? Self-proclaimed "gangsta in the 'hood'"? Public enemy? Or can we see the artist, hear the musician, and ignite the poetic expressions of faith.

During my time in Detroit, I heard a presentation by Mr. Luther Keith who is committed in preserving the city of Detroit not by necessity but by his passion in revitalizing this great city. Keith affirmed by his grassroots movement that Detroit is held together by adolescent bodies were songsters and soldiers, poets and predators, needlepoint's and pointed weapons. He saw them all, for he recognized that God created us all with both dimensions of life beating within our hearts. He saw that God had given them both a combative strength and a tender spirit. Though raised in a neighborhood very much lacking in green pastures, one which laid bare and even magnified the human alienation with which we all struggle, there was:

  • something worth saving
  • something worth restoring
  • something worth the price of redemption and the cost of crucifixion.

As a man of profound faith, he believed that our presence in Detroit can be good in the conversation on race in discovering our relationship with God, these young people would also discover ways to take their militaristic impulses and "fight the good fight" of faith, to lay down the weapons of the streets, and pick up the "sword of the Spirit," and to exchange the security of the street gang for the fellowship of the faithful.

And the passion of Mr. Keith and others with him would show them how to be both poets of praise and soldiers of spirit.

To do this which is our challenge is that we must go where the action is taking place. We must be willing to travel down to skid row and be engaged in battle on the battlefield. If these warriors (those constituting the ELCA and those residing in Detroit) were ever to see the "goodness and mercy" of the Lord, they would first need to be led to green pastures and still waters.

The way we can engage in Detroit fully as young adults in the next two and a half years is to urge a community of young adult Christians of all ethnicities to move into the neighborhood(set up tent communities), to be living evidence of the presence of still waters.

As an urban strategist, the way we can make a volatile difference in Detroit is to get even closer to the fray (relocation) -- not as a symbolic presence for three days in mid July, 2015 with not engaging real people, with our heads buried in the sand as if there were no enemies about while God prepares the table before us. We must continue to build deliberately relationships with the community's warrior class -- and begin with "a local drug dealer and gang banger who is -- 'a sassy, tough-talking, gun slinging mother shut your mouth,' that is proud of Detroit and very protective of its territory.

Even as I sit in my cushy office in the comforts of Columbus, Georgia, it is imperative that we not forget Detroit and the possibilities of green pastures of running a recreation center, building parish houses, creating tent cities, installing showers for an urban retreat center that serves more than 1,300 kids a year. Though pastoral images may seem a thousand miles away from my context, I am proud that as an African descent Lutheran pastor (ELCA) that we went to Detroit and began the process of engaging in "green pastures" and "still waters" for many children, with cutting-edge ministries. They are employing the tools of faith to fight crime and save kids in some of the toughest neighborhoods in America -- "in the presence of my enemies" - and they are teaching many of us about the efficacy of faith-based activities to reach at-risk young people.

These are the green-pasture moments on the battlefield. These are the still waters. And yet, we are still warriors -- by being on the streets, engaging in the culture in modeling that there are warriors, as tough as David against Goliath: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil" [KJV].

And through their listening and loving, they show that they are as tender as David against the harp's accompaniment: "He restoreth my soul."

Challenge to African descent communities of faith
God likewise calls us to provide green pastures to our neighbors in need.

No crack heads, junkies or warriors in your neighborhood? There are, however:

• the single, mom trying to survive on welfare with three kids, and get an education;

• your spouse, who's been working long hours and trying to hold the family together;

• your teenage kids, who are fighting every imaginable temptation as they try to steer their way through the most tumultuous years of their lives;

• the widow, who is suffering and grieving;

• the AIDS victims, who suffer quietly and don't want their condition to be known.

But after spending some time here, I saw an alternative view of Detroit: a model for self-reliance and growth. They'd welcome help, but they're not counting on it. Rather, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, they're turning from seeing things as they are and asking, "Why?" to dreaming how they might be and wondering, "Why not?" These are questions that cannot be answered in a three day discernment meeting and will not be resolved after we leave as a Gathering in 2015. Notwithstanding to this, one thing is certain as we are a community embedded in faith and the affirmation of God's work, our hands. We can walk the cities' streets of Detroit because Christ has called us to do so, to point proud warriors in need of a change of scenery to the green pastures and still waters God provides, so that someday not by works righteousness but through the accompanying footsteps they hear behind them on the city streets are the familiar strides of goodness and mercy following them all the days of their lives, offering the assurance that they "shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever."