Driving into Detroit it is impossible to miss the boarded-up and derelict neighborhoods lining the Interstate. Economic shifts, nationally and globally, have left parts of this city all but abandoned. Sixty percent of the population has departed since 1960. The municipality is famously bankrupt. Municipal services have been slashed to the point that some neighborhoods are without even traffic lights, let alone effective police protection.
The State has stepped in to help. But this assistance appears to have more to do with bailing out – not the workers, retirees, or the embattled residents of the city, but the creditors. The State appointed a dictator to manage Detroit, as it has for several cities with predominantly African-American populations.
Imposing austerity on the residents, and selling off anything of value at cut rates, all in the name of financial responsibility, will have the usual desired effect of transferring wealth to the wealthy. This is a process happening practically everywhere; it’s just more visible in places of dire crisis like Detroit.
Of course, none of this is particularly visible from our vantage point downtown. We are assured that these blocks are perfectly “safe”. I have a great view from my room on the 22nd floor of the Renaissance Center. The Assembly will be gathering at the renovated Cobo Hall starting tomorrow. It will be easy to ignore the suffering of this city, here in our secure bubble.
As a gathering of people professing to be followers of the Lord Jesus, indeed, who claim to be his very Body on the earth, it will be interesting to see how our presence here responds to the situation of a city in crisis. At the pre-meeting conference here last October, denominational officials made a point of saying what a witness and statement we would be making by coming here for GA. I hope we make a good statement, one that lifts up the resilience, creativity, courage, faith, and hope of the people of this city. I hope that our presence here will not be construed as an endorsement or benefit of the dictatorship approach to problem-solving.
For there are good things happening, I have heard. And they are happening in spite of, not because of, the State’s predatory intervention. For instance the amazing work of Grace Lee Boggs and her school, the development of community gardens on abandoned plots, people working together to rehabilitate homes, young people exploring music, art, theater, and yoga, and even a conference on reimagining work for the 21st century. I hope we get to see and celebrate some of that.
Here’s a cool poem by a guy from Detroit, perhaps giving us some themes for the week:
Time, Inc., buys a house in Detroit
and tries to track him for a year.
But he’s invisible to those looking for a
blue-eyed dude in a white robe
or for a city gone completely to hell.
He is the cinnamon of my son’s skin
with a green thumb and a Tigers cap
and my daughter’s dove-grey eyes.
He prays into Blair’s guitar,
hangs out on Field St.,
bakes bread at Avalon
and plants tomatoes on the East side.
He rides his old-school bike down the heart
of Grand River,
paints a mural in the Corridor,
shoots hoop in the Valley
with priests and pimps and lean young men
trying to jump their way to heaven.
while the Border Patrol counts cars,
he walks across the water
grabs a bite to eat,
born in Providence,
he lives so simply,
he could live anywhere:
Dublin, Palestine, Malibu.
But Detroit is his home.
It was here one Sunday
a boy invited him down
off the cross
and into his house for a glass of Faygo red pop.
That was centuries ago, it seems,
and how far he’s come,
reinventing himself more times than Malcolm.
He’s been to prison,
been to college,
has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on one arm,
Judas on the other,
and knows every Stevie Wonder song by heart.
He’s Jimmy, he’s Invincible, he’s Eminem.
He’s the girls at Catherine Ferguson
and their babies,
and he’s the deepest part of Kwame
still innocent as a baby.
The incinerator is hell,
but he walks right in,
burns it up with love,
comes out the other side,
He can say Amen in twelve religions,
believes school is any place
where head and heart and hands
and wears a gold timepiece around his neck
with no numbers, just a question:
What time is it on the clock of the world?
And every second of every day
he answers that question
with a smile wide as the Ambassador
and a heart as big as Belle Isle,
hugging this city in his arms
and whispering to each soul
words no one else dares to say:
You are Jesus,
this is your Beloved Community,
and the time
on the clock of the world
— Peter Putnam.