Lessons from Detroit: From Blight to Bounty

“Lessons from Detroit: From Blight to Bounty
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 15, 2022

Isaiah 43:19
“Behold,” says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert.”

John 16:32-33
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’

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Continuing with series about what I learned in Detroit last month as part of NGLI, or Next Generation Leadership Initiative,  my denominational leadership program. NGLI brings together young(ish) pastors in the early years of our careers and not only creates a network of close-knit colleagues who help each other through the ups and downs of ministry, it also teaches us powerful ideas and tools that help us help our congregations – that’s you all – to thrive. Our theme was Creativity and Innovation, and we spent time learning about all the ways that Detroit is working to come back from the devastation of decades of neglect and demise that culminated in the city declaring bankruptcy in 2013, and all the ways its people are trying to rebuild while not losing the heart of the city to gentrification.

Segregated housing policy, white flight, and the business flight that followed it and fueled even more flight – with over 2/3 of Detroit’s businesses closing between 1972 and 2015 – mean that an infrastructure built for 2.5 million people is now being used and paid for by just 700,000. While Detroit’s downtown is coming back, its neighborhoods remain devastated, with no guarantee that garbage will be picked up or calls for ambulances or the fire department will be answered – which of course has caused even more people to flee the city, leaving behind abandoned homes to the tune of about 70,000 condemned houses and 25,000 vacant lots. It’s incredibly eerie, in fact, to drive through…

Like rural land, islands. Understandably, a lot of people have given up and left.

The 2017 documentary The United States of Detroit looks at this devastation, and also some of the response to it. It looks at how graffiti artists are covering blank buildings with beautiful murals that draw tourists to take selfies – and scare off drug dealers in the process. It looks at a church ministry refusing to abandon its neighborhood and providing much-needed community and support to kids and families drowning in violence with far too few resources to swim to shore. And it looks at community gardens.

Some of those vacant lots we drove through have been turned into gardens and community farms like the one you can see on the front of your bulletin – the lower half of the image. There are now over 2,000 urban farms within the city limits of Detroit. 2,000 farms in a major American city! Oyatunde Amakisi, the Community Resource Manager for The Greening of Detroit, talks about it this way: “They talk about Detroit being a food desert because our access to food has been limited to gas stations,  liquor stores, and convenience stores, but in actuality we have all this open land. And so we have to change our perspective.”

“The big intellectual change we made,” explains a reporter from the Detroit Free Press, “is to see vacant land as an opportunity rather than as a drawback. For a long time it was viewed as waste space.” But then we began to imagine, “suppose you could be self-sustaining” and grow most of our food here in the city?

Some of the lots were sold to resident neighbors for $100 or $200. But a lot of them have been developed via “guerilla gardening” – taking unclaimed spaces and using them to grow food. “For me,” explains Kadiri Sennefer Ra, farm manager at D-town Farm, “when I see blight, I see opportunity.”

“When I see blight, I see opportunity.” 

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

The triumphalist language of the gospel reading sounds a bit funny to our modern ears; the idea of there being a big cosmic battle that Jesus has already won sounds ridiculous when you look at, as Matthew did in his sermon a few weeks ago, either a rundown of 20th century events or simply the headlines of today. If someone has indeed conquered, if someone is indeed in charge, it certainly doesn’t look like it’s Jesus.

John’s audience, though as part of the very early church, was indeed facing persecution, crisis, and even devastation as its members were harassed and hunted down. They needed to know that the trials they were confronting weren’t evidence that Jesus had abandoned them, but that he would be with them through whatever they faced.

– – –

During one of our NGLI workshops led by Phil Hart, the interim conference minister of the UCC’s Michigan Conference, we watched a short video combining the experiences of several narrators with the words of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and prolific writer blending the mundane with the mystical and the commonplace with the contemplative. The video spoke about one of Rohr’s favorite concepts, the universal Christ, saying: 

“Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God. The first cries of a newborn, Skyscrapers at night, The memory of a kiss, Blooming wildflowers after a forest fire, A cup of coffee, rice and beans, The quiet hum of a washing machine, Dancing barefoot, Patterns on the wings of butterflies, The gifts of healing passed down from my ancestors, The sound of a drum, and the hands that strike it.

…To be a Christian

Is to see Christ in every thing.”

We broke up into small groups to discuss the video, and as the pastors gathered around my table dug into it, we realized that if Christ is indeed in every visible thing, without exception – then Christ isn’t just in the wildflowers after a forest fire – Christ is also in the fire itself, and in the charred landscape following it before the first seeds sprout. The Christ who was crucified is with us in our suffering and in the suffering of creation just as much as the Christ who was resurrected and lives again is in the wildflowers blooming once more.

And, perhaps most crucially, the Christ who laid in the tomb those three days is in that burned out ghost of a forest, and the desert before the rivers bubble up, and in the hulls of abandoned homes and the eerie stillness of vacant lots just waiting for someone to come along and envision a garden growing there. 

– – –

Although we are riding another wave of Covid infections right now – mercifully low-impact, but still disruptive and disorienting – we are (we pray) past the peak of the crisis, out of the active waves of acute suffering and into its aftermath. Many beloved people have died – far too many – and many beloved things have died, as well – a sense of normalcy, relationships strained over pseudo-science, years of schooling, activities and gatherings and even ministries that may never recover. And although we swore we would never go back to that level of stress, many of us have dived right back into being over-scheduled or over-worked, which is another kind of death, isn’t it?

At church, we worship now in two distinct groups – in person and online. In whatever group you normally worship, it feels strange to be missing half of our people in the “other group”; and it definitely feels strange to see the sanctuary so sparsely populated, which is why I always ask Cindy to let us know how many folks have joined online. And we could see that – we could see so much of what we have lost – as blight, as “waste space” – as a distinct disadvantage or liability. Or, we could see it as a desert that God is about to make lush with water, as a vacant lot to be turned into water, as a blank building about to be covered in color or a church ministry about to take on the woes of its neighborhood.

We can choose, Park Avenue, to simply give up and walk away from the losses we have been dealt; we can choose to go right back to “the way things were.” We can choose to measure the present by the past. Or, we can choose to see things the way God sees them – as a new way to be, as a new opportunity for community and courage and creativity to take hold and blossom. We can choose to strengthen ourselves despite our separation; to go outward to our neighborhood and our community instead of curling inward in grief; to imagine new ways of living the love that has carried us through this far. 

Because Christ – and the full cycle of his death, waiting, and rising – is, indeed, in every thing around us. May we therefore “take courage” in the One who has conquered the world. Amen.