Monday, May 14, 2007

We Can!

I spent the weekend with 400+ Lutherans in Shelby Township, outside of Detroit. There are few places in the U.S. more economically stressed than southeastern Michigan and that creates all kinds of other problems. It's been argued, in fact, that Detroit's crisis is no smaller than the one post-Katrina New Orleans is in...and worse, because no one is paying any attention to it. The "synod assembly" (i.e. an annual denominational conference held in a particular geographic area) was held inside a church building that sits quite a bit north of 8 Mile (the infamous road that separates the largely African American and poverty stricken city of Detroit from the largely white and much more prosperous northern suburbs) and so I didn't actually see the problem first-hand. Instead, I saw it through the eyes of those gathered. Here's what I thought was interesting: Those who live above 8 Mile seemed much more depressed about what's going on below 8 Mile (and across the region, as a result of it) than those who actually live there. [Not that people outside the city shouldn't be concerned. They should be. Some of them are among the wealthiest people in the U.S. The bishop called on these folks to join him, during this 40th anniversary year of the 1967 riots, in renouncing racism, working toward reconciliation, and advocating economic justice for all. He seems serious about having people actually DO these things.] It's not that people above 8 Mile shouldn't be concerned. But many of those I talked to seemed more than just concerned. One said, eyes darting around at the relatively posh environment we were in, "To look around here, you wouldn't know anything was wrong. But it's just a facade. Underneath the surface, everybody is scared." And, I would add, really sad. It's like the problems have become so enormous, no one can see their way out of the mess. On the other hand, some of the people who actually live below 8 Mile told me stories about what it's like to be the church there. They see the mess, alright. (One African American woman called it "the uglys.") But that isn't all they see. One pastor (who I'm quite sure is African, based on her accent, in spite of the "Kiss Me, I'm Norwegian" T-shirt she was wearing!) said the neighborhood her congregation's building sits in is about 90% African American. The congregation itself is 60% white but very few of the white members live in the neighborhood. "Why are they there?" I asked. She seemed confused by the question. "Did they used to live in the neighborhood?" Still puzzled. "Did they belong to your congregation when they lived in the neighborhood and just drive back in from the suburbs because they can't stand to leave 'their' church?" She said, "No." Then, I asked again, "why are they there??" She smiled at me like I was stupid, "Because they see that they are needed there." Members of that congregation have taken in dozens and dozens of foster children over the 12 years she has been serving there. Some of those children end up staying in the church...or coming back to it...even as adults. It has become their family. "Many of the other churches in our community, if a young person gets in trouble, tell them 'You can't stay here. You have to leave.' But at our church, we say 'God loves you no matter what.'" The highlight of the weekend for me was the Detroit metro choir - all black - that sang during worship one night. Because I have faith, "I can!" they shouted/sang. And I believe them. From above 8 Mile, all you see is the mess. But from inside the uglies, it seems, you can also see Jesus. Which makes me think a couple of things: 1) We shouldn't be so afraid of messes, 2) If we can see Jesus there, we ought to be able to see Jesus everywhere, and 3) I need to spend a lot more time with people who believe they can. How about you?

2 comments:

Lauren Kirsh-Carr said...

Kelly,
Thanks for these insightful comments. It actually makes me feel sadder about our situation here in SE Michigan when other people notice how bad it really is.

However, we are not a people without hope. And we, as the church, have an amazing opportunity to stand in our communities and share the word that God wants to love and bless, save and redeem the whole world. We have been called to this time and this place to be communities of faith that make a real difference in people's lives.

Thanks for all your ministry!

Kelly Fryer said...

Lauren,

Thanks for jumping in!

I appreciate the way you've defined "church" as "communities of faith that make a real difference in people's lives." That is so different than the definitions many of us were raised with. "Church" was a place to go to...for a variety of reasons...the best case scenario was to "worship." Church is so NOT that. Church is what happens when we realize that we can do more TOGETHER than we can on our own. All kinds of things become possible in SE Michigan...and everywhere...if we get our heads around that idea.

Thanks for YOUR work!

The Bottom Line

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love becomes slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." - Galatians 5:13-14