Monday, January 5, 2009


Becoming a New Monastic :: Part Next

Before you read this post, please be sure you've read this one about Milwaukee.

We arrived in Detroit at 12:30. It took a while to get though Chicago (confirmation that we don't like really big cities), and we forgot to account for the time change. But our host had stayed up to meet us. It was the first time we'd ever seen anyone that lived in the community where we crashed for the night. Praise God for the body of Christ.

They let us sleep in, and then two of us took a walk with Matt, our host to pick up the van we'd be using for out tour. He told us a bit about his neighborhood on the way. The entire area looked very run down and depressed. Many lots were either entirely vacant or the houses were boarded up.

Back at the house Matt's wife Bev, tenant Nate, friend Pops, and baby Isaiah were about for breakfast, with the seven of our crew. Cereal and fruit, orange peals in the compost. Coffee.

As we wrapped up breakfast Bev led us into the living room, announcing a time for stillness, prayer and worship before God. She recognized that on trips like ours there was rarely time to relax in God's presence and just worship him. So several people prayed, several read scripture aloud, and then Bev broke into song:

Praise the Lord, all you people, Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, all you people, Praise the Lord.
Don't you know what praise is for?
It's an instrument of war.
Praise the Lord, all you people, Praise the Lord.

After seeing the neighborhood before breakfast, it was beautiful. That moment defined my experience in Detroit in a way that I cannot describe. I'm sure it doesn't make sense to you.

If Milwaukee was nice, Detroit was desperate. It wasn't just the neighborhood where we stayed that looked so embattled. It was everywhere. Apparently the downtown is looking a bit better than it did 5 or 6 years ago, just because there's not as many boarded up buildings as there used to be. That's the downtown. The neighborhoods are stark.
In the last 20 years or so Detroit has lost over 1/2 its population. We heard all kinds of numbers and statistics. Suffice to say this is the worst city in America. And there doesn't seem to be much hope for recovery. We got to talk to a woman named Lisa who is leading a Christian community development association. She said Detroit's biggest problem is 'the death of outrage.' And I think she's probably right. People are pretty hopeless. If it's just bad schooling, maybe people would stand up and say, "It's not right that our city schools only graduate 25% of students!" But when it's problem after problem, issue after issue, people tend to just shut down. There's nothing that can be done.

Race hit us right in the face. All the white people in the city are gone. It's the most segregated in America, and 80% of the population is black. Racial tensions are high.

Detroit was build in a giant, perfect grid, and every lot once had a house on it. We say a section of the city which was entirely green. There were no houses for several acres, just trash, and the occasional mound where a house had been grown over. It was incredible.

We did see some positive things going on. The Heidelberg Project, for instance. Old houses made into art.

So, after experiencing Detroit, my heart completely changed about Milwaukee. Everything in Detroit was just so much more drastic, so much more apparent. If Milwaukee was a sneaker Detroit was a snow shoe. There's no ambiguity with snow shoes, no subtlety.

Detroit would be much harder to live in, but I'm attracted to the challenge. We were originally looking for a city with great needs (especially needs that matched with the gifts we have). But we've discovered that it is not we who will go and meet needs to change the city. It is the city that will change us. I have much more of a learning posture about this whole process than I've ever had before. We're in way over our heads. That's scary. That's really good.

A related note of interest: Baltimore is officially on the list. So that sounds like another city visit in the next few weeks. Three options is better than two, and those three cities better represent the interests of the four of us.

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