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The gospel from Detroit

Seeking the peace of the city

By Kevin Johnson
With photo of Littlefield Presbyterian Church peace march by Carol Hylkema

picture of children protesting

Betti Wiggins, the “head lunch lady” of Detroit’s public schools, is a woman of competing stories. On the one hand, Wiggins will tell you she’s had a good life. As the executive director of the Office of Food Services, she oversees 800 employees as they go about their daily work of feeding approximately 55,000 children. But in an interview with the grassroots digital project Detroit Stories, Wiggins is quick to say she’s experienced her share of violence. With her mother killed by a drunk driver, her uncle robbed and shot to death, her cousin raped and murdered, and her brother and Vietnam-veteran cousin killed, Wiggins also knows all too well the costs of growing up black in Detroit.

“So I’ve had all that, all the drama of Detroit,” she says, “but all I have to tell you is I successfully raised my kid, who has two college degrees.”

Wiggins grew up in a crowded one-bedroom cold-water flat in Black Bottom, Detroit, a predominantly African American neighborhood known for its music, art, and political involvement (and named by the French for its dark topsoil). She remembers “gorgeous streets of gingerbread and Victorian houses, hollyhocks, and picket fences.” She remembers hot summers and the sound of brass bands playing in tree-lined parks. She remembers busing to Wayne State University when it was just beginning to figure out how to desegregate, thrusting together African American students and the white children of working-class parents. And she remembers getting actively involved in the community through mission and service, all because a tall black pastor, carrying a bundle of philosophy books, invited her to church one day.

Detroit youth working in a community garden program from SDOP

Detroit youth learn about community gardening and growing their own food thanks to a program through Self-Development of People, a ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

But Wiggins also remembers watching the City of Detroit tear down Black Bottom. A survivor of the Great Depression, Black Bottom reportedly had many buildings in need of repair, so—in the name of urban renewal—the City of Detroit bulldozed the community and replaced it with Lafayette Park, a “model” community of townhouses and high-rise apartments intersected by the new Chrysler Freeway. Wiggins remembers sitting on her aunt’s porch and watching the city demolish Detroit’s “largest black hospital.” She remembers watching the people of Black Bottom disperse in a new migration, often ending up in large public housing projects. She remembers the riots of 1967 and the subsequent white flight to the suburbs. And she remembers the invasion of heroin that, in her words, came over the city “like a big cloud.”

Shifting between “dear, sweet memories” and images of a segregated “boom-and-bust town that never busted this bad,” Wiggins can’t quite make up her mind about Detroit, a city she seems to genuinely love. But one memory stands out above all others.

Wiggins must have driven the street a thousand times. But this time something was different. Her community library was now rubble. As she watched the City of Detroit clear away its remains, she pulled over to the side of the road and cried. Maybe it was the shock of seeing her library destroyed. Or maybe it was the accumulated grief of watching so much of her community turn to waste. Whatever the reason, Wiggins couldn’t hold back the tears any longer.

What will we see—or not see?
Wiggins, of course, wasn’t the first to cry over a suffering city. In the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during that fateful Passover, Luke tells us: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’ ” (Luke 19:41–42). As friends, visitors, and commissioners enter Detroit for the 221st General Assembly (2014) in June, I wonder what they will see—or not see.

picture of families working in a community garden

Presbyterian families put their hands to work at a community garden at Park United Presbyterian Church during a Presbyterian Men service day.

It’s another General Assembly. Another series of committee reports and study papers. Another gathering of good-hearted folks who lift up various problems to the Lord and then go home, often to the safety of their suburbs.

Except for the General Assembly locale, nothing much seems to change.

At least that’s the way it seems when you’re the only full-time black Presbyterian pastor in Detroit.

Thirty years ago I had a conversation with God as I sat at the table in my dorm room at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. As the completion of my seminary experience drew closer, I looked at a map of the United States and said to God: “Lord, the city to which I most desire to relocate to is Charleston, South Carolina. The city to which I least desire to go is Detroit, Michigan.”

God apparently had a different plan in mind. When I told my mother that I thought the Spirit was telling me to move to Detroit, she responded: “Kevin, are you sure you know which voice you’re listening to? Because there are two voices that will talk to you.”

Her concerns were well founded. Detroit had earned the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of America. Crack was gaining a stranglehold, and competition among drug dealers had led to a wide range of crime and carnage. But I knew whose voice was calling me, and I knew what it was calling me to do.

For 27 years now I have lived in Detroit, and by the time the 221st General Assembly (2014) convenes, I’ll have marked 20 years as pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church.

During that time, I’ve witnessed the well-documented downward spiral of the city: the collapse of the auto industry, the population shift to the suburbs, the ravages of unemployment in the inner city, the ensuing loss of tax revenues, and the resulting lack of social services and police protection. And with those decreases have come increases—in crime and in despair.

Last year, Forbes magazine named Detroit “America’s Most Miserable City,” a distinction that no doubt reflects the fact that 38.1 percent of all Detroit families and 50.4 percent of all children in the city live below the poverty line. The overall death rate for children through age 18 is 120 per 100,000—more than six times the state average of 18 per 100,000. National media outlets have chronicled the city’s $18 billion debt and its plans to emerge from the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

But city leaders alone can’t solve the city’s problems, says Detroit’s new mayor, Mike Duggan. He says solutions must involve partnerships with Detroit’s religious communities.

Whether the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will serve as one of those partners remains an open question.

When speaking ‘peace’ is not enough
The PC(USA) has a long-standing history of speaking out against violence and social injustice. Nearly 20 years ago, the 207th General Assembly (1995) adopted a report titled “Urban Strategy to the Year 2005.” Four years ago, the General Assembly approved the resolution “Gun Violence, Gospel Values.”

Inspired in part by that resolution, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and the Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministry area teamed up to produce the award-winning documentary Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence, which aired on NBC and was selected by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site as part of its D.R.E.A.M. film series. Congregations all across the nation have hosted showings and organized in-depth conversations about gun violence in our communities.

This year, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy—on which I serve—will present yet another paper for the church to consider.

But this history matters little if not followed by action. Honestly, I’ve lost track of the number of study papers, reports, videos, committees, and workshops within the church that have examined the same social issues and expressed the same heartfelt concerns.

Our cities—and the churches in them—are in trouble. In 1960 Detroit had 45 Presbyterian congregations. By 2013 that number had dwindled to 12—and of those 12, only four had full-time pastors.    

If we in the PC(USA) recognize that the church is to stand for peace in the neighborhoods of cities like Detroit, how do we explain the demise of African American Presbyterian congregations in the host city for the 221st General Assembly (2014)—a city that is so predominantly African American?

For me, one of the most painful aspects of the decrease among the rank and file of the Presbytery of Detroit is the absence of African American clergy colleagues. In a city with such pressing needs, what few Presbyterian congregations there are have been largely unable to afford even the minimal compensation necessary to support full-time pastors. In a city where 82.7 percent of the population is African American, like Jesus and like Betti Wiggins I weep when I sit at a table with the mayor and other leaders seeking a better life for its citizens and realize that I am the only black pastor representing the Presbytery of Detroit. One is a lonely number.

Westside community garden picture

With the support of Self-Development of People, Detroit residents till the soil of the Westside Community Garden, ensuring that community members have access to fresh, healthy food.

Yet simply increasing the number of worshiping communities isn’t necessarily the solution.

Equally as painful as the absence of Presbyterian congregations—especially those shepherded by African American pastors—is the presence of churches (of all denominations) that are not community churches. Not every congregation has a presence and stake in the community, is actively involved with its neighbors, or even resembles its neighbors.

When I first answered Calvary’s call, I sat with the owner of a deli two blocks from the church. When I told him I was Calvary’s pastor, he replied: “I didn’t know black folks were in that building. I thought the white folk were still there.” From his perspective, Calvary had been a church in the community but had not become a community church.

A prophetic passage from the book of Jeremiah says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (29:7 NIV). A community church knows that its welfare is tied to the welfare of its community. Both the PC(USA) and Detroit face narratives of decline and conflict. Their fate may be more intertwined than many realize.

Mobilizing the fruit pickers
And so here we are: another General Assembly, with another committee submitting another report on urban ministry. If I were to take the current resolution referred by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to the 221st General Assembly (2014), turn it upside down and inside out, and read it from right to left, I’d swear I was reading the “Urban Strategy to the Year 2005” recommendation to the 207th General Assembly (1995). We meet, we study, we write, and then we meet again. I believe that these conversations and studies can provide the fertilizer necessary for the tree to bear fruit (see Luke 13:6–9). But now it’s time to mobilize the fruit pickers. Now it’s time to send the workers out into the community and put our words into action.

In this, we might take a cue from Betti Wiggins.

She says her community’s demolished library is now a vacant lot. In its empty ground, littered with rusted cans, she sees an opportunity. Wiggins grew up on a farm and says Detroit is, “in its very bones,” an agrarian city. She says people left farms to come to Detroit. Whether African American sharecroppers from the South, Eastern Europeans, or Scots Irish from the hills of Appalachia, all who came to Detroit were peasants and farmers. Now, she believes, the farm is returning to the city through an urban agricultural movement of community gardens, healthy foods, and self-development.

“I want to farm it,” Wiggins says of the empty lot where her library once stood. “I want to invite children and teach them.”

Kevin Johnson is the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Detroit and a member of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

LEARN MORE

You can read the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s resolution “The Gospel from Detroit: Renewing the Church’s Urban Vision” at pc-biz.org as item 08-08 under the committee “Mission Coordination.”


May 2014 cover



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  • Detroit welcomes Presbyterians. by Jean Russell on 06/03/2014 at 1:45 p.m.

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