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An (initial) answer to the gospel from Detroit

Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministries partner with Detroit communities to put an end to gun violence and advance the peace of the city.

By Kristena Morse

The message Hope in stepping stones

Presbytery of Detroit and Sarasota, Florida, youth leave a message of hope in the form of a stepping stone as part of their community-garden project in New Orleans.

To most appearances, Detroit is a once-booming city that now faces a set of major crises: the crushing financial woes that drove Detroit into the biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history, rising unemployment rates, and the nation’s highest rate of violent crime. For the fifth year in a row, the Motor City has topped the list of “Most Dangerous Cities in the United States.”

That’s only part of the story, however.

Detroit is full—to borrow a phrase from Henri Nouwen—of “wounded healers,” people ministering out of their own pain and tested hopefulness. The people of Detroit have long spoken of a need for change, and at last some are beginning to listen. As a result, some change, albeit quite modest, is taking place. The rate of violent crime has dropped. Detroit’s downtown has seen an upswing, with many hotels getting swanky facelifts and companies such as Quicken Loans developing huge business spaces at the city’s core and employing thousands of people. Midtown arguably has become Detroit’s most successful—and most talked about—district for new commercial and real estate ventures, with mixed-use projects such as the Auburn apartments and Willys Overland Lofts filling their ground floors with new retail ventures. But amid this growth and excitement, Detroit still has a long road toward recovery. Many still hold onto the hope that Detroit will one day be a city of peace.

As Presbyterians, we are called to respond to the needs of the world’s most vulnerable and to address injustice in all areas of life. Many in and around Detroit have heard God’s call and begun to do just that. Projects focused on addressing food insecurity and health problems, self-development of area residents, and long-term growth and recovery have begun popping up across the city.

Addressing high unemployment
As of August 2013, the US Bureau of Labor reports a startling 17.7 percent unemployment rate for Detroit—more than double the national unemployment rate. Couple that with high crime rates, and you find a city where ex-offenders face seemingly insurmountable barriers to securing stable employment.

“Issues of crime and rising unemployment rates often create a perfect storm,” says Lisa Leverette of the Self-Development of People (SDOP) National Committee. “Here, like many other cities across the United States, those with a criminal history find themselves trying to integrate back into a society with double-digit rates of unemployment, an economic landscape that’s drastically different than it was 10 years ago, and a plethora of other struggles to overcome.”

During a Mission Blast, youth tend a DTE Energy community garden and help with its food bank

During a Mission Blast, youth tend a DTE Energy community garden and help with its food bank.

SDOP—a community-organizing and grant-writing ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency designed to empower the economically poor and oppressed to change the structures that perpetuate poverty and injustice—has set out to help ex-offenders build a solid foundation for long-term success. “Our goal is twofold,” Leverette says. “We’re educating about and supporting alternative systems created by and for those who have experienced significant barriers to employment because of their ex-offender status.”

Carlos is one of the people empowered through Fair Chance. A 64-year-old who served 22 years in prison on a drug charge, Carlos was a model case for a difficult reentry into society. But that all changed when, prior to his release, he contacted the SDOP-funded Fair Chance program at First Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan. Fair Chance arranged housing for Carlos in Lansing, and he got a job working for a lawn-care service started by Fair Chance. He now works 20 hours per week making ads for the lawn-care business and developing SDOP flyers. He also manages a program with Michigan State University that helps ex-
offenders with resumes and job training.

As a result, Carlos now pays his own rent, has bought a car, pays for his insurance, and is self-sufficient.

“He thanks me profusely all of the time. He is so grateful,” says First Chance coordinator Monica Jahner. “If he hadn’t come here, . . . he said he probably would be back in prison.” But of course First Chance just set up the conditions; it was Carlos who had to choose a fate different from the one society prescribed for him (67.8 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested within three years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics).

Jahner says the Fair Chance program employs about 52 ex-offenders in its own businesses, and its employment agency has placed nearly 160 people in jobs since the program got funding in December 2012.

Feeding the hungry, starting a conversation
That’s only one of many examples of Detroit Presbyterians coming alongside their neighbors to forge a healthier and more just community. In a county where more than 110,000 children live in food-insecure households, the Presbytery of Detroit, through the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), has supported more than 10 congregations who provide Detroiters with access to fresh, affordable food through community garden projects. PHP and the presbytery also have supported more than 80 churches that provide direct food relief and serve more than 500,000 area residents each year.

Hunger, however, isn’t the only challenge affecting the lives of the people of Detroit. Gun violence has claimed the lives of nearly 500 Detroit children since 2000.

In 2012, Detroit experienced its most violent year in nearly 20 years. And gun violence claimed 17 lives across the city in just 10 days this past November. As Christians, we are called to love our brothers and sisters, and when so many people have lost respect for life—and for one another—that call is needed now more than ever.

Presbyterian Men service day in Detroit

During a Presbyterian Men service day in Detroit, volunteers do construction work at Park United

Recognizing the need for a conversation about the importance of gun-violence prevention and the ripple effect that a shooting has on churches, families, and communities, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, in partnership with the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, created Trigger: The Ripple Effect of Gun Violence. This hour-long documentary has been shown across the country and has generated discussion about the critical need for gun-violence prevention.

“Tackling an issue that can be as divisive as gun violence certainly isn’t easy,” says Laurie Kraus, coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “As Christians, we are called to advocate for those in need. And igniting a conversation about the far-reaching and long-lasting impact of gun violence is absolutely necessary—especially in cities like Detroit, where gun violence is very, very real.”

Screenings of Trigger have sparked the development of programs such as Ripples 2 Waves, an Iowa-based organization created by members of the peace and justice committee at First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City. “In the beginning, I too thought, ‘Let’s just get rid of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,’ ” says Martha Schut, a founding member of Ripples 2 Waves. “However, through the committee’s research and discussions with community members, it became clear that responsible gun owners weren’t the enemy and that we needed to have responsible gun owners be part of the process to find a middle ground. Hosting a screening of Trigger in our community opened up a platform for people from both sides of the debate to come together.”

Gun violence, of course, isn’t the whole problem. Detroit also is afflicted by domestic and sexual violence, with rates of domestic violence above the national average in some areas of the city. Last year, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, in partnership with the Domestic Violence Work Group and the Social Justice and Peacemaking Team of the Presbytery of Detroit, helped create and host a side event during the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that addressed the importance of education for all—including men and boys—in working to end violence against women.

These and other issues continue to affect Detroit. They are real, and they are harsh. But the people of Detroit—or any other city across the nation—need not fight them alone. Whether the focus is on addressing hunger, violence, or community development, we as Christians are called to come together to help those in need and tear down the systems that create those needs in the first place. Many Presbyterians even now are responding to God’s call through the prophet Isaiah to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets to live in—making God’s community livable for all. Will you join them?

Kristena Morse is a communication strategist for the Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministry area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


Live in or around Detroit? The Presbytery of Detroit offers many opportunities for service and advocacy on issues ranging from domestic violence to hunger to urban ministry:

The Compassion, Peace, and Justice ministry area of the Presbyterian Mission Agency helps Presbyterians respond to the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, address injustice, and advocate for peaceful solutions to conflict. To learn more about its many ministries:

May 2014 cover

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