Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
[ If I had to pick just one blog in the world as the best, I would probably choose Detroitblog. The writer, who goes by the handle Detroitblogger John, captures the stories of the people of Detroit in a way that I’ve never seen in another place. His posts are always full of pictures, because if you couldn’t see it for yourself, you’d never believe it.
Someone once insightfully said that one of the key distinguishing features of Detroitblog is that it resolutely refuses to treat the people of Detroit as hopeless victims, no matter their circumstances. Last year I was pleased to be able to share an example of this in a repost of Solitary Man, about someone who decided to face the challenges of his life and city head on by going “off the grid.” Today I’m delighted to be able to share another example of what you’ll find over at Detroitblog – Aaron. ]
They stagger in one by one — each with a story, each with a life of problems.
First comes the prostitute. Then comes a drinker. Every swing of the door brings another desperate person from the street outside.
People with addictions, with diseases, people living on the street. And people who suffer from none of those things but who are just drawn to this strange place.
Some talk to each other; one or two are talking to themselves, or the air, or whatever demons they hear in their heads.
It’s Sunday morning. It’s time for church.
At Peacemakers International on Chene Street, a little storefront ministry not far south of I-94, the congregation doesn’t just help people who are addicts or poor or homeless. Those people are the congregation.
They come here because this place has taken in dozens of people fighting years of addiction and, somehow, they say, it has helped them get off drugs.
People like Tony Cusmano, 52, who gradually stole a quarter-million dollars from his family business to feed a cocaine habit before ending up behind bars. Like Shirley Robinson, 53, who gave up a career and a house for a coke habit, which became a crack habit that left her selling herself on this street for a few years. Like Coy Welch, 39, a longtime drinker who was found living under a bridge a couple months ago and was invited to come here.
And from this ragged crowd, the preacher emerges.
At first it’s hard to distinguish him from his flock. Steve Upshur is 62, and wears jeans and cowboy boots and a leather Harley jacket. His hair is long. So is his scraggly mustache. He’s a biker and looks like a biker.
He used to be an addict, so desperate he once puked up his methadone at a clinic and then got down on the ground to lap up the drug-soaked vomit. He’s been a dealer. He’s been jailed. He even got caught up in a bank robbery once.
His flock relates to him because he’s been where they are, because he’s done as much wrong in his life as they have in theirs, but more importantly because he’s someone who found a way out of that hell. He’s walked the walk. And because of that, he’s earned their trust, earned his post as father of the wayward.
“When you get into crack and prostitution, anything goes,” Upshur says. “A lot of these people will stuff people in trunks, kill people. I’ve had people confess murders in here. I’ve heard it all.”
More people arrive. A homeless man. A woman one misstep away from being there. An old lady with a scowling face, muttering to herself.
The services begin right on time. But there’s no prayer to start things off. No reading of the Bible. No sermon.
Instead, a high-tempo, old-time gospel song — “I Believe” by John P. Kee — blares from the stereo. And as the beat kicks in, everyone in the pews who had been sitting quietly suddenly gets up and starts clapping along. A few even dance.
Then the pastor says a few short words, but right away another song bursts out of the stereo, and the congregation is behaving like it’s some kind of dance party. People who were living on the street or still are, people selling themselves there, people crippled by drug and drinking problems, are all dancing together, looking like they haven’t had this kind of fun in years. It’s an astonishing sight.
And just when it seems this can’t possibly be the actual service, it turns out that’s this is indeed how it goes at Peacemakers. Down here on Chene, going to Sunday service is almost like going to a party where, for a couple hours, the weight of everyone’s troubled past falls away.
“It’s just upbeat, you know?” Upshur says. “This isn’t a dead place where everybody’s sitting there. That ain’t the way a church is supposed to be.”
Chene Street is a disaster. The rows of burned-out storefronts between the empty blocks are reminders of how bustling it once was. But after the riot, after the freeway and an auto plant split the neighborhood in half, after everyone packed up and moved away, almost everything just died off.
Pouring into the void left behind were outcasts and cast-asides — junkies and drunks, hookers and drug dealers, the mentally ill and the physically disabled. Like a few other areas of the city, it became a refuge of the underclass, a home for everyone with nowhere else to go, where they can wander freely without being chased away by store owners, or told to move along by the cops.
“It’s like the devil’s playground,” says John Simon, a minister here. “I mean, you got sexual acts in the middle of the day, shooting dope, smoking dope. Everything you can imagine is going on down here.”
This is the world in which Peacemakers established itself in 1994. In many ways it’s a typical inner-city, grass-roots church. The services are nondenominational and loose. And like any Christian ministry, the place seeks to create believers and followers in Jesus, though they give food and clothing to anyone who comes here, whether they profess a belief in God or not.
But something’s happening here that draws the people who work or live on the streets outside. Just about every member swears that sometime after they came here, there was a moment when everything changed for them, when their addictions simply vanished. Whether what took place for them was spiritual or psychological, whether the catalyst was from inside or out, the simple program offered here, they say, helped alter their lives. It’s not a 12-step program, more a strict combination of work, prayer and study that uses religious belief to shield against the temptation for an addict to return to their old life.
Maybe Peacemakers gives a template to people who’ve never had a code of behavior to guide them. Maybe some people just need a strict system of rules to follow. Either way, its members insist that this place works.
A whole system has evolved to support them, a virtual safety net in a neighborhood that never really had one. The church operates halfway houses for ex-cons and ex-prostitutes, set up gardens for flowers and vegetables, and keeps a chicken coop for eggs. It all goes to the neighborhood. And every day they give out food and clothes.
This place is often the last resort for neighborhood people whose choices or circumstances left them living on the lowest rungs. The program offered here is powerful and appealing because it’s so simple.
“The main thing is a sincere desire to find God and get your life together, and a willingness to stick to the rules,” says Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s 32-year-old son.
Those rules require members to be sober, to pray together and to participate in helping the poor by feeding, clothing and working to get them off the streets. But a stated belief in Jesus is not enough to stay here. They have to demonstrate those convictions with the people of Chene Street.
“It’s a hard ministry. The hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my entire life is to be a Christian,” Simon says of the work involved. “But it’s the most fulfilling.”
After Peacemakers opened, the street people out front saw their old friends suddenly sober, talking about this crazy church that’s feeding and clothing them and helping them get clean, even if sometimes it doesn’t last, and they began showing up out of curiosity. Soon, its reputation took on a life of its own, and strange things started happening.
“We would have fires in this giant fire pit back there, and people would be coming in, throwing their syringes in, throwing their crack pipes in, just giving it all up,” Simon says. “It was mind-blowing.”
The pastor got here the long, hard way. He was a juvenile delinquent who became a teenage heroin addict. Petty crimes grew into bigger ones until he found himself nodding off at the wheel of a bank robbery getaway car one afternoon in the early ’70s in Detroit’s suburbs, just as the cops swarmed in. He barely escaped lengthy prison time for it.
He fled Detroit but kept his lifestyle. While in an Oklahoma jail in the early ’70s for some minor offense, an inmate told him these born-again Christians had a place nearby, and they could be easily suckered into giving you food and shelter. “So I’m thinking, ‘Well, go get me a sandwich; I’ll go hustle them for a sandwich,’” Upshur says.
But he was drawn in by their approach. “These people are talking to Jesus like he’s their buddy, and I grew up you’d have to probably be a priest or a nun to be talking firsthand to the main man,” says Upshur, who was raised Catholic. “I’m thinking this is deep. All of a sudden — boom! — this spiritual world opens up. I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
He was so inspired, he came back to Detroit at 25 years old, determined to stay clean, and started holding informal prayer meetings at a house next to his parents’ home to talk about spirituality or God or whatever anyone wanted.
At the first gathering, his audience was a bunch of teenagers who came less to hear another born-again and more to see the crazy bank robber. A week later, he had 35 kids there. Soon after, adults started showing up too.
The group kept growing and went from a house to an old, unused church in Detroit, and eventually to a church in St. Clair Shores with three pastors and a large middle-class congregation. Upshur preached out there for 16 years.
But he felt the pull of skid row. “That’s always where my heart was, ’cause I come out of that,” he says. “I grew up in the inner city, I’ve been homeless many of the years of my life, been in and out of jail all my life, a very rough life. Those were my main people that I grew up with. So when I got, quote, ‘saved,’ I knew I’d be back working with people that come out of my environment.”
A woman in the suburban church offered him a small old building on Chene that she owned, and he began his ministry in one of the city’s most miserable, drug-addled neighborhoods. “We take people who everybody else has given up on,” Bob Kaczmarek says. He’s a board member of the church, 64, a Catholic, a well-dressed attorney. He attends services elsewhere, but was so impressed by Peacemakers and its ragged flock he became involved.
“This is it,” he says. “For some of the people who are in the in-house programs, this is their last chance. And if they don’t make it here, then you find out they’re found dead somewhere.”
There have to be at least 100 stuffed animals inside the bedrooms at the Mercy House.
Several women stay here right now, at the Peacemakers’ halfway house for those trying to escape a life of prostitution and drugs, or battered women trying to escape a violent man. Blocks away, there’s a halfway house for men out of prison, off the streets, just off drugs.
What’s striking about the women’s house are the delicate, feminine, almost child-like touches. Though the women here have led hard lives, there’s pink and softness everywhere — on the stuffed animals, in the decorations on the walls, on the clothes inside the closets. It’s as if the women here are trying to reclaim an innocence they lost years ago. Denise Benn walks into her bedroom, bounces onto her bed and grabs a blue stuffed dog. “I got this puppy I took care of right before I came in here, and it made me feel young again, ’cause I could take care of something,” the 43-year-old says, hugging it.
Benn’s history is written on her face. Her story is like one many of the women here tell. Her life collapsed at 12, she says, when she was gang raped by six men on the way to school. Soon after, she started doing drugs to bury the trauma, hanging out with the dropouts and the druggies because they were nicer to her than anyone else.
“I liked getting high,” she says. “People accepted me. I wasn’t part of my family because I didn’t get along with my family. But now I was part of something.”
By 16, she was pole dancing in Detroit strip clubs, strung out on heroin, and within a couple years she went from turning tricks in VIP rooms to doing so in cars.
Her life as a street prostitute was one harrowing night after another.
“Every day something horrific was happening to me,” she says. “I was either getting thrown out of moving cars or waking up with people’s hands on my throat, and I had a heroin addiction and I couldn’t stop. I mean, you should see the scars on my body. I’m not lying to you. I’ve had some horrific stuff happen to me.”
The women here — five right now — watch out for each other, keep each other’s spirits up when things look bleak and the street outside begins appearing appealing again. They travel in twos when they walk the neighborhood, and eat group dinners, and help out at the church together.
“I got a new way of life,” Benn says. “I’m productive here and I’m of use here. I’ve got a place here.”
But there are relapses here too.
Last spring she violated the rules against dating someone at a nearby halfway house for men, and, forced to leave, wound up back on the streets, living in an abandoned building.
“The first night I went there, I just cried, because I knew what was going to happen,” Benn says. She fell right back into drugs and prostitution. “I didn’t have nowhere to go. I didn’t have no resources. I didn’t have a dime in my pocket.”
Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor’s son, came looking for her and asked her to come back. Now she works for the church and tries to figure out how to build a new life. She has no money, can’t even get past a minimum-wage job interview because of the long gap in her work history, and has few skills other than the ones she picked up on the streets. It makes it tough to stay hopeful, challenging to remain on the path she’s trying to follow.
“It’s hard,” Benn says, dragging on a cigarette. “It’s really hard.”
It all comes down to a single moment, they say. A line between their old life and their new one. And they all say it like they still half can’t believe it actually happened.
It happened to Simon too. He tells his story as he wanders the aisles at Joseph’s Storehouse, the church’s resale shop in Warren that he runs. This is where the church gets what little money it has — selling cheap things one or two at a time.
Simon, at left, is one of Peacemakers’ biggest proponents because he’s one of its biggest successes.
He’d already spent half a life on heroin, a habit he began at 15, when he first came here.
“I must’ve did $400, $500 worth of heroin every day, ’cause that was my daily do,” he says. “My lottery habit was a hundred and something a day, the cocaine I used to give out for free was hundreds a day. I literally had tons of weed. I was hooked up with these Cubans and Colombians in Florida. And I was the dope man, so I had some of the finest women God put breath in. I was out of my mind. It was just a big party continuously.”
He got conned into coming to Peacemakers by a concerned sister who’d heard this place seems to work when everything else fails.
Simon walked in, thinking he’d bail after a minute, but he found a remarkable scene that had him transfixed.
“First time I went down there, I just felt something,” he says. “Jeremiah, the pastor’s son, was standing in the middle of the kitchen with all these dope fiends and prostitutes just standing in a circle around him. And I knew these people ’cause I used to be down on Chene.”
Simon started attending services, but kept showing up wasted. He had to take $100 worth of heroin just to get into the door without being sick. He was listening to the spiritual messages but not the sobriety ones.
“I always heard you get saved and the ground’s gonna shake and lightning bolts, and I didn’t feel nothing. I shook his hand, went out in the car and got high,” he says, laughing.
One day, much to Simon’s discomfort, Upshur called him to the floor in the middle of the service. Simon had three bottles of methadone in his pocket. He was able to get them even while he was on heroin because the lady who ran the clinic would, for $5, give addicts a cup of her teenage daughter’s urine so they could pass the drug test and get their fix. That was her hustle on the side. She kept them addicted for $5 here and there.
The pastor asked Simon if he wanted to finally be free of drugs. Simon nervously said yes, pulled out the bottles and set them on the pulpit in an act of renouncement. The addicts in the audience started drooling over them.
“You know the crowd on Chene,” he says. “I heard, ‘Don’t do it, John! I’ll buy it!’ People were serious. These are drug addicts in the crowd. Each bottle could be $50 or more on the street. There’s people literally hollering like it’s an auction. They want my drugs.”
Like so many others here, from the pastor on down, he insists the spirit entered into him that day and his addiction vanished right then and there. No withdrawals, no cravings. That was 12 years ago.
“I went to meetings, NA, AA, methadone clinics, whatever they have. Nothing worked for me,” he says. Now he’s a minister here trying to do the same for others who come in. “God set me free that day. Everything stopped that day.”
Jada Fields sits alone in a pew on a Sunday morning, staring forward without an expression. And tears are streaming down her face.
She was a crack-smoking prostitute working Chene down the street from the church, waiting for johns to pick her up one day, and Upshur called her over. She told him flat-out what she was doing. He offered her money to instead come inside. “I’ve been here ever since,” Fields says. She has nine children, seven grandchildren. She’s 39.
That was eight years ago, eight years of relapses, of going back to the streets and then being welcomed back to Peacemakers. This time she’s lasted a year here.
Behind her, a man stands there alone, and he too is crying to himself. Across the room, moments later, a man has his face buried in his hands, in tears or in shame.
This happens early in their newfound sobriety, some here will say, when the remorse of a wasted life sinks in. There’s joy in starting over, but there’s deep sadness too over all the time that’s been lost forever. Sometimes the realization is overwhelming.
But now a song interrupts their sorrow as the service begins. Once again the song is gospel, so raw it has no music backing it at all, only a quick beat driven by foot stomps and a tambourine, and carried by the raspy voice of its impassioned singer.
Everyone rises and starts clapping along. Some dance or jump up and down in place. An elderly man shadowboxes the air for lack of another way to express his emotions. A few people come to the front and start dancing in tandem, like they’re doing the Hustle. The party’s on.
As each song fades away, Upshur says a few things into a microphone. They’re not so much religious exhortations, more like a pep talk. “Now we know we all come out of different backgrounds, all kinds of craziness, we all got a story to tell,” he tells them. They shout in agreement. His manner is gentle, his tone is soothing. No yelling, no fiery eyes. “But we’re gonna help one another cross that finish line, whatever it takes. We’re draggin’ one another through them pearly gates!”
Though the Gospels will be read aloud toward the end, though there’s no doubt this is a religious gathering, the services here are more like a celebration of everyone’s escape from their own hell, whether they’ve done it yet or are still trying. It’s a sing- and dance-along that, more than anything, is meant to cheer up people who’ve had little to smile about.
“Let’s have a knock-down, drag-out for Jesus!” Upshur shouts excitedly as everyone starts dancing to another song. “Let it all hang out!”
Every week, the service stops midway through for a hug break, of all things. But it’s actually more striking than corny. Few who come here have families, most have few real friends. So prostitutes turn to hug alcoholics with tremors, and the mentally ill embrace the homeless. Five minutes of everyone melting into each other’s arms.
Kaczmarek thinks back to something he saw recently at one of the services. “One fellow got up and said he was thankful because, for the first time in his memory, he feels that he has a family, that he is loved, that he is able to love others who will receive it. From my perspective, that was the best moment of the evening to hear something like that.”
These troubled people, holding onto each other in this little room in the ghetto, have created their own, safe protected world here, where they can have friends who won’t pull drugs out of their pocket or have liquor on their breath. They’re convinced something miraculous can happen to them here, even if it takes a bank-robbing preacher and a flock of addicts and hookers to help them do it.
“It all works somehow,” Kaczmarek says, smiling. “Isn’t that amazing?”