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Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong

Pretty much everyone is being forced to come to grips with the reality of the 21st century urban world. I’ve noted before that religious movements are no exception. As part of this trend, Christianity Today magazine has been doing a project called “This Is Our City” focused on urban issues. They’ve been profiling several cities during the course of the project, and this month’s city is Detroit.

I’m delighted to have an article about Detroit included as part of this. It’s called “Why All Your Impressions of Detroit Are Wrong.” In it I note how Detroit as a city is often little more than a movie screen onto which others project their ideas. Thus many of the reports you see about Detroit bear little resemblance to reality. Here’s an excerpt:

We are all prone to snap judgments and stereotyping at some level. That’s not always a bad thing. If we examined in depth everything we came across, we’d never accomplish anything at all. For example, to label Detroit as “Rust Belt”—a label for cities with older industrial buildings, many of them closed, and a troubled legacy resulting from that deindustrialization—does capture a portion of the truth.

But there’s a bigger danger when storytellers—journalists, artists, filmmakers, and pundits—go beyond just shorthand labels and instead use a city merely as a canvas on which to paint their own ideas. Alas, this has all too often been Detroit’s fate. In some ways the city has become America’s movie screen, onto which outsiders project their own pre-conceived identities and fears. The real city, beyond a few iconic images and so-called “ruin porn” shots, need feature little if at all in these. And it is amazing how many of these are nearly devoid of actual people.
….
Many of these are clear variations on the “canary in a coal mine” theme: If we as a broader society don’t change our ways, we will end up like Detroit. This is in marked contrast to say a “Rust Belt” label or the various movie stereotypes of New York, which are at least rooted in some local reality. What makes Detroit’s projected identities different is that they largely are rooted in a reality external to Detroit itself. Whatever your pet idea or phobia, Detroit seems to be the perfect lens through which to explore it, and the screen upon which you can project it.

You might also be interested in perusing the other Detroit articles on the site, especially “Faith in a Fallen Empire,” and also “Why Church Partnerships Really Matter,” which discusses the Everyone A Chance to Hear (EACH) initiative that brought together a large number of regional churches in one of the few movements that is really working to bridge the city-suburb and racial divides that plague the city.

Here also is an interesting video about Riet Schumack and the youth gardening program she’s part of there. It’s an interesting window into an aspect of the urban agriculture movement that might be bigger in Detroit than anywhere else. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Related:

Religion and the City
Desolation Angel
Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?
Faith and City Planning

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Replay: Religion and the City

Note: This post originally appeared on November 7, 2010.

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7

Religion is another one of those topics seldom discussed in urbanist circles. Though Christianity was originally an urban religion, modern Christianity has always had a bit of a problem with cities, with their licentious ways, anonymity, and the little bit of Babylon and Sodom they all contain.

The religious in the US are often associated with the political right and conservative stances on social issues – just the type of people who don’t like cities or city dwellers much, and vice versa. In particular, the strident opposition of many to abortion and homosexuality puts religion on the wrong side of what are also litmus test issues for many urbanists.

Yet urbanists should take religion much more seriously than they often do. That’s because it plays a much bigger role in the city and civic health than currently believed, and because many urban congregations have mastered the art of outreach and conversion in a way that transit and density advocates can only dream out.

The Importance of Religion

Churches have always been important institutions in cities. Even today, the only reason many families with children are confident enough to stay in the city is because they can enroll their kids in Catholic or other religious schools. I can only imagine what a place like Chicago would look like if its religious school network wasn’t there. Religious institutions are also heavily involved in poor relief and other social service activities that help reduce the tax burden. And regardless of what you personally think about any particular religion, if someone is able to use faith to help them get over serious personal dysfunction like criminal behavior or alcoholism, more power to them.

For ethnic and minority communities, churches have long been key community institutions and support organizations. In a video I’ll get to shortly, Tim Keller notes as one example how the Jewish community of New York City has built extensive institutions there that made it much easier for Jewish families, not just young Jewish singles, to stay in the city. Churches have long been important in black communities that are often neglected and underserved by government, and many black pastors are seen not only as religious, but very important community or political leaders as well. I suspect religious institutions play a particularly key role in fostering community networks for what are niche minorities in many cities – Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

This is an urban world that doesn’t feature much in the landscape of the traditional affluent white bobo demographic that dominates urbanist discussion. But even in that group, I see many examples of how religious minded urbanists types have helped boost and build a better future for their city.

For example, in Indianapolis, the Earth House Collective, a “group of peace activists, conservationists, artists, musicians, Methodists, teachers and many more dedicated to peace, wellness, community and culture” is based in the heart of downtown Indianapolis at Lockerbie United Methodist Church. Similarly, the Harrison Center for the Arts, one of the city’s most important arts venues, is housed at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Both of these are taken seriously by even the most hardened atheists in the city.

The Harrison Center’s executive director, Joanna Taft, was one of the people who helped found the church as well (and the charter Herron High School and lots of other things). She explained how her Christian motivation propels her work in city revitalization:

I have been Presbyterian my whole life and my worldview has been influenced by the protestant reformed concept of the cultural mandate. This is the idea that humankind has been called to continue God’s work of creation–building cities, restoring broken neighborhoods, creating beauty, raising children, planting gardens, etc…..While some of our Christian friends would feel guilty doing this work because it was not “full-time Christian service”, understanding the cultural mandate gave us the freedom to pursue what some would see as secular work.

There’s a lot more to religion in the city than just abortion protests. It’s time urbanists took religion and religious institutions a lot more seriously, even if they don’t agree with the religious in many cases.

Learning from Evangelism

Not all religions seek out converts, but Christianity and Islam, two of the big kahunas, do. Since in most countries you can’t force someone to belong to a religion or have a particular set of beliefs, this requires the ability to persuade, and really speak to the people you are trying to convert.

If you really are trying to save souls, then it isn’t enough just to be right, you have to also be effective. That’s the part of the message that’s too often lost on urbanists of various stripes. They are pushing transit, density, sustainability, etc. largely based on a belief that these are self-evidently correct policies. I find that often their ability to sell them to people who are skeptical or come from a different worldview is poor. When people don’t sign on to the latest carbon reduction scheme, rather than blaming a bad sales job, the blame is almost always put on the people rejecting it, such as by calling them idiots, intellectually dishonest, shills for corporations, or “deniers.” I’m sure there are some of these types out there, but I believe the vast bulk of people don’t fall into these categories.

Not all, but a good chunk of religious evangelists actually care about what works. Their mandate doesn’t allow them to simply write off unbelievers as a hopeless sinners. As a result, you often see a lot more analysis of what they think they need to do to be successful in their mission.

As an example, I highly recommend watching the following 18 minute video of a speech by Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). If you aren’t familiar with the Redeemer story, this New York Times article from 2006 is good background. Keller’s speech is called “God’s Global Urban Mission,” and this segment discusses Contextualization. He gives 10 ways that urban churches are different from suburban or rural churches, and what they need to do differently to be successful in urban environments. Almost all of these are very relevant to urbanism.

He talks about items ranging from multicultural sensitivities to taking the arts serious to “being famous for helping the poor.” The latter was an item that jumped out at me because, as I’ve noted before, too many urbanist arguments are basically arguments for what I call “Starbucks urbanism.” If called on this, people will say, “But of course transit will benefit the poor too.” But that’s not how it’s sold. Urbanists ought to be famous for the way they design, implement, and talk about their policies as instruments for helping the poor and facilitating upward economic and social mobility. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the video that’s relevant to urbanism.

For those who prefer reading, Keller also wrote a paper called “Our New Global Culture: Ministry in Cities, which says of itself: “This paper surveys the rise of global cities, the culture and dominant worldviews within these cities, and a framework for ministering in them.”

You may think Keller’s analysis and framework is bunk, but at least he’s trying to look at the city as it is, and figure out what he’s got to do to adapt his ministry to it, not trying to make the city adapt itself to his ministry.

By the way, Keller is excited about immigration from places like Africa or China where Christianity is a lot more alive and expanding than it is in the US and especially Europe. I was clicking around Wikipedia and found this picture of a Chinese evangelical Christian church in Madrid is that is a perfect example of this trend and how it is changing the face of cities.

If you prefer a more purely secular example, Saul Alinsky also believed in understanding the worldview of people he was trying to organize. Even people he thoroughly disagreed with, he refused to hold in contempt, instead trying to see things from their perspective on their own terms. In “Rules for Radicals” (1971), he had this to say:

To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
….
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.

Wise words indeed.

Thanks to Pastor Kevin Bruursema at New Life Community Church in Lakeview, Chicago for the Tim Keller video reference.

Friday, January 6th, 2012

Faith and City Planning

Polis, a secular urbanist blog, recently put out a fascinating podcast on faith and city planning. It’s a discussion between two MIT urban planning professors, Annette Kim and Phil Thompson. It’s really great listen. As Polis notes:

The connections between faith and city planning are undeniable. Faith-based groups rebuild areas after disasters, they develop affordable housing plans, and they help the poor. Additionally, the social movements that have most profoundly changed society, like the Civil Rights Movement, were guided by faith.

Yet planning education generally does not deal with faith. “It’s this whole realm, and we come up against it all the time, but we keep ignoring it,” said Annette Kim, a professor at MIT. This podcast is a conversation between Kim and her colleague, Professor Phil Thompson, on the relationship between faith and planning. Should the study of faith traditions and values be part of a planning education?

If the podcast doesn’t display for you, please click here.

The original Polis blog post for this was tiny, and I basically quoted the whole thing, so let me make it up to them by encouraging you to check out the blog. What I like about this blog is how it covers a very different territory than I do, and notably has a very global flavor. This makes it very enlightening for me personally. Give them a look.

Related:
Religion and the City
Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?
Desolation Angel

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Will Sagrada Família Be Mankind’s Last Ever Great Artistic Statement for God?


Sagrada Família via Domus.

“Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful cities could ever have developed anywhere in the world.” – Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History

“Behind the wall of the city life rested on a common foundation, set as deep as the universe itself: the city was nothing less than the home of a powerful god. The architectural and sculptural symbols that made this fact visible lifted the city far above the village or country town….To be a resident of the city was to have a place in man’s true home, the great cosmos itself, and this very choice itself was a witness of the general enlargement of powers and potentialities that took place in every direction.” – Lewis Mumford, The City in History

“So Solomon overlaid the house within with pure gold: and he made a partition by the chains of gold before the oracle; and he overlaid it with gold. And the whole house he overlaid with gold until he had finished the house: also the whole altar that was by the oracle he overlaid with gold….” – I Kings 6:21-22

“There came unto Jesus a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.” – Matthew 26:7-11

“Creation is a marvel and man its masterpiece…
Training his agile thoughts volatile as air,
He’s civilized the world with words and wit and law…
Distinguished in his city when law abiding, pious,
But when he promulgates unsavory ambition, citiless and lost.
And then I will not share my hearth with him.
I want no parcel of his thoughts.
– Sophocles, Antigone

“And they said Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name. – Genesis 11:4

Without a doubt the highlight of my trip to Barcelona a couple years ago was touring the work in progress that is Sagrada Família, the final masterwork of architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí started work on this church in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926, at which point only about 15-25% of the project was complete. Gaudí was actually living in the church while it was being built at the time, and was killed in a most unfortunate way by being run over by a tram.

Sagrada Família has been entirely funded by donations (today mostly in the form of admission charges to tourists, I believe). It was originally projected to potentially take some hundreds of years to complete. However, with modern design and fabrication techniques, the current projected completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. Though still unfinished, the church was consecrated on November 7, 2010.


Sagrada Família via Domus.

Back in March Domus magazine published a fantastic essay on Sagrada Família called “In-Finite Architectures” by Oscar Tusquets Blanca. Blanca was very forthright in admitting his own change of heart towards the building over time.

At the start of 2002, to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect Antoni Gaudí, Domus asked me to write an article on the controversial issue of the continuation of construction work on the Sagrada Família Church. Published in May of that year, my article explained that, in the early 1960s, while I was still at university, I had been one of the instigators of a manifesto against the continuation of the church, which received the unconditional support of all the intelligentsia of the day—from Bruno Zevi to Giulio Carlo Argan, Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier…..How could we have been so wrong? This wonder would not exist if people had listened to us 50 years ago. It would have remained a ruin or it would have been finished by an in-vogue architect of the time….I do not know whether it is the finest work of the last century but it will certainly be the greatest religious building of the last three.


Sagrada Família photo by The Urbanophile.

While one can never attribute ultimately pure motives to anything or anyone, clearly the Christian religion was a major inspiration for Gaudí. It’s difficult to imagine such a project even being conceived, much less executed, absent the reality of faith.

Which immediately raises another question. We sense in our gut as we tour this place that it is a product of another era, one closer perhaps to that age which produced the medieval cathedrals than our own, no matter what the calendar might say. Will there ever be another buildings like this created again? Perhaps there will be, but the mere fact that such a question can be asked in all seriousness shows the change in our world.


Angkor Wat (12th century). Originally a Hindu but now Buddhist temple currently located in Cambodia that is the world’s largest religious building.


Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers of 1610)

In ages past it almost went without saying that the greatest artistic works of humanity were in large part inspired by the religious impulse. Certainly not all artworks were so-inspired, and certainly art of a religious nature might also be inspired in part by temporal matters such as advancing the career of the artist or symbolizing the earthly power of the king or church. Nevertheless, the power of faith was often very real in the life of the artist – Monteverdi became a priest and Bach was a devout Lutheran – and the spiritual often informed the scope, theme, content, form, etc of the work not just for the artist, but for the audience.


The Parthenon (5th century BC). Image via Wikipedia


JS Bach, Mass in B Minor (1749)

Today it is quite a different story. Even among those who profess passionate religious faith, that faith no longer seems capable of inspiring the greatest creative endeavors of the human spirit. Indeed, listen to prominent Evangelical Christian leaders and they practically brag about how little money they spend on facilities. I’ve yet to see a mega-church structure that in any way impresses architecturally. Syrupy contemporary Christian music often can’t even match the simple profundity of the hymns, much less approach the great masses and other religious works of serious creators past. Evangelical Christianity is not exactly noted for its production of high art.

The rationale is frequently that of accessibility and investing in mission versus grandiose edifices. Yet in the process we have a movement that has become unmoored from the transcendent and the overwhelming glory of God. This is perhaps faith that can inspire good works, but not great ones.

The more passionate strains of Islam fare no better. Though the discouragement of representational art in Islam closed off some fields of creative endeavor, Islam produced some of the most striking works of architecture in human history, as well as many fantastic non-representational works. Yet today I’m unaware of any powerful artistic movements in fervent Islam to match its religious passion.


Süleymaniye Mosque (1558), Istanbul

Interestingly, non-religious art has fared not much better. I’m generally a contemporary art skeptic. Even at its best, this work tends to be idiosyncratic and highly context specific (anchoring it to a particular time and place rather than to the universal). Too often in degenerates into cheap political statements and pretentiousness. How many contemporary art works do many of us really believe represent the highest and greatest achievements of which humanity is capable? How many do we really think will be marveled at hundreds or thousands of years from now, except perhaps as examples of our age? As for too much contemporary serious music, don’t get me started.

Lest I sound too much like a curmudgeon, architecture has fared perhaps a bit better. I suspect many of our buildings will stand the test of time. But even here we see self-indulgence and an excessive fascination with novelty. Yet above all what these buildings lack is any sense of transcendent purpose.


New York City

It’s not surprising to me to see what we so-often get today when motivated by purely humanistic concerns, namely the tall building. The author of Genesis seemed to get that in his gut when relating the story of the Tower of Babel. Yet despite their impressiveness, these buildings generally lack any larger spiritual purpose.

We seem to have forgotten the creation of sacred space as an essential function of the city. Our cities themselves no longer satisfy the longing of the human spirit for transcendence, to be part of a cosmic order greater than ourselves, to inspire extravagant gestures that seem to defy the strictures of our existence. Today, we seem satisfied with simple commercial success and the basics of production and consumption.

Nietzsche mourned when he said that God was dead, not because he believed in God, but because he understood what the passing of God meant to our modern world. With the death of God, something in the human spirit perished along with Him, even for those who still actually believe.

As for the question of whether we will ever produce another great artistic statement for God, perhaps we won’t even finish the last one. As Blanca noted:

The second and certainly more serious problem is that of finding contemporary artists capable of executing the Master’s figurative designs. Gaudí wanted the facades to explain the Holy Story in pictures, the way medieval cathedrals had done. That was already a difficult demand by the start of the twentieth Century but the genius of Gaudí solved the problem on the—almost kitsch—Nativity facade with walls that fold into figures, many created from casts of real people and animals (George Segal 50 years earlier). The pitiful result of the Passion facade, commissioned to the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, shows the huge difficulty of pursuing the same course of action. The main Glory facade has yet to be built. Finding a contemporary artist anywhere in the world capable of taking on this task is the biggest challenge now faced. Figurative art is having a difficult time, that with a religious content even more so and an art that can express the Glory of the Resurrection is now extinct. Contemporary art has given us many crucifixions but no remarkable resurrection.


Sagrada Família

Related: Religion and the City

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Desolation Angel by Detroitblogger John

[ 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?”

This article originally appeared in the Metro Times and Detroit Blog.

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Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Detroit
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Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Religion and the City

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7

Religion is another one of those topics seldom discussed in urbanist circles. Though Christianity was originally an urban religion, modern Christianity has always had a bit of a problem with cities, with their licentious ways, anonymity, and the little bit of Babylon and Sodom they all contain.

The religious in the US are often associated with the political right and conservative stances on social issues – just the type of people who don’t like cities or city dwellers much, and vice versa. In particular, the strident opposition of many to abortion and homosexuality puts religion on the wrong side of what are also litmus test issues for many urbanists.

Yet urbanists should take religion much more seriously than they often do. That’s because it plays a much bigger role in the city and civic health than currently believed, and because many urban congregations have mastered the art of outreach and conversion in a way that transit and density advocates can only dream out.

The Importance of Religion

Churches have always been important institutions in cities. Even today, the only reason many families with children are confident enough to stay in the city is because they can enroll their kids in Catholic or other religious schools. I can only imagine what a place like Chicago would look like if its religious school network wasn’t there. Religious institutions are also heavily involved in poor relief and other social service activities that help reduce the tax burden. And regardless of what you personally think about any particular religion, if someone is able to use faith to help them get over serious personal dysfunction like criminal behavior or alcoholism, more power to them.

For ethnic and minority communities, churches have long been key community institutions and support organizations. In a video I’ll get to shortly, Tim Keller notes as one example how the Jewish community of New York City has built extensive institutions there that made it much easier for Jewish families, not just young Jewish singles, to stay in the city. Churches have long been important in black communities that are often neglected and underserved by government, and many black pastors are seen not only as religious, but very important community or political leaders as well. I suspect religious institutions play a particularly key role in fostering community networks for what are niche minorities in many cities – Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

This is an urban world that doesn’t feature much in the landscape of the traditional affluent white bobo demographic that dominates urbanist discussion. But even in that group, I see many examples of how religious minded urbanists types have helped boost and build a better future for their city.

For example, in Indianapolis, the Earth House Collective, a “group of peace activists, conservationists, artists, musicians, Methodists, teachers and many more dedicated to peace, wellness, community and culture” is based in the heart of downtown Indianapolis at Lockerbie United Methodist Church. Similarly, the Harrison Center for the Arts, one of the city’s most important arts venues, is housed at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Both of these are taken seriously by even the most hardened atheists in the city.

The Harrison Center’s executive director, Joanna Taft, was one of the people who helped found the church as well (and the charter Herron High School and lots of other things). She explained how her Christian motivation propels her work in city revitalization:

I have been Presbyterian my whole life and my worldview has been influenced by the protestant reformed concept of the cultural mandate. This is the idea that humankind has been called to continue God’s work of creation–building cities, restoring broken neighborhoods, creating beauty, raising children, planting gardens, etc…..While some of our Christian friends would feel guilty doing this work because it was not “full-time Christian service”, understanding the cultural mandate gave us the freedom to pursue what some would see as secular work.

There’s a lot more to religion in the city than just abortion protests. It’s time urbanists took religion and religious institutions a lot more seriously, even if they don’t agree with the religious in many cases.

Learning from Evangelism

Not all religions seek out converts, but Christianity and Islam, two of the big kahunas, do. Since in most countries you can’t force someone to belong to a religion or have a particular set of beliefs, this requires the ability to persuade, and really speak to the people you are trying to convert.

If you really are trying to save souls, then it isn’t enough just to be right, you have to also be effective. That’s the part of the message that’s too often lost on urbanists of various stripes. They are pushing transit, density, sustainability, etc. largely based on a belief that these are self-evidently correct policies. I find that often their ability to sell them to people who are skeptical or come from a different worldview is poor. When people don’t sign on to the latest carbon reduction scheme, rather than blaming a bad sales job, the blame is almost always put on the people rejecting it, such as by calling them idiots, intellectually dishonest, shills for corporations, or “deniers.” I’m sure there are some of these types out there, but I believe the vast bulk of people don’t fall into these categories.

Not all, but a good chunk of religious evangelists actually care about what works. Their mandate doesn’t allow them to simply write off unbelievers as a hopeless sinners. As a result, you often see a lot more analysis of what they think they need to do to be successful in their mission.

As an example, I highly recommend watching the following 18 minute video of a speech by Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). If you aren’t familiar with the Redeemer story, this New York Times article from 2006 is good background. Keller’s speech is called “God’s Global Urban Mission,” and this segment discusses Contextualization. He gives 10 ways that urban churches are different from suburban or rural churches, and what they need to do differently to be successful in urban environments. Almost all of these are very relevant to urbanism.

He talks about items ranging from multicultural sensitivities to taking the arts serious to “being famous for helping the poor.” The latter was an item that jumped out at me because, as I’ve noted before, too many urbanist arguments are basically arguments for what I call “Starbucks urbanism.” If called on this, people will say, “But of course transit will benefit the poor too.” But that’s not how it’s sold. Urbanists ought to be famous for the way they design, implement, and talk about their policies as instruments for helping the poor and facilitating upward economic and social mobility. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the video that’s relevant to urbanism.

For those who prefer reading, Keller also wrote a paper called “Our New Global Culture: Ministry in Cities, which says of itself: “This paper surveys the rise of global cities, the culture and dominant worldviews within these cities, and a framework for ministering in them.”

You may think Keller’s analysis and framework is bunk, but at least he’s trying to look at the city as it is, and figure out what he’s got to do to adapt his ministry to it, not trying to make the city adapt itself to his ministry.

By the way, Keller is excited about immigration from places like Africa or China where Christianity is a lot more alive and expanding than it is in the US and especially Europe. I was clicking around Wikipedia and found this picture of a Chinese evangelical Christian church in Madrid is that is a perfect example of this trend and how it is changing the face of cities.

If you prefer a more purely secular example, Saul Alinsky also believed in understanding the worldview of people he was trying to organize. Even people he thoroughly disagreed with, he refused to hold in contempt, instead trying to see things from their perspective on their own terms. In “Rules for Radicals” (1971), he had this to say:

To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
….
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.

Wise words indeed.

Thanks to Pastor Kevin Bruursema at New Life Community Church in Lakeview, Chicago for the Tim Keller video reference.

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