I recently returned from a meeting of the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau Customer Advisory Board. Three key leaders spoke to the board – two representing billionaires Dan Gilbert and Mike Illich, who are investing millions in Detroit’s reinvention, and a rep from the mayor’s office. He reported the metrics of lights being turned back on, emergency services response times being brought more in line with the national average and, most exciting to me, the mayor’s commitment to neighborhood stabilization.
It is easy to get caught up in these kinds of presentations. The power of big money to reinvent a city like Detroit is astonishing. As we heard, Detroit is rising from the ashes of disaster as it has many times throughout its history. Detroit will re-emerge from bankruptcy by the end of the year, stronger, more efficient and better equipped to handle the same challenges all major cities are facing.
In fact, before our board met, Crain’s Detroit Business hosted an invitation-only event called the “Detroit Homecoming” primarily for “expats” — people who were born in metro Detroit, grew up there, went to school there or worked there — and still think of Detroit as “home.” The hope for the Homecoming was to re-engage and reconnect “expats” to Detroit through a 48-hour immersion during which they would experience the vibrancy and momentum in Detroit. There are lots of good things taking place to reinvent Detroit to become a world-class, 21st century metropolis. In fact, Warren Buffett said that if Detroit were a business, he’d buy it.
There wasn’t much talk of reinvention when we chose to take the Youth Gathering to Detroit. We primarily saw a city that had been crushed by, some say, a history of government excess, the decline of the “big three” automakers, and the general economic downfall of 2008. I read one article that listed 15 theories for the demise of Detroit. The power brokers who spoke to us last week said it was a “perfect storm of circumstances” that led to Detroit’s bankruptcy. Like us, these leaders want to help Detroit rise up and, serendipitously, they are doing it together. The former secretary of labor, Robert Reich, recently applauded Detroit for what he described as the unprecedented amount of private investment in public infrastructure that is taking place.
ELCA youth will be part of Detroit’s reinvention through service, similar to what they did in New Orleans. Youth will be spread out across the Detroit metro area with trained young adults who will help them understand their service experiences as ministry among, rather than to, our neighbors in Detroit. Those same young adults will help youth see the downside of gentrification. For example, a small grocery store called Tomboy Market that served lower-income Cass Corridor residents for years closed last Thursday. The closest grocery store now is Whole Foods, and the current population can’t afford Whole Foods.
The Cass Corridor and Midtown is the area undergoing the most rapid transformation in Detroit. It is the 45-block area that is being redeveloped into a world-class entertainment district. It also has the highest concentration of the city’s homeless and mentally ill. Yes, presentations like I heard last week are energizing and popular in a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap-kind of way, but that mentality can only get us so far. As Christian and Lutherans, I believe we are called to break open the roof and bring to Jesus those who are paralyzed by the powerful. That is the story from the second chapter of Mark that will be the focus on the Proclaim Story day (Synod day) at the Gathering. Some say Detroit’s story is still being written. I pray every day that God uses ELCA youth to contribute to Detroit’s story.