Mission 2018 Day 03: Alleyways and Stairways

Today was our first full work day with Motown Mission and it was a full one! I have more details about Team #2 than Team #1 and will fill in the gaps later down the line as I’m able. In the meantime, please know your prayers and support truly do matter. Thank you to all of you for loving us from back home, it means a lot.

Rock the Block

There are dozens of projects in Detroit that are all working to remake the city. Whether through beautification or refurbishment, repair or gardening, if you can name a way the city can improve, there’s at least one organization working on it. There are more than just 501c3 entities or corporations hard at work, though. Sometimes, it’s just plain neighbors.

Electra is the president of her neighborhood block association, Gateway, part of an Historic District Alliance of neighbors trying to help all parts of the city come back. A worshiper at Metropolitan UMC, she and her team have partnered with Motown Mission to get volunteers into their neighborhood and change it one sweep of the rake at a time. We right to work with her and her volunteer team early this morning.

Time Out: Quick Caveat…

This is a good moment to offer a caveat to everything I’m writing all week, Dear Reader: I’m doing my best with the truth. I’m not doing a lot of scholarly work on the Detroit situation as I’m writing here. Rather, I rely on the eyewitness testimony of the people we’re working with to tell me the story from their point of view. I could very well write something here that down the road someone can come back to me and say it’s factually wrong and if so I’ll gladly offer a correction. But in the meantime, you’ll hear the stories as the storytellers tell me what’s on their hearts and minds.

Hey, we’re all doing our best, okay? Okay…

Back to the Action:

Team #2’s main job today was clearing debris out of an alleyway. We were told the city doesn’t clean out the alleys like they used to, and although there was a service that came through and did a great job on many of them earlier this spring, all the weeds and growth are back in full force and they need attention. Our job was to continue the work of other Motown Mission groups before us and wrap up the work on this alleyway between a row of homes and a church parking lot.

There was weeding, tilling, pruning vines, grading road, tying bundles of wood and debris, removing trash, and lots and lots of raking. Items had to be bagged or tied, then carried out to the berm at the edge of the block so the city will take them away. It’s the best agreement the community volunteer groups and the city can make, otherwise it simply becomes yet one more big pile of debris waiting to make a bigger mess.

Spirits were up today and while the morning was sunny we thank God for cloud cover in the afternoon. Some people found their favorite tools were little pinking shears to trim away all the vines that twisted and tangled around fences, posts, and throughout all the debris. It’s tough to rake everything loose if everything is held fast by vines! My favorite part was watching everyone pitch in together. That’s one of the main goals of a mission trip: putting together a disparate group of people, calling them a team, and doing good work hand in hand in the name of Jesus.

As for me, I cut down a tree. It was awesome.

Team #1 and Joy Huss

I’ll try to come back and offer a little more when I get better details on Team #1, but what I know for sure is they spent a lot of time doing home repair fixing and/or replacing steps and sorting and organizing tools and equipment for work teams. Much of their work was in the sun today and it added up to a long but productive day.

Partnering a Neighborhood

Ms. Electra brought along a few volunteers from the neighborhood to help and they were outstanding. Ms. Mary and Ms. Margaret worked hard the whole time, and I must confess their breaks were shorter and less frequent than ours! By the end of the work day, local and Minnesota volunteers had made a free and clear alleyway. I remember how many bags and bundles we hauled out to the berm and thinking it was a lot, only to see how many bags and bundles were already there from the group(s) before us. Truly, this is the kind of work that takes many hands.

Evening Gathering

Our evening was spent in conversation together at Evening Gathering with music, prayer, and discussion topics, followed by a meeting of just our crew. We gave each other glimpses into the work we’d done today and then retreated to the lounge for games and talk, as well as our bunks for pre-sleeping time naps (yes, it happened!). Tomorrow, Team #1 heads back to Joy Huss to wrap up some work and Team #2 will venture to Rippling Hope. It will be our “half day” of work and the afternoon is ours to explore the city before we take in a baseball game, the Detroit Tigers vs. the Cincinnati Reds! Thanks for your prayers, now let’s get some sleep!

Detroit Through the Eyes of a Detroiter

I interviewed Ms. Electra to get some of her thoughts on Detroit and here are some of the points she offered:

  • Detroit is not necessarily “the great comeback” city reported in the news because there are many parts of the city still suffering. I read about this in the Star Tribune about a week before we left, when an AP story ran about how downtown Detroit is having a new revitalization quickly and the rest of the city has a long way to go.
  • On the other hand, the last thing Detroiters want people to focus on is the blight of the abandoned and burnt-out homes and businesses throughout the city. It’s a tricky catch-22. Talk up the comeback, but be realistic. Acknowledge the blight, but don’t get bogged down in the negative. There’s a middle ground somewhere in-between and it appears to be truly difficult to put your finger on it.
  • “We need jobs and skill training,” said Ms. Electra. She raised concerns about auto industry companies moving away and whether there is any responsibility on their part to their former workers. Did they receive cross-training? Did they get new skills to replace their old skills when their old skills were replaced by automation and/or workers in other places in the world? There are some people who only knew how to make one part of a car. Without that work, without new skills, what are they supposed to do now? “If you don’t bring back education and new jobs, you don’t come back.”
  • Many vacant lots were beautiful homes, some of which had nothing wrong with them. But when companies or churches or other entities wanted to expand, they bought the homes and bulldozed them to expand as they liked. But if the whole neighborhood doesn’t sell, well, there’s only a patchwork of overgrown, empty lots dotting the landscape between a series of homes that range from well-kept to abandoned.
  • She raised the question of whether there’s any social outlets for people, especially older people, beyond the church. For many, the life of the church is their only social outlet. To me, this is ironic given how many churches around the nation are desperately trying to reclaim their identity as community centers for the neighborhood, including HAUMC and RUMC in our group.
  • Detroit is a food desert. There are no major chain grocery stores in the city, period. There are a few smaller ones, and many neighborhood markets (with the usual neighborhood mark-up), but if you want to go to Kroger or Meijer, you’ve got to go to the suburbs. If you don’t have a car, you’re at the mercy of the bus schedule and what you can carry. This is a serious problem for Detroit!
  • Many people feel “Stuck, locked down.” Over the last ten years, Ms. Electra says, “I couldn’t have given you my home.” There is challenge in all of this, “a bitter taste” to use her words, about whether everything that can be done is being done and whether it’s for the betterment of the community.

It’s been a lot to take in on this first day, Dear Reader, and I’m giving the last word for today to Ms. Electra: “I’m just tired of the blight, the crying, the struggle. But we’re not downtrodden. We survive. We’re fighters.

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