A few days ago Dean Alton Pollard, principal investigator for the Lilly Endowment funded project, Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life, and I headed to Detroit, Michigan for a site visit with our local researcher, Henry Wells III, who is a pastor, the principal of a private Christian school, and a sociology of religion doctoral candidate. Our goal was to get a contextual sense of some of the challenges as well as the life enhancing practices in the Detroit area. Due to inclement weather and flight schedule interruptions, our departure from the Baltimore airport was delayed by 4 hours.
Tired and hungry, we arrived at the Detroit Airport around 10:30 PM. We rented a car, typed in the address of the St. Regis Hotel and started on our way, trusting the GPS to get us there. At this point the site visit started. Instead of keeping us on the main highway to the hotel, the GPS, in all of its wisdom, directed us off the beaten path. We drove through dark streets, pass deserted houses and vacant lots. Even in the darkness I could sense despair, devastation, and hopelessness. “My God,” I thought, “I have never seen anything like this, but maybe it is just dark and is really not as bad as it seems.” When we arrived at the hotel, it, too, appeared to have seen better days. It felt empty and nearly deserted. I showered and crawled into bed, hoping to forget that I was really hungry. My mind was not at ease when I drifted off to sleep. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were promising practices to be found in Detroit. The next morning our site researcher and host met us for breakfast. We shared our experiences with him and his only response was to smile and say, “You will see more today.” And we did, indeed. We saw more boarded up houses and schools, vacant lots, people standing in long lines waiting for food, abandoned tennis courts, overgrown parks and athletic fields. In the midst of it all, though, sprinkled here and there, were manicured lawns, clean streets, and urban gardens. We saw murals and inspirational quotes painted on boarded up houses, and we learned that pastors and community leaders had planned neighborhood cleanups for the weekend.
When the research is over and we have analyzed the data, what promising practices will we have found among African American churches in Detroit? What will we have learned about dealing with hopelessness and despair? It is too soon to tell. But I saw “art” and I know that art not only speaks to, but nurtures the human spirit, even in the midst of despair. When we shadowed an urban pastor for a day, we saw “compassionate caring” fueling transformative leadership. I left Detroit wondering if perhaps “artistic expression” and “compassionate caring” are, in fact, among the most promising practices one could find anywhere. ….
Velma E. Love, Project Director