Detroit is a confusing city.
Detroit is a city that stands as an American Pompeii. Fleeting edifices, monuments to a fading dream remain, silent reminders of a recent past that seems so distant and disconnected to the present reality. It is as if someone has been dropping random incendiary bombs on the city for the past decade. The city can’t afford to hide its modern ruins, so they stand. Some have been boarded up, optimistically spray-painted with a price ($12k, cash only). Others, merely abandoned. Many stand even after being torched, testaments to a few moments of intense heat and light. This is not just in one area. It is block upon block. Mile upon mile. Neighborhood upon neighborhood. It is the rule, not the exception.
And it is not just the buildings that show, so clearly, the marks of their wear; many people too are living relics of what has been and what might be. Some bear this weight remarkably gracefully, while others demonstrate it with all too familiar symptoms and signs.
When you ask people who have been serving or living in communities like these what they will think will happen next, many (though certainly not all!) will say that they see Detroit only getting worse; that the efforts that the all people are making are simply not enough to stop the inertia of decades of decay. Instead, they find meaning and purpose in simply being with each other and trying to stem and slow this end. Certainly, there is a sense of respect in this view, but it is also a sense of fatalism, of a lost hope. Such a view rarely precipitates fundamental change.
Ignatian Spirituality reminds us that we should seek God in all things. So where is God in a city of desperation? Where is God’s love in people who have been cast aside?
The answer is that it is more sensible here than just about anywhere I’ve been. Perhaps it is because it is here that it is easiest to see; Gary Smith, SJ, reminds us that God’s love often stands at right angles with the world — it is incomprehensible and counter to our prevailing worldviews and cultures. It is when we allow our norms and expectations of God and of the World to fall, and instead embrace those around us (and ourselves) as they (we) are, that we find our deepest moments of joy and of love. This is not a romanticization of the poor or of poverty; it is an acknowledgment that, in experiencing liberation from that which helps conceal our true, loving selves (or helping others feel that liberation), we also experience the role of being a co-creator. And it is precisely in that role — as people working to further shape the creation around us towards a better and more human world — that Jesus worked. Thus, it is natural that the people who follow him are called to do likewise.
A story: On one day, we were sharing meals and conversations at a soup kitchen in Brightmoor, a four square mile stretch which, even in the context of Detroit, stands as particularly blighted. Sometime during the afternoon, a man walked in with a child’s guitar around his neck. He, like so many people that day, wore a suit woven by days spent rummaging; ragged jeans, a thin flannel shirt, wiry long hair. For a long time, he talked with a 13-year old volunteer who was sharing his music and song on an out-of-tune, archaic piano in a distant corner of the room. Eventually, the guitarist walked over to the line where I was serving food; he proudly presented his guitar in a moment of aloof conversation, saying he had found it in a dumpster down the road. Carefully, he taught us about the tuning pegs, explained why the body was smaller, told us the notes each string played when strummed. After a few moments, he walked away, and leaned against a nearby wall. Eventually, he began to play a song and sing. It was as Gary Smith, SJ, described his ragged flutist: One was enraptured by the mysterious melody and force which drives the unexpected musician along. And in that melody and sound came the refrain:
Where are you God? Oh, here you are.
Where are you Church? Oh, here you are.
I know that when he was playing his song, whether a hymn he had heard or a song he had written, he was probably not thinking of an interpretation beyond a simple enjoyment of the sound and the song. Nevertheless, that song helped me to realize a fundamental truth that I have long professed but seldom have the joy of having experienced so clearly in the moment: that God and the Church stand in the everyday, in the everywhere, especially in those places we sometimes fail to look or least expect to find a touch of the Divine.
And how amazing an observation. Here, in an nondescript concrete building, along a forgotten and pot-holed street in a city most would rather not acknowledge exists, a building filled with people that fit the same description, here we say “Here you are God”. Not in the stars or the hurricane or an icon made of gold. Here. Sitting across the table, sharing a meal. A little high on meth or struggling with a manic session or sheepishly grinning from ear to ear. Here.
On the last day, a group of us were out looking for people our age who were experiencing homelessness, in hopes that they would return with us to a shelter; as we were stopped, talking to a young girl, two older men were walking down the road. They were singing. They were doing more than singing; with their whole bodies they were proclaiming, to each other, “everything’s gonna be alright”.
Where are you God? Oh, here you are. These singers, and all those who are so emboldened to share themselves with the world, to share their voice and presence and whole self regardless of who is watching or that the rest of the world says they are crazy to do so — they remind me of that common song which resides inside of me and inside of every person. As long as we have the ability to love, we have the ability to hope, because it is love that produces hope. As long as we are alive, we can proclaim our life to the world and to each other and proclaim our song out loud, even over the din of the city or even when we are experiencing the most desperate conditions. As long as we continue to continue to seek to know and embrace who we are, we have hope. And when we experience this hope, we know that we can unravel our human mystery to find our shared divinity. And in that moment of divine truth and love, we know that, with our shared work, everything’s gonna be alright.
– Tim 3/16/2011
photos taken by Kathleen Ambre