Nestled in the lattice of side streets near the corner of Gratiot Avenue and Joseph Campau Street lies the vague impression of a pre-World War II Detroit. Dry yellow grass edges the pavement and covers the lots. The blocks are dotted with the uninhabited homes of factory workers and other empty buildings — a dilapidated storefront, an abandoned confectionery, even a deserted church. Every house and building seems to sag inward.

Pockets of these urban prairies have sprung up all over Detroit’s vast city boundaries. Over the past several decades, Detroit’s population has dwindled, losing at least 150,000 people during every decade from 1950 to 1990. Like many other post-Industrial cities, urban issues have sped up the process of Detroit’s population loss — property desertion, high unemployment rates, a declining infrastructure, and most recently the foreclosure crisis.

According to recent Census figures, at an estimated 713,777 people, Detroit’s population has declined 25 percent over the last decade — the lowest it’s been since 1910. Though the white population is actually growing, the largest drop came from middle-class African Americans. On the whole, their growth rate is down from 16 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent in the 2000s. Many in this demographic are also choosing to leave the city for the suburbs, where they have greater access to supermarkets and other retail.

With Detroit’s 237,493-resident decline, Michigan will struggle to hold onto state funds (every person brings in approximately $10,000 over the course of a decade for schools, roads, and hospitals). So, Detroit’s struggles have social and economic implications beyond its own city limits.

Struggling City, Hurting Schools

Like many other metropolitan districts, Detroit’s schools are struggling. It’s no secret to anybody that Detroit public school district is trying to keep its proverbial head above the water. DPS has accrued $327 million in debt over the past four years and lost more than 83,300 students in the last decade.

The Detroit school district’s problems didn’t materialize suddenly. For decades, the neighborhoods of Detroit have been wrought with crime, broken families, and a culture of poverty. And, inevitably, it’s reflected in the deterioration of the city’s public-education system.

As an act of desperation two years ago, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb to act as the district’s emergency financial manager. Since his hiring, Bobb, a former D.C. School Board president and deputy mayor, has been simultaneously lauded and criticized for his efforts to reverse the massive deficit. In the last two years, Bobb has investigated issues of theft within the district’s administration, shut down ill-functioning buildings, refused to fill district and teacher jobs and reworked vendor agreements to cut costs. But it still wasn’t enough.

Back in January, Bobb first released a proposal to the Michigan Department of Education that would close almost half of the city’s failing schools over the next two years, bringing the number in the district down from 142 to 72, though perhaps unsurprisingly, DPS has already closed 130 schools since 2005. With those major cuts, the number of students in the classroom would rise to as many as 62 per classroom. Bobb’s proposal would also consolidate departments, lay off staff, cut vocational and alternative schools, and force parents to pay sports fees. These cuts could save the district up to $12.4 million.

The story made national headlines. Teachers, school officials, and parents balked at the proposed overhaul. Even Bobb claimed to be unhappy with this resolution, calling it a “worst-case scenario.”

And the saga drags on, with new twists but the same uncertain future. Still, hope for a brighter day is emerging despite the bleakness of present conditions.

Dreaming Big Again

Detroit’s schools currently are a symbol of civic decline, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Until recently, the district’s graduation rates had been dipping lower every year, making them some of the worst in the country in relation to other large districts. For the 2009-10 school year, however, DPS reached a 62 percent graduation rate — the highest since standards were changed to comply with No Child Left Behind legislation, which counts only “on time” graduates.

One of Detroit’s nicknames is “The Renaissance City.” Sometimes creativity is born out of growing desperation: dwindling public resources and economic downturns, the remnants of strong racial tensions, and rising violence. Detroiters understand this more than most. They’ve been forced to practice perseverance and ingenuity, to think of solutions that may never have been birthed in a context of comfort and abundance.

Though the Census suggests otherwise, people are moving back into the city — and many of them are doing so with a missional mindset. Detroiters have begun to dream again, and the church is playing a key role in the movement. A few examples:

Mack Avenue Community Church, a church on the Eastside of Detroit, is committed to helping transform its neighborhood from the inside out. Many of the congregants have actually moved into the neighborhood, attempting to erase the “us vs. them” mentality that can sometimes plague urban ministry. Currently, 70 percent of the congregants are involved in committed discipleship relationships — both in a church small group and one-to-one partnerships. As a church body, the members serve the neighborhood through different outreach initiatives and housing development projects. By seeking to build Christ-centered relationships, they’re able to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the community. One example of its outreach is MAC LIT, a community-based literacy program that provides individual tutoring and literacy education to the community. Any child from grades K-6 and residing in the 48214 zip code is qualified to enter the tutoring program.

Citadel of Faith Covenant Church is a multicultural congregation right in the heart of Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. The word “Citadel” means fortress, a place resting high above the city looking after its safety and defense; similarly, Citadel of Faith strives to be a church where hurting people of all races and socio-economic levels can come and find God. A church that fights for its people and those who are distressed, confused, angry, or marginalized. The programming is broad-sweeping, yet focused on the many issues that cities face today. As a community presence, Citadel works to feed the poor, shut down drug houses, care for the youth, confront injustice, and make the gospel heard.

Restore Detroit, a church located in the Boston Edison district of Detroit, has begun moving into the neighborhood, for the neighborhood. Literally. Last year, two families moved from the Portland, Oregon, area to plant this church — and are encouraging others to join them. Not wanting to separate themselves unnecessarily from their neighbors, both families have decided to send their children to Detroit Public Schools (though some are still home schooled). Church members look to organically gather information on the needs of the community — talking to their neighbors, attending meetings for the Historic Boston Edison Association, visiting local business owners; they’re committed to serve in any way that they’re able to, from spring-cleaning initiatives to developing relationships with the homeless. Though still in their infancy as a church, their passion for Detroit and the physical and spiritual rejuvenation of the neighborhood is contagious.

Here’s Life Inner City Christian Ministry (HLIC) partners with 70 ministries all across the city of Detroit in order to serve and mobilize the church to live out God’s heart for the poor. HLIC was founded by Campus Crusade for Christ in 1983 as a way to equip churches to tangibly minister to the entire person — body, mind, and spirit. The group acts as a facilitator and resource for area churches, depending on partner churches to identify the needs of their communities.

With its current spirit of revitalization, Detroit offers the license to try something new. People are forgoing unemployment in favor of entrepreneurship, spinning dreams that have long since been dormant. Urban gardens are springing up, replacing vacant land with the promise of harvest. Tourists from other states and countries are visiting Detroit again and bringing back stories of Midwestern charm and resilience.

Detroiters are in the process of forging a new impression of the city. And with many people of faith on the forefront of outreach and innovation, the city may be on the verge of a new day.

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