COMMUNITY SERVICE: Elevate Detroit staff members and volunteers serve area residents during one its CommuniD Barbecues last year at Detroit’s Robert Redmond Memorial Park.
Is Detroit coming or going?
The conventional wisdom is that the once-bustling Motor City is the epitome of a metropolis in decline, a remnant of a bygone industrial era. But for many of us who have decided to intentionally make Detroit our home, we choose to believe that the city has a future.
It’s in our nature, I guess. We love to root for the underdog, and Detroit is definitely that. As politicians, businesspeople, and sociologists ponder the city’s chances, it takes faith to see a bright future for a city that has lost so much of its luster. But over the last few years, the city’s been gaining notoriety as a business incubator (see Detroit’s Future: From Blight to Bright), a destination for good eats, and the slow (but steady) revival of America’s number one auto manufacturing center. It’s home to four professional sports teams, including the Lions who went from serving as the laughingstock of the National Football league to finishing with a 10-6 season and making their first playoff appearance since 1999. Most recently, Detroit was even rated as having one of America’s top ten best downtowns. Detroit’s full of previously unrecognized promise. It’s resilient, tenacious, and on the verge of exciting change.
VITAL SIGNS: An attractive waterfront, competitive sports teams, and fine restaurants give Detroiters reason for hope.
However, a lot is still broken. Detroit’s also been synonymous with present-day notions of urban crime, decay, and impoverishment. At the height of its powers in 1950, Detroit had 1.8 million residents and a thriving economy that helped drive the fortunes of the rest of the nation. Now, 60 years later, the population has dropped to just 700,000 and is in a desperate struggle to recapture its cultural and economical relevance.
Over the past few years, Detroit has become a case study in what ails American cities. In 2010, Time magazine set up a special outpost in the city for a year to chronicle the city’s challenges. And a new book, Detroit: A Biography, finds former Detroit News reporter Scott Martelle analyzing what led to the city’s current misfortunes. Though a sobering read, a strength of the book is that it doesn’t live in the past by romanticizing the bygone glories of the auto industry or the Motown era. Instead, Martelle drills deep into the troubling factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Endeavors like Time’s reporting project and Martelle’s book are important reminders of Detroit’s challenges and possibilities.
Detroit is a city begging for educational reform and financial restructuring. And though Michigan’s unemployment rate has steadily decreased over the past year, Metro Detroit’s rate remains higher than state and national averages at 9.2% as of April.
Still, we hope.
Let the Sonshine
With unemployment rounding out at over 50,000, Detroiters have begun exploring other employment options. Detroit residents have begun to reimagine how to create a more sustainable economy — one that isn’t dependent upon a single industry. Through the diversification of business endeavors, some see slow progress.
Historically, a bottom-up, micro-level approach to local economic development has proven to be the most effective. According to the World Bank in a recent report, “Local economic development is about local people working together to achieve sustainable economic growth that brings economic benefits and quality of life improvements for all in the community.”
THE ROAD AHEAD: Downtown Detroit as seen along Woodward Avenue. Strapped with the fallout of crime, poverty, and political corruption, city leaders are in a desperate search for answers. Meanwhile, a cadre of Christian visionaries hope to become part of the solution. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Newscom)
Some Detroit entrepreneurs have even begun to use their business ventures in order to combat joblessness in their individual communities. Take, for example, Café Sonshine, a local eatery in the New Center neighborhood which employs local residents and provides a community gathering space. Or examine Wayne State University’s Tech Town, an organization that trains and equips fledgling local entrepreneurs with the tools they need to foster a successful business.
Following are the stories of three entrepreneurs who are working to address poverty and stimulate the metropolitan Detroit area through local business. Though all significantly different from each other, these individuals share the same passion and enthusiasm to eradicate poverty, share the love of Christ through community, and see Detroit become healthy and whole.
GO-GETTER: Elevate Detroit’s Mike Schmitt
Mike Schmitt, director and community architect at Elevate Detroit, has a very intentional vision for his corner of Detroit. He’s firmly planted himself in the geographical area called Cass Corridor. The neighborhood — a small grid of streets located in the Midtown district — has been coined by some as “the Jungle.” It’s a high crime area rife with prostitution, drug dealing, and a strong gang presence that dates back to the early twentieth century. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was even partially plotted in Cass Corridor by Detroit’s Purple Gang, associates of Al Capone.
“It’s entirely likely that the same people who may have smiled at you earlier in the day have been up all night making drug runs, selling crack and heroin,” said Schmitt. “Though there are more churches per capita in Detroit than in any other city, there’s an unfed hunger here for community and love.”
Four years ago, Schmitt started Elevate Detroit and a related outreach event called CommuniD BBQs. To date, Elevate Detroit now organizes five BBQs in four different cities — Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Mount Clemens. Each week, people come from across the metro Detroit area to join in fellowship with people of different ethnicities and socio-economic positions. On these Saturdays, it’s a piece of God’s kingdom here on earth.
“I’ve tried to move away a couple of times now, but Detroit is my home. Once you see God moving in so many different ways, it’s impossible to leave,” he said.
SERVING THE WHOLE PERSON: Community residents wait in line for food and other resources during Elevate Detroit’s CommuniD Barbecue and mobile health clinic events.
Schmitt also is the primary visionary behind Dandelion’s Café, a new business and community outreach model in the heart of Cass Corridor. Though not officially off the ground yet, Schmitt and his team are in the process of raising capital and hope to get started soon. The hope is for Dandelion’s Café to serve the dual purpose of a coffee shop and concert venue in the building directly adjacent to the park at 2nd and Seldon in Detroit. Schmitt dreams of hosting open-mic nights, karaoke nights, local music nights, and even bring in national acts for concerts. Schmitt and his crew envision this venue becoming a center for community in the neighborhood and creating jobs for those who are in disadvantaged situations.
To complement this model, Schmitt hopes to purchase a nearby house or small apartment building for his previously homeless employees to live in with other residents — families, singles, and the elderly alike. He sees this partially as an antidote to the “No ID” problem. Without a permanent residence to reference on employment applications, it’s impossible for many transients to nail down a job. And without a source of income, the cycle of poverty repeats itself.
“I believe that by doing life together, we’ll create a support network for those who don’t have one,” said Schmitt. “The more that I came down to Detroit from my suburban home, the more I started to realize how much we all had in common and I wanted to do something to help cultivate a support network for those who didn’t have one.”
Harriet Tubman in Detroit
Similarly, Mark Wholihan of The Car Whisperers, LLC yearns for Detroit’s “second chance.” Wholihan began praying for a purpose from God immediately after he became a Christian. After praying for more than eight hours straight one day, he began to envision a new kind of auto repair service, an opportunity that would allow him to use his business to employ people in his community with a lack of resources.
VEHICLE FOR OUTREACH: In this ad for his auto shop, Mark Wholihan stands out in his red suit. He launched the business as a way to connect with people in his Detroit community while aiding the city’s restoration.
The Car Whisperers, LLC opened in February of last year in Livonia, Michigan. This mobile mechanic auto repair facility services western Wayne County. Because it’s largely connected to other cities through an infrastructure of highways, the city of Livonia is an ideal base of operations for any largely mobile organization. Additionally, with easy access to cities such as Farmington Hills, Detroit, Canton, and Allen Park, its socioeconomic range of customers is widely varied and diverse.
“When God put this business on my heart, I nicknamed it The Harriet Tubman Mission,” said Wholian. “Through using this business, I’m trusting God to help me bring people from slavery to freedom.”
Like Mike Schmitt, Wholihan envisions his auto repair service as a stepping stone to a larger organization designed to provide clients with total rehabilitation. In the case of The Car Whisperers, he has dreams of founding a residential long-term rehabilitation program in Detroit for people in need of holistic recovery. This projected program, called Second Chance at Life, will include a homeless shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, job placement services and an education center. As they continue to develop the micro-economy that will help to fund such an endeavor, Wholihan and The Car Whisperers are partnering with the YWCA community centers in order to expand how they meet the needs of their community.
“Reducing drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness, crime, poverty and the return to previous lifestyles will make the program successful,” declares a blurb on the ministry’s website. “[It is our hope] to help Detroit and the surrounding communities to become a better, safer place for everyone.”
Repairer of Broken Walls
Like the Wholihan and Schmitt, Lisa Johanon and her non-profit ministry, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), are targeting poverty and joblessness in Detroit through a grassroots movement. Johanon lives and works several blocks north of the burgeoning New Center district in Detroit. Located adjacent to the Midtown neighborhood and about three miles north of downtown, New Center was developed in the 1920s as a business hub that could serve as a connecting point between downtown resources and outlying factories. Today, New Center is slowly developing into a commercial and residential success. From the summer-long event series in New Center Park to the growing headquarters of the Henry Ford Health System, New Center is making its mark on the Greater Detroit area.
FRESH VISION: Lisa Johanon (right) and her daughter Emma. (Photo: Cybelle Codish)
But blocks away in the neighborhoods north of New Center where Johanon lives, it’s another story. Though only separated by some city streets and skyscrapers, this area hasn’t been able to grasp the same commercial success that its evolving counterpart has enjoyed. Rooted in a chronic, generational poverty, these residential neighborhoods have more than just economic obstacles to overcome. The community’s struggles with drug abuse and mental illness are visibly prominent. It’s been calculated that up to 72% of the households are single-parent families. Johanon said the amount of tragedy and injustice has led residents to ask God, “Why?”
“You can’t talk about Jesus when your neighbors are hungry and don’t have a job,” said Johanon. “Long term impact happens because someone is walking beside them.”
So, that’s what Johanon made plans to do. She moved to Detroit in 1987 after helping plant a church in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green housing projects. During her first seven years in Detroit, Johanon established and oversaw the Urban Outreach division of Detroit Youth for Christ. From there, she went on to become the executive director of the CDC, which she co-founded more than 15 years ago. She’s been planted there ever since.
The CDC aims to be a well-rounded resource for the central Detroit area. They organize and administer educational programs, orchestrate employment training, and create opportunities to spur job growth in the area. With their outreach initiatives and organic structure, the CDC takes Isaiah 58:12 to heart — “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.”
“The CDC is the model for economic development in our community,” said Johanon. “Walmart isn’t going to come to our neighborhood, so we have to create the job opportunities ourselves.”
Of the three Detroiters highlighted, Johanon has the most business experience to date. The CDC has launched five businesses in their community — Peaches & Greens Produce Market, Higher Ground Landscaping, Café Sonshine, CDC Property Management, and Restoration Warehouse. Each business has a twofold goal — to meet the needs of its community members and simultaneously provide them with jobs.
ON THE MOVE: Lisa Johanon (far right) and her Central Detroit Christian Development Corporation team received a May 2010 visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, who was encouraged by CDC’s Peaches & Greens venture, which provides Detroit neighborhoods with access to low-cost fruits and vegetables through a produce truck and store which are clean and safe. Mrs. Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative targets the problem of childhood obesity, hailed the CDC’s efforts.
But it’s not just about providing community members with a sense of dignity that financial stability can bring. Johanon understands that there needs to be a holistic approach to the restoration of dignity – an approach that includes attention to a person’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.
“The CDC believes that education empowers our community to grow and thrive. Employment equips our community to sustain families. [And] economic development transforms our community,” said a source on their website.
It’s easiest to understand what the CDC aims to do by looking at individual stories. “When we hired people from the neighborhood to work for Higher Ground Landscaping, not a single one could pass a drug test. Now, we only have two who still fail,” said Johanon. “The minority has pressure to change their lifestyle. We want to show that we’re committed for the long term.”
And she’s right — it’s consistent commitment that’s going to change the DNA of Detroit. Each of the entrepreneurs featured in this piece have committed their time, experience, and vision to making their little corner of Detroit more sustainable. In essence, they’ve surrendered their lives to God and His mission for them. And this is something that no politician or urban developer will ever be able to replicate — God using ordinary people to bring about change and renewal. Ultimately, Detroit’s revival — and the resurgence of any ailing city — will start and end with these kind of committed efforts.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
Our Heritage of Faith
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
Middle-Class Flight and Return
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Jesus Is the Answer
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.
SHOUTING FROM THE ROOFTOP: Pastor Corey Brooks sits on the roof of the abandoned motel where he's camping out, across the street from his New Beginnings Church in Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. Brooks is on the roof to raise $450,000 to buy the motel, tear it down, and turn it into a community center. (Photo: Brian Cassella/Newscom)
Pastor Corey Brooks has been living on the roof of a dilapidated motel building for seven weeks, coming down only when another young black male from his neighborhood dies.
Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church on Chicago’s Southside, just officiated his twelfth funeral for a young black male in the past year. His church is in the middle of two violent neighborhoods, Englewood and Woodlawn, which have seen an increasing number of homicides. The murder rate rose about 40 percent in the past year in Englewood, and about 30 percent in Woodlawn.
It was this violence that drove Brooks to the roof. Gunfire erupted at the tenth funeral in November, and after that incident, Brooks decided to take more drastic action. He vowed to fundraise $450,000 to knock down the vacant Super Motel across the street and build a community development center.
He envisions the center as two buildings: one with a community focus — including classrooms, a music and TV studio for youth and Christian counseling services — and the other with an economic development focus—including restaurants on the first floor and a few floors of mixed income housing.
Brooks has fundraised more than half his goal and has until March 30 to purchase the land. But in the meantime, Brooks spends his days reading, praying, taking phone calls and tweeting from his tent on the roof. UrbanFaith went up to the motel roof to talk to Brooks about inner-city Christianity and youth violence when he was celebrating his birthday last Monday. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: How would you describe the violence in Woodlawn and Englewood right now?
COREY BROOKS: I would describe it as abnormal, a humanitarian issue we all need to be concerned about. One of the problems is that people don’t see it as a humanitarian issue. They see it as a black issue, a hood issue. Even though the city of Chicago claims the murder rate is going down, in African American areas, it’s either staying the same or going up. It’s like we have two Chicago’s.
Why is a community center for youth such a critical need here?
This neighborhood is a desert. You don’t have recreational facilities, you have poor educational facilities, you don’t have any grocery stores for nutrition, you don’t have any safe environments where kids can play basketball, do theater or music. It becomes essential because if these children don’t have anything to do, then we turn them over to the streets. They’ll learn crime and learn how to live on the streets.
Somewhere along the line, we need to break that cycle of violence. These kids, they’re not going to be street kids or be in gangs. We need to provide a safe environment for them to grow, be mentored, and reach their full potential.
You came down from the rooftop to officiate two funerals last week, and you later tweeted that over 150 youth came to Christ during these services. How did that happen?
At funerals of young people, I always try to give an invitation to Christ and present the gospel, clear and precise, so people are challenged with the opportunity to become a Christian. Now we’re trying to develop what we call a spiritual detox, when we take kids away for three days, get them out of the environment and really make sure we get Christ in them. We’ve never done that before, but that’s what we want to do. So now I’m tweeting, “Hey, I need a place for a retreat.”
But at the end of the day, I believe the church is the hope of the world, so I want them to have Jesus. A child that has Jesus in their life can make it on little education, in a bad family, with a whole lot working against them.
We have a lot that we’re working against. It’s hard to present Jesus in this neighborhood where Christians don’t have must to show for. But if we can establish that we have schools, facilities, jobs, it’ll be attractive. I want Christianity in the urban area to look more attractive. Who wants to just go to church, and that’s it? The extent of my Christianity is church?
What’s it going to take to make Christianity more attractive in the inner-city, something that young people will want to join?
In the inner-city, one, our churches need makeovers. If you go to our church, it looks contemporary, you’ll see murals and things that draw interest, so when kids come in it gives them the wow effect. A lot of our churches are antiquated, and they’re built that way. They need a major overhaul internally, how they look. Secondly, our systems and structures are outdated. How we do church has to change. And finally, what we do outside church, the extension of our outreach, has to be updated as well. I think the inner-city churches of America need a serious revival in order for neighborhoods to change.
What would that revival look like?
It would look like it did Thursday and Friday, when all those kids were coming down the aisle and people were getting saved. I went to Grace Theological Seminary and studied Billy Sunday. They would say Billy Sunday would do these revivals and crusades, and they would last weeks and people would get saved.
I’ve never seen that happen in an inner-city area. They say it happened in the ‘30s in Los Angeles with Azusa, but I don’t know any contemporary movement where there’s such a power and movement of God. And at the end of the day, that’s what I long for. I’m on this roof, and I want to purchase this hotel and turn it into a community development center. But more than that, I want to see people come into relationship with Jesus, because at the end of all this, that’s all that will matter.
During the funeral services, you didn’t give a traditional eulogy, but instead talked more about urban violence. Why did you decide to take that approach?
For me, those are traditional eulogies. Every funeral I’ve ever done, I don’t talk about the deceased because I don’t have a heaven or a hell to put them in. How they lived their life is their testimony. I preach to people who are alive, not to people who are dead. I talk about Jesus and the Bible, how you handle your pain, how you can live from this moment on. For another pastor, eulogy means to speak highly of the one who died. But in most of our bulletins, it says sermon or message, because I’m not giving a eulogy.
Are you getting any backing from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel?
I sent him a message. I try to be very respectful, but at the same time, I want to hold him accountable. We’re not trying to tell him what to do, but we are trying to make sure that he understands we’re part of Chicago, and he’s responsible for the challenges of our neighborhood as well. As it relates to this particular issue with gun violence and young people being killed prematurely, he is silent.
We need more than anything in the world for him to look at the situation and give us some real true solutions, and the resources to implement his solution. He has a great team of educated people who study this. So they should be able to look at this neighborhood and say, these are the problems, this is how we can fix it. But you just can’t ignore it. That’s the part that hurts the most, that you have people who could and should do something, but won’t.
Did the mayor call you at one point?
Yeah, he called. He appreciated that I was standing against the violence. However, he didn’t want me to be on this roof to stand against violence. I’m respectful of the mayor, but I had to disrespect his authority, unfortunately.
What’s your prayer for the neighborhood right now?
My number one prayer is for my neighborhood to be safe. It hurts that my 10-year-old son isn’t able to experience going outside by himself. I’d like an environment where kids can at least go outside and play and not have to worry about being shot or killed. Whenever I pray that, I always hear God saying, “Make it safe.” I need his assistance, but it’s my responsibility too. Someone said you pray like it all depends on God, and then you work like it all depends on you. That’s how I live my life.
Find out more here. Pastor Corey Brooks can be contacted at 312-813-5211.
Derrion Albert did not die because of a lack of jobs or social programs. He died because we expect more righteousness and leadership from our government and civil institutions than we do from each other.
As I watched the video of Derrion Albert’s beating death, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of anger or passion. From the voice of the young person filming the mayhem on his camera phone to the faces of the perpetrators of the violence; there was no hatred, no rage. This was simply a leisure activity. Derrion’s death was not the goal, just an unfortunate outcome.
Those young people were not doing something that they were forced to do; they were doing something they wanted to do.
As director of the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to fill the city with peace and drive out violence, I have worked in many neighborhoods across the city organizing and mobilizing churches and other Christian organizations. We have adopted schools, conducted all-night prayer-and-praise meetings on dangerous corners, beautified streets, and conducted activities for young people. But clearly we have not done enough.
I know that there are those who say the solution to our problems in America’s inner cities is that we need more jobs and more afterschool programs. I say not so. We have in this city more afterschool programs and jobs available to youth than we did in 1959. But we did not see young people beating each other to death in the streets back then.
Derrion died just outside the doors of a faith-based community center that would not have turned a single member of that mob away if they were looking for afterschool recreation. As I watched, I realized that it’s time for the church to come forth and lead. Allow me to explain.
In practically every generation prior to this one, the great problems in America had to do with civil rights. From the unjust system of taxation without representation which led to the Revolutionary War to the unjust Jim Crow laws that led to civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, we have struggled as a nation to overcome problems that were a matter of public policy. Since those problems were emanating primarily from the halls of government, we struggled to shift public policy discussions, change laws, and elect men and women to national and local government who could make necessary changes and hold the line on previous victories. And as we did this, things improved.
I humbly submit to you that those days are over. Public policy and government statute are not the great source of our problems, and the methods of previous movements have been and will continue to prove ineffectual in our time. It is time for a new approach. I do not mean to assert that every law in this nation — or even in this city — is now just; this is certainly not the case. But the law and public policy discussions of our time are not the cause of our problems as they have been in the past.
In the past the law dictated that people of color could not vote. The accepted public policy held that people of color were somehow less human than white people. The clear solution for that kind of injustice is to change that law, to shift that public policy to something more just and humane. This is the basic ethos and methodology of civil rights. Civil rights can be demanded and won from the government.
But today we have laws against drug sales, we have laws against illegal drug possession, we have laws against murder. There is not a respectable public policy professional or organization anywhere in this nation that would make an argument against those laws.
So, why is Derrion Albert not alive today?
Perhaps, the answer is demonstrated better than it can be articulated by the radio DJ who plays endless hours of violence and debauchery, by the policeman who drives 70 m.p.h. the wrong way down a neighborhood street, by the crowd of misguided teens who dispassionately beat one of their peers to death with a piece of wood and their bare hands.
Imagine the impact that we could make if every believer in Chicago truly began to pray for peace in our city, then allowed that prayer to motivate and strengthen us toward action. What if every school in Chicago was adopted by a handful of churches? What if believers in every neighborhood began to take responsibility for a block, a train station, a bus route, and went out to meet the people there, serve them, and act as a presence for peace? What if we turned the power of protest onto the drug dealers by coming to the hottest spots at the hottest times (usually nighttime) and exposing their activities done in darkness with bright lights, singing, and prayer? What if there were a prophetic voice coming out of the church that, through both its words and actions, could consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? That would be an appropriate movement for Chicago — and for every urban community.
The great problems of our time — and, as such, the violence problem in Chicago — are not a matter of civil rights, but human rights. They are not caused by problems in our public policy and government structures; they are caused by great flaws in our values and cultural structures. The solutions cannot be demanded and won from the government; they must be demanded and won from one another. The challenge is not to turn an unjust government toward justice, but to turn an unrighteous culture toward righteousness.
And that’s precisely why it’s time for the church to come forth and lead.
It was only logical for my student to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates. As a result, they didn’t expect much from themselves.
“Ms. Baker, why are you teaching here?” one student, whom I’ll call Solomon, inquired during one of our after-school tutoring sessions. “You went to college,” he continued unabashedly. “Um…couldn’t you find a job anywhere else?”
I remember these words from one of my don’t-beat-around-the bush, inquisitive fifth grade students like it was yesterday. And to be honest, my presence at Caldwell Elementary School wasn’t the chosen career path for most of my peers.
I graduated from a highly ranked university with a degree in English. I considered law school or a Ph.D. program in English before ultimately choosing to join the national teaching corps, Teach For America. I’d committed to teach for two years in a low-performing public school in an economically depressed neighborhood that was notorious for crime, high school drop-outs, and the birthplace of gangster rap — Compton, California.
I struggled with the words to respond to Solomon’s very pointed question. “Well,” I mused, “I heard a rumor that the smartest kids in the world were at this school, so I wanted to be here with the geniuses,” I stated, hoping to further reinforce the high academic expectations I had for my students — despite how far behind many of them were.
Solomon looked at me for a moment and then he burst out laughing. He was not convinced of my words in the slightest. “Aw c’mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we’re smart! If they did, they wouldn’t give us this broken-down school and these ratty old books. You don’t even have enough paper and pencils for us!”
As a first-year teacher, I was shocked that a 10-year-old was fully aware of the implicit disparity in our country’s two-tiered public education system. He wondered why someone like me — an African American who had graduated from college and “made it” — would ever choose to teach in his low-income public school. He implied that I had a myriad of more lucrative, and more worthy, options. Solomon scoffed at the idea that other people thought he and his classmates were intelligent. And he completely understood that his school lacked the basic resources and facilities.
Most disturbingly, Solomon connected society’s low expectations for him as the reason why his school didn’t have the necessary supplies. After all, he seemed to suggest, why would our nation bother wasting resources on students who weren’t smart enough to succeed in the first place?
Having spent the last 15 years working on the movement to eliminate educational inequity, I now realize that my insightful fifth-grader’s assumptions weren’t surprising. What other conclusion could he come to in a country where 9-year-olds in poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in wealthier communities? What else should he think about a nation where only half of the 14 million students from low-income communities ever graduate from high school and only one in ten ever graduate from college?
It was quite logical for Solomon to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates in Compton. As a result, he didn’t expect much from himself either. As his teacher, it was my job to shift those expectations so Solomon and all my other students could reach their full potential.
We worked incredibly hard that year and it was thrilling to see Solomon, and the majority of my fifth-graders, excel at high levels that others might have thought impossible. Because of the tremendous growth I saw in my students, I am forever convinced that the problem of academic disparity is completely solvable.
The academic achievement gap, in a well-resourced country like ours, is a tragic moral injustice that should move people of faith to action. As Christians, let’s take stock of how we’re working to eliminate this problem. Are we encouraging our most talented college graduates and young professionals to teach in schools like Solomon’s? Are we mobilizing our church communities to volunteer, tutor, and provide much-needed supplies to under-resourced schools? Are we mobilizing on behalf of students like Solomon to demand that lawmakers create policies that will improve the quality of their education?
The Bible is pretty clear about our responsibility. God says that all children were created in his image, so we should believe every child has unlimited potential. God says that children are incredibly precious to him. And God tells us to eliminate injustice.
It’s time for Christians to take a stand on behalf of the “least of these” in our nation’s low-income public schools. Solomon and his classmates are waiting for us.