Last week, my housemates came home to find a woman urinating on our house. Tonight, two blocks away, a neighbor shot up my friend’s car with an AK-47. A couple months ago, three blocks away, robbers held up young women at gunpoint while attempting an armed invasion of another friend’s house.
I never thought I would end up in a neighborhood like this. My whole life, I was content living in well-to-do areas while occasionally serving those who hadn’t received the same opportunities I had. Serving gave me a chance to learn about the difficulties of living in an area fraught with crime, desperation, and a lack of services and businesses. I saw how hard it would be to live away from my support network and near people with different cultures, values, educational attainments, and careers. Nothing I experienced made me want to live in a ghetto.
That was my mindset when I graduated from college. I left Yale University with an Economics degree and an offer from a top consulting firm near Detroit. I knew the metro area in Detroit was rough; the FBI crowned Detroit the most dangerous city in America, and the collapse of local auto companies left the city’s economy in shambles. But I didn’t expect this to concern me. Even though I work less than ten miles from Detroit, my office is located in the third-safest city in the country. And to prioritize my own safety, I chose to live in a nice suburb full of young professionals.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my days isolated from the problems of Detroit were numbered. I knew a faith community would be vital for spiritual growth and keeping perspective in my career. I gave a couple churches near my house a try. While they were fun and theologically sound, something was missing. As I wrestled with my dissatisfaction, I decided to take up my college Bible study leader on his suggestion to try Mack Avenue Community Church (MACC), which his seminary friends had intentionally started to revitalize one of the poorest areas in Detroit.
Mack Avenue Community Church
To get there, I drove past houses that had completely collapsed, buildings without roofs, schools marked with graffiti, and businesses that had been boarded up decades ago. I felt like I was back in the slums of Kingston or Delhi instead of America. It was exactly the kind of neighborhood I never wanted to live in.
Still, I attended a service at the church. I was immediately attracted to the vulnerability, commitment, and willingness to serve God the members of the church demonstrated. Externally, I fit in. The church is in a 91 percent Black zip code and two of the three pastors are African-American, but the congregation is about 80 percent white. The vast majority of members are upwardly-mobile young professionals who have decided to live below their means in the ghetto to be a part of the mission of the church.
Yet, internally, I was different. MACC’s mission to physically and spiritually revitalize communities, starting with our own, did not totally resonate with me. It wasn’t my passion to live in a dangerous area of Detroit where the majority of people were functionally illiterate and poor. My demanding work schedule seemed to preclude my ability to be involved in the community and live out the mission.
I continued attending MACC because my excitement about the people and teaching outweighed my hesitation about the mission. I joined a small group and began a discipleship relationship. Step by step, I continued to become more integrated into the church community until I finally decided to take the plunge and move near my church. There I was, a white businessman from Yale, living in the ‘hood.
Any mystique about my new neighborhood was quickly shattered right after I moved in. Five houses away, some kids were gambling and a woman got angry and stabbed the winner. She then left, came back, threw a Molotov cocktail at the house to burn it down. Soon afterwards, someone murdered a drug dealer at a house across the street from where I have Bible study. The next night, the dealers burned the house down, leaving nothing but charred remains. Now when my friends’ children color with crayons, they tell their teacher their drawings aren’t complete unless there are abandoned houses.
What we do
On a practical level, what does it actually look like to try to revitalize a community? My church doesn’t have all the answers. Despite our efforts to date, our neighborhood is still rife with all the problems of an inner-city. It will take years to even see what tangible effects result from our church. Nor do the church members suffer from any Messiah complex. We are just as broken as the people we live with; we are sinners just like everyone else.
However, we do have financial resources, knowledge, perspective, and relationships that can benefit others. There are things we can do. We can help provide for physical needs. We can try to enable people to see their own value. We can develop relationships so that people can know the love of Christ and be transformed. Our long-term goal is to develop capabilities within our community and train local leaders. In the meantime, we are doing whatever we can to positively impact the neighborhood.
MACC has started a literacy clinic and helps to provide affordable housing. We have large outreaches, including providing backpacks around the start of the school year and turkeys on Thanksgiving. Many of our neighbors are unable to attain basic goods because they lack transportation and are limited to purchasing what is available at the local gas station or liquor store. To address this need, we host “corner stores” on Saturdays, where we set-up tables on the street corner and sell needed goods like fruits, vegetables, and winter wear at deeply discounted prices. These actions are practical ways to show love for our neighbors.
When we have the opportunity to move beyond addressing physical suffering, we try to help people see their own value. One of the greatest lies society tells poor people is that they’re worthless as humans and always will be unless they have material possessions. We know, on the contrary, that God loves all and sacrificed his own son to save us all. God’s love does not depend on our previous poor choices, lack of education, or wealth. Many people have never had anyone tell them they are valuable, and MACC encourages them to see themselves the way that God sees them.
A practical way we do this is by selling goods at our corner stores at a quarter to half the actual price, instead of giving items away for free. The exchange empowers people by communicating that they have something of worth to offer. It gives them satisfaction in using their resources to provide for themselves and their families. They can feel like they have dignity. It is a fresh contrast to the dehumanizing effect of welfare, which communicates to people they have nothing to offer society and can’t provide for themselves. That shames and breaks the spirit of many of my neighbors. Christians need to step in to provide when the government fails.
Another way we show people their worth is by becoming their neighbors; we call this “incarnational living.” MACC focuses on the 48214 zip code. We ask our church members to move into the zip code, and weekly small groups are not allowed to meet outside this area. People know we are committed when our homes are next to theirs and they see us every day. Our “neighboring” makes people feel like we care about them as individuals. They are not our service project; they are our friends. The most valuable thing we do is developing authentic relationships. Friendship allows us to better understand our neighbors and help them in individualized ways, including connecting them with resources and sharing practical advice. When our neighbors are our friends and are involved in our church community, we can hold each other accountable for our commitments to God and to each other.
Most importantly, our friendship with our neighbors provides opportunities to let people know that true success is not upward mobility, but a relationship with God. Helping people grow in an understanding of Jesus is the most valuable thing Christians have to offer anyone, rich or poor. Faith helps bring real healing to our neighborhood; it teaches us how to resolve conflicts, love our neighbors, and view ourselves as valuable.
Not everyone needs to live in a ghetto to help the poor. The world does need people like Mother Theresa, but we also need businessmen to create jobs, lawyers to fight for justice, politicians to protect the powerless, and many others. Throughout the Bible, God shows that he loves and values the poor, the orphans, and the widows. If we want to be like Jesus, we need to seriously evaluate the best ways to serve poor, broken areas. This is not a challenge we can walk away from. I have found that one way to do this—a way that everyone should consider for his or herself—is to live alongside the poor.
var _gaq = _gaq || ; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-32731086-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);