The truth about Detroit is that the darkness of thousands of street lights that don’t work will never overcome the light of hope.
Elvis lived on the streets of Detroit for sixteen years and slept on the steps of Central United Methodist Church. Now Elvis is a caseworker, and he also cuts six hundred heads of hair a year through the NOAH project (Network, Organizing, and Advocating for the Homeless).
NOAH, a ministry of Central UMC that started in 1999, describes itself this way: “We envision an end to homelessness in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. For our part, we are committed to developing relationships that promote healthy change in the lives of individuals who are homeless, especially those for whom it is a chronic struggle.” NOAH provides a bag lunch program twice a week, hygiene kits, basic emergency needs, peer support volunteers, and counseling, crisis intervention, and social services. The goal is to empower clients to name and then achieve their goals.
Elvis, whose haircutting ministry extends to men, women, and children, says, “If you look better, you feel better, and you are more inclined to do something positive for yourself. I’ve lived homelessness, so if I can get my life together, anyone can do it. People come here to NOAH because it’s a family. Since we are committed to building relationships, those who are homeless have faith and trust in us.”
The truth about Detroit is that this proud city is rising from the ashes of despair. Ronnie, nicknamed Papa Smurf because he is a wise, smart man, relates that he was sitting downtown one day and observed how the faces of everyone passing by seemed to be down. Ronnie could tell that they did not believe in themselves, and the next thing he knew he was saying these words, “God bless me and help me,” in that order. At that moment Ronnie knew that his mission was to connect with the spirits of others, so he prayed, “Give me wisdom to be a blessing to others.”
Ronnie said, “At the time I was caught up in an addiction to smoking crack. I had no meaning in life. I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. My life changed that day as I realized that things could get better, that if I believed in myself, I could pass on what I know to others. I am now a different me.”
Papa Smurf has been at the NOAH project for sixteen years because he likes to be where there is love and hope. He is a staff member now and also has a street ministry where he passes out Bibles. Ronnie says that his gifts are writing and sharing karma.
The truth about Detroit is that pervasive despair about urban blight, violence, and loss of jobs will not stop the seeds of beauty from growing and flowering into a city reborn.
Five years ago a member of First United Methodist Church in Birmingham was listening to the sermon one Sunday morning when she felt God calling her to feed the hungry. She drove downtown to Central UMC and asked, “What can I do?” The staff at NOAH said, “We are doing a good job of feeding the hungry, but we need people to feed the soul.” So she gathered a few people around her and developed an art studio.
Every Monday and Thursday, when dozens of people gather for their bag lunch, volunteers from Birmingham help the homeless and formerly homeless develop their artistic and creative talents through Art and Soul. Art and Soul provides beauty, joy, and a respite from the idleness and despair of the streets. There is even a kiln on the fifth floor where pottery is fired.
Diva D found out about Art and Soul when she was living in a shelter and her roommate was serving lunch at NOAH. Already an artist, Diva D came to NOAH one day and saw that there was a great arts and crafts shelter. She learned how to paint with acrylics, ceramics, and watercolor, and said that Art and Soul saved her life. Diva D even came to First UMC a few months ago along with other artists from Art and Soul. She sold a water color, a cloth doll with bendable arms and legs, and note cards. Diva D said to me, “By the way, a dentist from your church volunteered to take out my teeth that were rotting, and I put those teeth on a collage that is upstairs. It was part of ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in 2011.”
The truth about Detroit is that the interminable delay of emergency services will not deter the faithful and consistent ministry of Central UMC, its many volunteers, and thousands of Detroit metro residents who reach out to their neighbors in need. On the day that we visited the NOAH project, not only was Art and Soul in operation, but another First UMC outreach group, StreeThreads, made the bag lunches, complete with fresh fruit, and distributed clothing and toiletries, including new socks and underwear. Lunch for the destitute and homeless has been served continuously at Central UMC since 1976. During the intense cold this winter, hours were expanded and sixty more people a day came into the building just to keep warm.
Central UMC, organized in 1810, is one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Michigan. The congregation says about itself: “We are Central Church, a servant community working for a world of peace and justice. We are a voice speaking out from within our city, like a conscience speaks to the person to whom it belongs, and whose life it shares. Counting on the rock of our faith in Christ, we proclaim, follow, and worship a God who calls us to create a faith-powered, justice-seeking, reconciling, and peace-loving world for all people.”
Rev. Ed Rowe, Central UMC pastor, who has served this congregation since 1994, says,
“The truth about Detroit is that my city is not bankrupt. Rather it’s being attacked by a bankrupt system. Detroit is full of alive and well people who work their hearts out to rehab houses, create medical centers, promote education, speak out against racism, feed hungry people, and fight to keep neighborhoods from being regentrified. We are urban pioneers who have no money but have the courage to work for social justice. There is an attitude that ‘we will not be moved.’ We will win our city back.”
Much of the funding for Central UMC’s programs comes from a parking lot located right next to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Over $120,000 a year is generated from parking fees and the sale of peanuts.
Before I leave, Papa Smurf wants to show me one of his poems, entitled For Those who Believe All is Possible.
There are no miracles for those who doubt their
But for those who believe –
Truly believe –
All is possible.
Whatever you may have believed
Whatever you may have done
And whatever you may be in your life –
It’s not too late to change course and begin anew.
A fresh start, a bright future, the wonderful peace that
Passes are yours for the taking.
Now and forever more.
The truth about Detroit? It’s being written every day by those who are living it. The truth about Detroit is that it’s not too late to change course and begin anew. For those who believe in Detroit, all things are possible when the Holy Spirit begins to move. A fresh start and a bright future is Detroit’s for the taking. Take it from Elvis, Papa Smurf, Diva D, and Ed Rowe. They’ve all been there.