Whatever It Takes. The sign at the back of the sanctuary of the Brightmoor campus of Redford Aldersgate UMC said it all. Aldersgate UMC and its outreach partners are committed to reclaiming the blight of the Brightmoor neighborhood in the name of Jesus Christ, one house and one family at a time.
In 1922 Henry Ford introduced the forty-hour work week. Seemingly overnight, Detroit became a very appealing city for immigrants and migrating Americans. “Cut Your Rent to $35 a Month! Brightmoor Shows You How It’s Done!” The headlines of the August 1924 edition of B. E. Taylor Real Estate News reflected the energy and excitement of the burgeoning car industry. In 1921 developer Burton Eddy Taylor purchased one hundred and sixty acres of land outside the Detroit city limits of the time. He created Brightmoor as a planned community of inexpensive housing for migrants from the south seeking work and security.
In 1924 you could have a brand new home for $35 a month, which was doable for auto workers, whose wages were around $5 a day. B.E. Taylor actively recruited migrants to Brightmoor, many of whom located together in the same neighborhood. In his newspaper Taylor listed many reasons why this was the perfect community.
- Brightmoor has the right location.
- Transportation second to none links Brightmoor with the great factories of Detroit.
- Brightmoor has Detroit city water in every home.
- Brightmoor has up-to-date schools for the children.
- Brightmoor has local stores and eight chain stores.
- Brightmoor homes are desirable and are on sale for white Americans only.
I am on a driving tour of Brightmoor ninety years later. I see abandoned buildings, burned out homes, numerous empty lots, boarded up stores, empty streets, drug dealer hangouts, and a relatively new school building surrounded by a high iron fence. The original “white Americans only” neighborhood now has a much different demographic.
Methodists have had a presence in Brightmoor from the beginning of the boom. The West Outer Drive Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1928 to serve the growing population. Once a vital congregation, the church’s present structure was constructed in 1958. Many of the neighborhood churches are now closed, however. The heyday is long gone. West Outer Drive also reflected the fortunes of the area, existing on the edge, even when it became the only operating Protestant church in the area.
B. E. Taylor’s Real Estate News cites the testimony of numerous happy homeowners of the 1920’s, including this letter: “What does Brightmoor mean to us? Home in every sense of the word. Health: we are away from the smoke, noise and traffic. Wealth: we no longer pay rent but payments, which are making us independent. Happiness: because we can enjoy the things we are getting.”
The American dream come true. Brightmoor was a thriving, working class neighborhood with many homes and businesses. Yet, over time, home owners moved to more upscale neighborhoods like Redford and Livonia once they became successful. Others used their homes as rentals, and the renters became poorer. When renters could no longer maintain the houses, the Brightmoor area began to deteriorate.
By 1950 Detroit was booming and was leading the country’s economy. Yet Brightmoor had become a tough neighborhood, no longer white-only. The more well-heeled traveled around rather than through Brightmoor. Race riots in 1943 and 1967 erupted from an undercurrent of racial prejudice and discrimination. In 1999 an article in The Detroit News claimed that Brightmoor had been a “little-known” community for a long time and that as of 1999, the community “could better be described as “Blightmoor.”
Whatever it takes. In 2012 Redford Aldersgate UMC entered into discussions with West Outer Drive UMC about merger. Aldersgate, three and a half miles away in a very different part of the Detroit metro area, is predominantly white, and Brightmoor is mostly African-American. Both congregations were struggling to survive. Could God possibly be calling these congregations to become stronger by joining together? Pastor Jeff Nelson had a deep desire to do whatever it takes to minister to the Brightmoor community, and his parishioners caught the vision.
On our tour we see fifty-three youth and adults from Grace UMC in Oletha, Kansas, clearing away brush from abandoned properties, creating mural windows and working around the church. Nine work groups are coming this summer from around the country. Some stay at the Brightmoor campus, others on the Redford campus.
Brightmoor volunteers use art and gardening to battle blight. A Free Store distributes clothing on a regular basis and will soon have dedicated space. A youth program now attracts up to seventy individuals. Sunday morning attendance has jumped from fifteen to sixty. Twenty-six new members have joined this year. A Celebrate Recovery program will start in 2015 on Friday or Saturday night. Life is returning not only to the church but to the entire neighborhood as residents look to the Brightmoor campus for hope, help and heaven. Amazingly, the more the Brightmoor campus grows, the stronger the Redford Aldersgate campus becomes. Whatever it takes.
Cooperative parishes of all shapes and sizes are restoring hope to thousands of congregations around the country as creative, cutting-edge, multi-site ministry flourishes. At the same time, there is an art to successful collaborative ministry that is not for the faint of heart. It’s not just “whatever.” What does it actually take to make “One Church in Two Locations” work in the city of Detroit as well as in any other area of the country?
1. It takes partners.
Courtney Williams, pastor and executive director of the Brightmoor campus, describes the shared mission statement of both campuses: “to make Christ’s love visible by inclusivity, hospitality and service.” Courtney’s goal is not only to minister to the needs in the community but to create a sustainable congregation.
However, neither the Brightmoor nor the Redford Aldersgate campus has the necessary resources to do “whatever it takes” for effective ministry. It is the power of the connectional United Methodist Church infusing leadership, money, human resources, volunteers, imagination and commitment that can recreate the kind of community that attracted thousands of new residents to Brightmoor ninety years ago.
Pastor Jeff was appointed to a wealthy suburban congregation right out of seminary and questioned why he wasn’t placed in a church where he could fulfill his passion for urban ministry. Only later did Jeff recognize that his first appointment enabled him to develop the ministry skills and connections that would open the door for partnership opportunities at Redford Aldersgate. Today, dozens of Detroit metro churches support the Brightmoor campus.
2. It takes ruthless compassion.
Revitalization of dying churches occurs when strong leaders act decisively to form a powerful vision and mission, identify capable lay leaders, and hire staff who can work collaboratively to bring that vision to reality. Those who are not on board with the vision or don’t have the required skill set may have to be gracefully released from their positions. The greater good of the church’s mission is always primary.
3. It takes cross-cultural sensitivity.
Cross-cultural competency is identified today as one of the most necessary skills for seminary students headed toward ordained ministry. When cooperative ministry happens cross-culturally, traditional models don’t always work. Building relationships, creating trust and starting with a clean slate are much more important than setting arbitrary goals or checking things off a list. Listening to one another’s stories, discerning core values, and dreaming together provide a solid foundation for shared ministry.
4. It takes flexibility and adaptability.
Brightmoor is not as concerned about following proper protocol as it is about empowering new people to immediately become involved in ministry. Star is now a team leader at Brightmoor after moving from Tennessee last year. Star, who grew up in Detroit and now owns a little house, said, “I try to help. You can’t complain if you don’t help.” She runs the boy’s clothing department at the Free Store.
A young man found his way to Brightmoor after losing everything this past winter in an apartment fire a few blocks from the church. After receiving shoes and underwear from the Free Store, he was also helped by the church to enter a detox and rehab program. Today he says, “I’ll do whatever I can for this church.”
The Brightmoor campus is growing because everyone is accepted for who they are and is offered the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. People living in this depressed area are desperate for community, and Brightmoor and its partners have opened wide the doors. Hope has arrived.
The day is coming when the current residents of Brightmoor will be able to echo B. E. Taylor’s happy homeowners of the 1920’s. “What does Brightmoor mean to us? Home in every sense of the word.” Whatever it takes.