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Day 1: Detroit Historical Museum

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 18, 2018 at 12:40 AM

(First, we ask for your prayers for one of our Morgan State students who was dealing with such back pain that her mom needed to pick her up last evening, after we had arrived in Pittsburgh.)


We were grateful to the Lutheran University Center at Pittsburgh for their hospitality last night. And very grateful that they had wifi strong enough to stream the UMBC game so that we (well, mainly superfan Rev. Katrina Grusell) could watch an amazing upset of UVA! It’s nice to have folks even up in Detroit know about the school where Katrina and I get to serve on a regular basis.



We started our day with a stop at Bucharest Grill for Middle Eastern food before a trip to the Detroit Historical Museum for a whirlwind introduction to the city we’ll call home for the week. 


Being across the river from Windsor, Ontario meant that Detroit was a prime location on the Underground Railroad, offering freedom to slaves, who under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, could be caught and returned to slavery even if they were in non-slave states. Prominent black leaders in the city formed the Colored Vigilant Committee to aid slaves seeking freedom by putting up their own money to get them out of jail and bribe slave catchers, as well as monitoring slave catcher’s movements.



Our previous trips to Civil Rights sites and the racial justice realities of Baltimore and the rest of our country made the Detroit 67 exhibition a good background for our week.  But what stuck out to me the most was the familiarity of all the stories:


Resistance to new folks who don’t look like us: The African American population grew by 600% in the years between 1910 and 1920 and in 1923 the Ku Klux Klan held it’s first rally at City Hall.


Government decisions that destroy minority communities and take their wealth: After restricting where African Americans could live in the city, the governments chose to build highways through lower income, predominately minority neighborhoods with little or no funds for the residents to relocate.


White flight: A second wave of African American migration from the South in the 60s caused more whites to move to the suburbs, which began neighborhood decline as businesses moved out and abandoned homes increased.


And then, 1967. After an altercation at a blind pig, or after-hours bar, police withdrew from the area and the mayor issued a “no-shoot” policy for the police. This may have allowed the destruction of fire and arson to continue unchecked for much longer, but also probably saved lives.  It only stayed in place for a day.

And TV stations were asked not to cover the events at all and it wasn’t until a station in Windsor, Ontario reported on the situation that the Detroit media began their coverage.


But, by the end of 7 days, homes and businesses were burned. More folks leave the city. At least the people who can. Those who can’t leave figure out how to live in a changed city.


Then the familiar story continues, which is far too current: People fear the violence that comes too close and want to arm themselves to be protected so that “those people”- however it is defined- don’t take over. This is a cycle that is all too familiar in 2018. I am grateful for a Prince of Peace that we worship who tries to save us from this never-ending cycle, but I don't fully know how we get the courage to accept it. 


As we headed back to our accommodations for the week at Salem Lutheran Church, the highway ramps were shut down in many places, making us take city streets and drive through neighborhoods with burned up and boarded up houses every block. Which has been too much of the continuing history of Detroit.  Despair felt deep- and that wasn't just because my GPS directed me to every single closed highway ramp. 

But, as I have told my students often, I can sum up my faith in the words, "and yet."  Because Jesus has this awesome habit of never letting despair and destruction be the last word or the end of the story.  And that's what we're looking to be reminded of this week. 


At the historical museum- we did't only learn about disinvestment and an uprising in 1967, we also learned about the industry, the innovators, the musicians and the activist citizens who make up the rest of the story of the city. The artists who refuse to let decay and disinvestment be the whole story. The gardeners who see hope in empty lots. The people who care well for neighbors and fight for justice. This is the story we begin to learn more fully tomorrow- beginning with hearing Jesus' stories and singing his songs among our brothers and sisters in worship. 


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