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Day 4: Life battling back in winter, in art and in belief against the odds

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 21, 2018 at 12:55 AM

The Greening of Detroit is an organization that began as a response to the loss of trees between the 1950s and the 1980s. Now the group works with community groups and block clubs to sponsor tree plantings and create neighborhood gardens and also trains people in landscaping as job preparation. And as their showplace, they maintain a food garden in downtown Detroit to introduce folks to what they do and provide a beautiful place for the city. They also produce food for local food pantries and community feeding programs.


And when it’s 30-some degrees outside, they invite Baltimoreans to help them get that downtown garden ready for the beginning of the growing season. It was a chilly morning to be pulling up old plants, raking leaves, and picking up trash, but many hands make light work. And under the dead plants, our students were delighted to find flowers poking up. Life hidden among the things that were decaying. It was a good reminder as we drive through neighborhoods have been neglected, where people have left, where folks don’t have access to water and other city services- that life still lives there. And it fights back. And part of our job is to take away all that hides it and makes it hard to grow.


Urban gardening has taken off in Detroit because there’s an abundance of vacant land. A city that once had 1.8 million people now has 600,000 so there’s sometimes 2 houses on a block with tons of empty space in between. Which means it’s a perfect place for artists and gardeners to come in and take over. And in a place where services like grocery stores can be few and far between, gardens bring healthy food back to neighborhoods and provide employment for folks.


And then it was off to Church of the Messiah, which calls itself a non-traditional Episcopal church, to chat with Pastor Barry, Dwight and JT. Church of the Messiah gathers around 300 folks for Sunday worship, with about 60% of those folks being black males under 30. It seems pretty obvious that folks come to worship here because the gospel comes alive here.


Pastor Barry’s sermons- which can get a little theatrical and unorthodox at times to make a point, bring the gospel in words that make sense in their lives. Like the time he likened developing a relationship with God to developing a relationship with alcohol or smoking or all that other things that aren’t great at first, but when we stick with them, they become a powerful habit.

(That's Pastor Barry down front)

But as we heard JT and Dwight talk, it was obvious that the gospel comes alive in the way young people are rejoiced in, supported and believed in. They are believed to have potential before they show it, kind of how Jesus loves us even before we possibly deserve it. They do gospel rather than just preach gospel and that seems to have gotten into the bones of Dwight and JT.

JT was having a hard time as a high schooler and soon after coming here, adopted one of the members as his a mentor and father-figure. That’s what he said kept him in school and got him to head to college. And he talked with joy about how this church made Jesus someone he could understand and want to be around, after other church had bored him. The gospel was real- through the people and the Jesus talk that finally made sense.

Dwight changed his life after coming to Church of the Messiah and now runs I AM productions, making videos to tell positive stories in the neighborhood and promotional videos for folks starting up new businesses. He wanted to name his company after something he learned in church, taking the name from the moment that God gave his name to Moses. It was a moment meant to steady Moses and make him strong enough for the work before him.

The video production company is only one business among many- there’s a clothing line, a leather craft shop, a bike shop, a line of ginger drinks and more- all businesses begun at Church of the Messiah thanks to people who believe in the dreams of their young people and throw all their resources at supporting them. “It’s all ministry,” Pastor Barry told us. “The marching band, the bike repair, the video production. It’s all ministry.”

Pastor Barry reminded us that believing in impossible things is a Christian reality. If we can believe in a virgin conceiving a child, we can certainly believe that a young person can start up a bike shop. They believe and they do not fear. This is what the gospel calls us to, above all our objections.


The church also has a Community Development Corporation that owns 213 units of housing and makes sure that it remains at market rates that allow current neighbors to not be priced out of the area when luxury apartments move in (as they are doing now.) They also own 103 other lots in the neighborhood and will only sell them to those who intend to use those lots for the good of the community.

On the way back from Church of the Messiah, we visited the Heidelberg Project- a large public art installation started in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, an artist who had lost 3 brothers to street violence and was devastated by the crime and drug filled street he grew up on. He painted on houses and sidewalks and involved neighborhood kids in making art out of discarded materials. The shoes everywhere symbolize those lost to street violence and the MANY clocks remind us that it’s time to change the reality of the city. It’s been cleaned by the city, opposed by many, been burned by arsonists, and a victim of the elements. But still it’s there. Battered, but still speaking the same message.


And then, since it was the first day of spring, we drove 25 minutes out of our way to get free cones at Dairy Queen. Free is our favorite flavor.


Tonight we had an intense conversation about how we fight against the systems in our world that work against life and flourishing for all people, which has been the question we’ve been working with since Sunday’s sermon. Do you do it by trying to change the government or by changing the people in it? Do you knock the government down all at once (but then what happens to the most vulnerable who need support?) Or do you do it in smaller neighborhood ways like Church of the Messiah and still have to work with government and struggle with it? Is it enough to do something small when the larger system is corrupt?

Jesus obviously calls us to fight against systems that oppose life, that oppose justice, that oppose the dignity of all people. And his cross constantly reminds us that we do that with love, not force, even thought we are so often tempted to do otherwise. But how? And are our small efforts enough? It’s so often our question in the face of so much struggle.

Tonight we ended with Evening Prayer. We prayed for the good being done, the people still suffering, and for Jesus to be in it all. This is our small part tonight. Tomorrow we wake up with another opportunity to do God’s work. Like everyday.


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