The Role of the Black Church in Detroit's Development

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    By Bertam Marks

    Detroit will undoubtedly rebound some day from her current social and economic challenges. It will transition from this phase faster if we acknowledge that the comeback effort must be collective and more importantly, spiritual. The Bible is replete with examples of committed, spirit filled leaders engaging the community to accomplish a greater good. These leaders were able to convince the masses that being selfless was a noble and worthwhile pursuit. As a result, the wall around a vulnerable city was fortified, enemies of Israel were defeated, Solomon’s Temple was erected and the good news of the gospel was spread throughout the world.

    Today, right here in Detroit, we are confronted with similar epic challenges requiring our undivided attention. Thankfully, as we assess the condition of our city we cannot be slow to recognize that we have been presented with tremendous opportunity. As Detroit emerges from its current dire, but temporary, economic social and spiritual malaise, we must be sure to enlist the power of the African American Church to help us recover. Since the establishment of the Second Baptist Church in Detroit in the nineteenth century, the African American Church has remained a catalyst for ushering in positive social, economic, and spiritual change for Detroiters. There is no reason to abandon this formula. We have examined, studied, and written about the difficulty Detroit experienced in the past and currently to a near overwhelming degree. There are few who have an interest in the recovery of Detroit who do not have a basic understanding of the problems confronting the city. As in Biblical and historic periods of the past, the thousands of churches that occupy the modern landscape of Detroit can and should be responsible for tackling the myriad issues which impair our quality of life. In fact, many churches can take on the same issue at the same time.

    For example, imagine Detroit with five hundred pulpits that are filled each Sunday morning with a messenger who proclaims that the ministry mission of their particular church is to eradicate illiteracy within a four square mile area of their church doors. By way of implementation they recruit educators, students, and retirees to tutor and feed students between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. They finance the effort by pooling their resources and making a well planned presentation to leading charitable foundations. Imagine further that three hundred churches proclaim their mission to be the elimination of crime during school hours. They decide to organize citizen vehicle and foot patrols. Together they solicit their church members for individual donations to purchase neon jackets, yellow siren lights, flashlights and whistles. Now imagine that one hundred well meaning and enthusiastic churches carve out sections of Detroit to develop housing projects for low income and senior residents. The Churches form a mega-community development corporation and partner with private developers who are attracted to the exercise because of the tax credits which can be obtained. Sixty church based food pantries spring up anchored by food donations from Kroger, Wall Mart and Aramark Foods. Job training becomes the mantra of another two hundred churches. Along with the UAW and WC3 they solicit federal grants to fund their efforts. Forty five churches partner with DTE and the City of Detroit Water Department, The Heat and Warmth Fund and the United States Department of Energy to distribute energy subsidies and teach energy conservation. Next we see centers for the treatment of addiction occupying abandoned schools. The Partnership for a Drug Free America becomes the lead partner along with local hospitals, health insurance companies and federal health and human service agencies dedicated to tackling this issue.

     The term “faith based” is an overused phrase in our modern vernacular. It is over used because the act of connecting faith based institutions to basic social and economic resource institutions does not happen nearly as often as it can and should. There are numerous institutional partners with resources who are looking for innovative ways to deliver service to those who need it the most. Our faith community here in Detroit must be prepared for a complete paradigm shift in the role of the church in the community. We need less rhetoric and emotional appeals to unseen forces waiting to come to our rescue. This style of message delivery must be replaced in Detroit. If not permanently then, at the very least occasionally, we need to preach and hear practical messages of how the church can help save the community. These messages but be supplemented with real world actions that serve the interests and needs of the community at large. It is a spiritual imperative that we demonstrate from our pulpits and through our actions how the words found in the scriptures have a real time application that can improve the quality of life of those who suffer.

    There is simply no reason why the Church should not leverage its position as the oldest, most familiar, and most trusted institution in the African American community to improve the quality of life of her citizens. At this stage it is no longer optional for a Church to decide that it must prioritize the social and economic needs confronting the citizens in and around Detroit. It has escalated to the point of necessity.

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