Since the bipartisan Grand Bargain, the deal to address Detroit’s bankruptcy and the benefits of retirees, an important segment of this town that has yet to be surveyed on this deal, even as pensioners continue to vote ahead of the July 11 deadline vote on the proposal, is the Detroit area clergy community.
For decades, the city’s clergy has weighed in on issues relating to the socioeconomic and political development of Detroit and has always taken a stance on the matters shaping the future of the city.
Even though some critics say the clergy’s influence has been waning in recent years, it still does not mitigate a simple fact: Detroit area ministers continue to wield influence because they speak to hundreds and thousands of parishioners each week at their churches, many of whom are retirees who depend on the their pastors for guidance.
Bishop Drew Sheard, the senior pastor of Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ, lamented that Detroit pensioners are going to take a cut in their benefits.
“Our seniors have worked for their retirement. It is just unfair that we would think to do anything other than that which would give them their full benefits. That has been my major concern,” Sheard said in an interview. “It is not something that I think should be on the able. Let’s look at other things from another perspective. Messing with people who have already retired just doesn’t sit well and is a gross injustice.”
Bishop Sheard said it is “contradictory that a person who has worked all their life, done what America has emphasized they should do in working and taking care of their families,” would now be put in a place where they are between a rock and a hard place.
“We are now going to put them in a place where they are not going to live the way they should,” Sheard said adding that while he is not advocating for the Grand Bargain, he would like retirees to look at their options carefully and see what they would have to give up.
“I’m not in favor of any concessions, but we have to talk realistically about what is on the table and our seniors should figure out what is the best way to get out.”
Rev. Kevin Turman of Second Baptist Church of Detroit said he and a number of clergy members met with Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr last week to discuss the Grand Bargain as part of efforts to enlist the support of the clergy in informing their congregation members about it, not “inflame them.”
“He (Orr) understands our anger. We are angry with the governor and with him for being the emergency manager irrespective of how well he is performing. We don’t like the undemocratic nature of the Michigan legislature,” Turman said. “But all that said, we are where we are and I encouraged my congregation last week to support the Grand Bargain because the consequences of not supporting it certainly seem to be worse.”
Turman said he is not suggesting that it is a great deal.
“Only it is to be preferred to what would happen if this deal falls apart. It would hurt them worse than the pain they are going to feel,” Turman said. “One of the emergency manager’s promises is that no one would sink below the level of poverty and as dire as the consequences are, they would not be devastating.”
Turman said the city is reaping what he calls “the harvest of bad decisions made by pension board people, union officials and political elected officers. They did us a disservice.”
He said Detroit should have heeded the warnings of former Auditor General Joseph Harris whose annual audits showed signs of an impending financial meltdown in city government.
“After hearing a presentation by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, Judge Victoria Roberts and attorney Eugene Driker and hearing directly from members of the unions I believe that the Grand Bargain is a better option than no bargain at all,” said Rev. Georgia Hill, associate minister at Plymouth United Church of Christ.
“Years of costly litigation, tremendous uncertainty and a heavy financial burden on the retirees who are least able to afford it, will be the outcome if there is a ‘no’ vote. I think it is terrible that hardworking, responsible and conscientious employees must pay the price for others’ decisions and conduct not their own.”
Hill said her own prayer is “that all of us in this city would learn to better care for one another.”
Rev. Bertram Marks of First Community Baptist Church, who is also an attorney, said as ministers they are uneasy about the shifting sands of the bankruptcy process in Detroit.
“The Grand Bargain represents the biggest challenge to our collective sense of trust. Once emergency manager legislation was rushed through the lame duck 2012 Michigan legislature, the fate of hardworking people was placed in the hands of an unelected lawyer from another state.
“This same emergency manager willingly took the city of Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy the nation has ever known,” Marks said. “The American judicial system will ultimately decide whether the imposition of the emergency manager in Detroit violated fundamental constitutional protections for citizens.
“This decision will not occur in the near future. Instead, in the short term, pensioners are forced to consider very hard facts. They must accept that they will not get a better deal if the one before them fails.”
Marks said it is a forgone legal conclusion that the Michigan Constitution guarantees pension benefits and that the federal court will ultimately decide this and other related complex legal issues.
“As for now, we are forced to consider the assertions of those executing this process. As Kevyn Orr has reminded us more often than we would like to hear, the pension and retiree benefits are not sacrosanct in a bankruptcy,” Marks said.
“Federal bankruptcy laws trump state law on many levels. Bankruptcy, by nature, is designed to scuttle contractual agreements in favor of any process that eliminates debts for an entity such as the city of Detroit.”
Pastor Larry Jordan, of Family Victory Fellowship Church, said Detroit pensioners would be better off accepting the Grand Bargain than potentially losing everything should they vote no on the deal.
“It is better to go with a cut payment versus nothing at all because if you risk everything and lose it, you truly lose,” Jordan said. “Many of us have to accept a pay cut to go through a moment.”
Jordan said he recalls in 2008 at the beginning of the mortgage and financial meltdown when his business took a hit and he had to inform his nearly 30 employees of a six-month pay cut and they accepted.
“Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture than personal reward,” Jordan said.
Marks said even though with the Grand Bargain comes hardships imposed on a number of Detroit retirees, “the pain will not be as devastating and widespread as it could have been without the Grand Bargain.”
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. Email email@example.com.