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Loving Thy Neighbor in Detroit

Loving Thy Neighbor in Detroit

Guest post by Teresa Bergen

Before visiting Detroit, I’d heard that the industrial Midwestern city was fighting hard to come back from blight, inspiring both local and imported artists and entrepreneurs to dream up new projects. But I wasn’t expecting the heightened sense of collaboration. During four days in Detroit, I met people who were as interested in uplifting the community as expanding their own wallets. Since I was visiting in a secular capacity, I have no idea what their faiths were. But I met excellent role models for anybody aspiring to act as Catholics are supposed to: loving thy neighbor and easing the lot of poor people.

Here are just a few of the entrepreneurial ventures I encountered who are creating new and wonderful things in Detroit.

  • The Empowerment Plan: Started as a class project, founder Veronika Scott now employs 20 formerly homeless individuals as seamstresses. They sew coats that convert into sleeping bags for homeless people. Their factory is located inside the Ponyride business incubator, which requires tenants to help each other as well as the wider community.
  • Detroit Vegan Soul: Two young African American women, Erika Boyd and Kirsten Ussery, loved traditional soul food, but recognized the negative health effects it had on their families. So they developed healthier, plant-based versions of favorite recipes and opened a popular restaurant patronized by customers of all races.
  • Detroit River Sports: Alex Howbert grew up sailing on the Detroit River, and wondering why hardly anybody else did. Now his business Detroit Water Sports rents kayaks and gives kayak tours, letting him share his love of the river with visitors and residents.
  • Wheelhouse Detroit: Kelli Kavanaugh gets Motor City residents out of cars and onto bikes. Her guides offer a variety of themed tours, including one focusing on Detroit’s churches.

Beautiful Old Churches

I stayed an extra day to see a bit more. Since that day happened to be a Sunday, it was the perfect day to get inside some churches. Without a car, it’s hard to access many of the city’s more famous churches. I was bummed to miss Saint Anne of Detroit, the city’s oldest church, and Saint Josaphat, which I also heard was fabulous. But it turned out that my walking tour of churches near my hotel was fascinating and provided plenty of religious art and history.

Old Saint Mary’s

Old Saint Mary’s is hard to miss when you’re touring Detroit. As I touristed around town, I kept catching glimpses of its tall, striped towers. Since it was close to where I was staying at Aloft (an excellent hotel), I walked over to Greektown for the 8:30 mass. Saint Mary’s was built in 1884 and provides that lofty, big church experience – high ceilings, grand old wooden confessionals, even three grottoes in the rear.  It was the first German Catholic church in Detroit, built long before the neighborhood took a turn for the Greek. After mass, I spoke with two priests. One was from Utah. He said that nothing in the west compares to Detroit’s cathedrals. Nor does he think the city’s bad rep is warranted. “Detroit is wonderful,” he told me.

The other priest described Old Saint Mary’s congregation as traditional. Not that they want to turn the clock back before Vatican Two, but the church has old-style confessions, Eucharist at the communion rail and a traditional choir rather than folk or electronic music. He said it’s a place where people can come and worship with other people but not have to hug everyone. He kindly directed me to two other close-by churches for my self-guided walking tour.

Holy Family

This small church turned out to be a total gem. Completed in 1910, it’s long served Detroit’s Sicilian and Southern Italian community. I accidentally wandered in during mass. The interior was so gorgeous I wanted to take photos, so I stayed. Holy Family is colorfully painted predominantly in light blue with pink trim. An angel-painted dome surrounds a statue of the holy family. Every alcove seemed to hold a lovelier statue than the last. I especially liked the painted cherubs pouring rose petals down on a statue of Mary. This mass was even more traditional than Old Saint Mary’s. The priest faced the altar and spoke Latin (or was it Italian?) for much of the service. If you happen to be in recovery from alcoholism, the communion wafers are pre-dotted with wine. editors note:  not sure how that would apply to recovering alcoholics, but you could perhaps ask the priest in advance to ask for a host that does not have alcohol in it.

I walked outside after mass and found about 40 people preparing for an annual procession through the neighborhood in honor of Saint Fara di Cinisi. With my red hair, I definitely stood out amongst the folks with Italian accents. They were friendly enough when I struck up a conversation and said I was welcome to join the procession. But I opted instead to continue my walking tour.

Saints Peter and Paul

After Holy Family, the first Catholic cathedral in Detroit seemed classic and much less colorful. A friendly parishioner emphasized the church’s importance as the oldest continually operating church in Detroit, with nary an Easter or Christmas mass skipped. This church is run by Jesuits and has beautiful old altar pieces and classically painted portraits of saints on the ceiling.

Mariners Church

The Mariners Church is, appropriately, close to the river. I poked my head in during the service. One of the ushers gave me a whispered tour of this independent, Anglican-affiliated church that uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  A former Catholic, he joined the Mariners Church when he married the pastor’s daughter. The ship theme is carried throughout the building, with a stained glass window dedicated to sailors who died on the Great Lakes, and a collection of model ships and ship art in the downstairs library. The usher pointed out a Detroit Redwings logo made of stained glass in the front door. The Mariners Church has several interesting distinctions. This 3,000-ton hulk was moved 900 feet in 1955, it was mentioned in the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and, most importantly, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. A tunnel from its basement connected to the waterfront.

Don’t Miss Out

One afternoon in Detroit, I was admiring murals when I noticed a scraggly looking fellow on a bicycle had stopped beside me. He had few teeth, big gray dreads and looked like he might be homeless. I asked him what he thought of the murals. Soon we were talking about art and he was showing me the elaborate carvings he does. Now 65, he accidentally discovered his latent talent for whittling nine years ago, while helping a 95 year-old neighbor cut some wood. Now he’s known as the Amazing Stick Man. I was inspired by his story of stumbling upon this latent talent while doing good for others. And I realized if I had been so put off by his appearance that I hadn’t talked to him, I wouldn’t have heard his story. Judging others isn’t only wrong, it makes us miss out.

It’s sort of like visiting Detroit. If visitors don’t look beyond the photos of blighted neighborhoods they see in magazines, they’ll miss all the excitement of a historic city’s resurrection.


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