A reflection by our own Joe Rutter
“God don’t make no junk.”
Ethel Waters, African American Entertainer and Devout Roman Catholic
In 1975, after I had graduated from Ohio State (the first time) and I was full of the desire to change the world and work for justice and peace, I volunteered to be a community organizer in a neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. The project I joined was the North Central Detroit Community Organizing Project. We were funded in part by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and by a consortium of Christian churches in the neighborhood. The State Fair neighborhood between 6 Mile and 8 Mile Roads was an ethnically diverse community rapidly becoming less so as “white flight”, encouraged by the “block busting” tactics of the realtors, convinced many long time residents that the city was no longer safe to live in after the riots in 1968.
My job was to go door to door, to talk to residents about their concerns regarding the neighborhood and, where there seemed to be enough common concern about some issue such as street lighting or rats in the alley, to help residents organize a meeting with public officials to get the problems resolved. The idea was that this would be empowering and would also help residents realize that a broad spectrum of their neighbors shared their same concerns and aspirations. Our goal was to break down some of the racial prejudice and hopelessness found in the community.
I don’t know if my work that year made much difference in the lives of the people there. I do know that I received countless gifts of insight, wisdom, human empathy, laughter, grief, and love. I entered the experience believing in the equal rights of all people, but I left Detroit understanding that our human condition, our amazing array of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, is what God desires for us and how God created us. Differences are not the problem. Accepting and celebrating differences is our salvation.
I talked to a lot of people that year, but the majority of folks I spoke with were Black Americans. The ones who opened their doors to me (and there were many) knew they had a well-meaning but somewhat clueless white boy on their hands, and they told me their stories. They had moved north during the war to work for Ford or GM, or they had married a man who was from Michigan, or they had been in Detroit for generations. They were Baptist, or Lutheran, or Roman Catholic, or Pentecostal. They told me about the cruelties of segregation, how they experienced daily insults to their dignity in schools, businesses, public accommodations, and churches. They told me stories about working for equal justice, about long labor strikes and how the black workers were always the first to be laid off or beaten. Many who worked in the auto plants bought their first home in the “mixed’ State Fair neighborhood so their kids could attend the better schools. They regretted the violence of the “riots” but understood the pent up anger and frustration. They hated how their city was resegregating but felt powerless to change the situation.
James Evans, in his essay on Black theology, states that living in a racist society requires that people of African descent first understand what it means to be black, and then what it means to be human. In a way I never expected, the residents of Detroit taught me what it means to be the person God made me to be. Their struggles to be faithful and authentic in a society that did not value or acknowledge them as being in the image and likeness of God gave me courage to see myself as beautiful and soulful. To not “let nobody turn me around” but rather to grow into the Imago Dei I’m called to be. Amen.