White Elephant, Black Room
There has been a consistent theme the past week or so in the interactions and meetings that I have been having with several people. The conversations have all revolved around being credible as a white person in the city of Detroit.
When I arrived I wrote a story about a guy I met at McDonalds. We talked for a good time, or rather I sat quietly as he ranted, about the city. He told me that the city has changed a lot since white people left and that the only hope for the city was that we come back. Of course, he doesn’t mean “white people.” Rather, he means educated people and families. Educated people don’t stay in the city. They get good jobs and move to the suburbs.
Yesterday a group of us met with Mark VanAndel, the main teacher at Citadel of Faith, a predominately black church located a couple hundred yards from Wayne State. Mark is a white guy. He and his family live in the city. He was telling us about a kid who lived on his block. Mark had a loose relationship with the kid, just coordial. A couple years ago he saw the kid at a gas station. They caught up and the kid told him he had graduated from college and gotten a job working in IT at a business in Dearborn. “I am just trying to be like you, Mark,” he said. When Mark pressed him on what that meant, he explained that growing up, Mark was the only guy on the block with a job. Seeing that example pushed this kid to want to do that as well.
The problem isn’t that the white people are gone, it’s that all the good examples and role models are gone.
I told myself that since I was living in Detroit, I was making a difference, that I was more credible. I am beginning to think that is not the case. When I talk to the residents of Detroit that I am working with and I tell them I live in Boston-Edison, they role their eyes and say, “ooh…” just as if I were to say I lived in Rochester. Boston-Edison, though in the city, is a middle class neighborhood in a very poor city.
It is the opposite if I am talking to someone in Rochester, however. When I tell them that I live in Boston-Edison, down in the city, they are shocked. “You live in the city?” The difference is that with the attrition and avoidance behavior that suburb people have toward the city, the city becomes one entity. However, when I am talking to someone from the city who knows that the neighborhoods there are different, then they know that some neighborhoods are better than others.
I talked to my friend Mike Schmitt about this the other day. Mike is a Rochester resident who works for ElevateDetroit and does community barbecues. Mike is just a guy who wants to show people Jesus with a hamburger or hot dog, and there is no one I know with more ground-level credibility in the city than Mike.
It has been my experience that your credibility as a Christ-follower in the city is based more upon their actions and character than their township or neighborhood. All that people care about is that you care about them.