“Detroit Makes You Sick.” That is the cover story of the April 8, 2016 edition of Newsweek. The article that follows states that much of the Motor City region is plagued by unhealthy water and polluted air. “It’s not just Flint. People all over the Motor City are being poisoned while officials look away.”
The current news frenzy only adds to nearly a decade of the media’s “love to hate” relationship with Motown. By now, most are familiar with the stories: bankruptcy, corruption, crime and the intractable decay of a once powerful American metropolis. However, this is far from a complete portrayal of contemporary Detroit and gives no inkling of what its citizens actually have to offer.
God did not create cities or nations or the U.N. He made individual people, formed in His image, joined into families and called to flourish – to be fruitful and multiply. The media perspective ignores the simple truth that Metro Detroit is home to 5.3 Million individuals. Each and every one of them possesses dignity and amazing creative capacity. When seen from that vantage, no challenge is too big.
My recent conversation with Detroit based Pastor Aaron Richardson, who leads both the Evangel Ministries’ Economic Restoration Group (E.M.E.R.G) and the Urban Enterprise Project (UEP) provided more than ample proof that Detroit can rise again.
Over the course of our conversation he pointed out that one harmful and inaccurate assumption is, “there’s no opportunity in Detroit.” However, he, and many other pastors, business leaders and active citizens reject that notion out of hand. And, they are working tireless to prove the negative guesswork wrong.
Informed by Christian tradition, these groups embody the principle of subsidiarity – the idea that social and economic problems should be solved by those closest to them. They eschew the dangers of institutional, detached and distant bureaucratic assistance, which inevitably breaks down the community bonds that best maintain transparency and accountability. Instead, they promote community based voluntary associations that play a key role in lasting economic and social development.
It’s working. I recently sat in on UEP’s Lion’s Den Business Pitch Competition. Four entrepreneurs competed for a top prize of $10,000. This project started with a group of 10 Pastors throughout the city who went through an intensive training program that equipped them to identify and cultivate entrepreneurs and business leaders in their church communities. This is only the beginning for them. They’ll host an employment conference in August 2016 and have every intention of growing from there.
Pastor Richardson also pointed out the striking correlation in the significant downturn in the number of Churches and the failure of the city to thrive economically. Over a 10-year period 50% percent of the churches closed! He credits this decrease to multiple factors – all of which their ministry, think tank, and network of pastors and business leaders are working hard to address. For Pastor Richardson, the connection is clear. As the community of God falters, so falters the community at large. They realize that transformation that endures does not result from a “quick fix” mindset. He points out that, “One of the biggest problems is the unwillingness to stay the course.”
That is precisely why he founded The Urban Enterprise Project. The UEP is a think tank focused on efficacious, intentional, community based development in Metro Detroit. Simply put, connect ideas to actions that work! They promote human flourishing through the integration of faith, work and sound economic principles. They recognize the local church has a key role to play. They also acknowledge the need to involve leaders from other arenas. As a result they’ve built strong partnerships that include business coaches, mentors, venture capital investors, and a host of other civic connections.
Their approach is tailored to the specific needs of Detroit’s diverse population pockets. Pastor Richardson describes is best, “We’ll leverage whatever the assets are in that specific community so there’s not cannibalization on this cookie cutter approach. Every community has its own special, unique assets.”
When asked about the top challenge to their work, Pastor Richardson responded,
“The sentiment of the people is they want to thrive but there are philosophical barriers when it comes to race, and when it comes to education, and when it comes to what is called the ‘shadow economy’ (economic and business activity done outside of legal structures due to significant barriers).” Therefore, they encourage others throughout the city to focus on more than economic development. The goal is to remove barriers that block any part of an individual’s life – spirit, soul, body, socially or financially.
The task may be daunting, but the case for hope is greater than the case against it. As Pastor Richardson points out, “Since 2011 up to 2015, there has been a massive effort of people coming together to love on the city of Detroit in special ways… Our asset is people.”
Detroit has a bright future. But, where challenges exist, I’m confident that there are local solutions that can catalyze lasting change. To quote Pastor Richardson one more time, “People need to know that Detroit has what it takes to be a thriving, world-class city, just as much as any other… There’s hope in this city.”
It inspires me to see the body of Christ in Detroit reach far beyond the Church walls with a holistic view of what the Gospel has to offer. I am confident that there is a cover story in Detroit’s future that reads “Detroit Makes You Flourish.”