A year has now gone by, and our hope has seen that fruition. In one way or another, churches are mustering their numbers into the city. Early June saw 45,000 Jehovah’s Witness fill Ford Stadium for one of their many annual worship conferences. The National Baptist Convention brought 25,000 members over in late June. The latest of these gatherings was the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) triennial Youth Gathering. It numbered around 30,000 folks. What’s even crazier to think about is how each of these gatherings grew the population of Detroit by anywhere from 3-6%. And while many of us may disagree with the official stances of some of these church groups, what unites them is the conscious decision they made to worship, sleep, eat, and serve in a city that many still won’t dare to enter. Yet with the end of every gathering, tens of thousands of folks return home to softly build up the bright, shining face Detroit because they have – in some way – seen and been a part of its rebirth.
Unlike the former two, the ELCA’s gathering focused on service. This occasion for the ECLA is triennial, meaning it is particularly special for them to come to any location. Their service ranged from fixing up the roofs of dilapidated houses to tending the urban farms to just about any project they could feasibly take up with their few days’ stay. Their numbers were so large that some had to stay in hotels outside the city, awaiting a daily commute by bus to their service location. Their work-shirts represented every hue of neon, a glowing compliment to their already glowing spirits.
I chose to focus on the ELCA because it provides a critical example of service. Like us in DukeEngage, their stay was temporary and yet they shuttled themselves here because they had a deep belief in the “good” they were doing. Many folks are rightly critical of these “tours of duty” done by outsiders. Without ample understanding or sensitivity, volunteers can arrive with a sort of “savior” mindset too. This mindset can lull volunteers into believing that their service is more special and unique than that of those who have worked hard before them, stripping away the agency of longtime residents who have fought hard for the same. Lack of historical purview too can rightly plague volunteers with the labels of naivety, of bigoted, or just plain rude. But volunteers that are able to take ownership of those labels, to acknowledge the truth of their own ignorance and to honor the need to approach their service carefully, will be able to do even more good — because every volunteer goes home. And, more powerful than the trinkets and new friendships, these volunteers will arrive home with stories.
From what I have read, I believe that the ECLA did a good job in preparing its young people — through classtime sessions on racism, classism, injustice, sexism, and Detroit’s history — before and during their time here. My hope and joy is in the stories that will return to the churches in Iowa, in California, in North Dakota, in North Carolina, in every state where the ECLA’s near 4-million person membership is present. Those stories, if told correctly, will honor every aspect of Detroit and include both the needs met and the needs still present, and the stories of folks who never arrived nor left because they are serving in the city they call home.