Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Fire & Rain

Everyone who thirsts, come to the Waters. Let the one who has no money come…
Isaiah 55:1

We arrived in Detroit on Saturday, August 23, just after 3pmEST. Some members of the neighborhood (Lydia, Erinn, Bill & Isaac) helped us unload our car, sweating up the steep steps to our 2nd story apartment. We walked over to the block party where children aged 2 to 72 were painting their faces, making t-shirts and eating candy. After Lindsay won the highly anticipated game of adult musical chairs, Roger invited us into his backyard to show off the family garden, gifting us with a bag full of pears and cucumbers.
On Sunday morning, we joined the St. Peter’s Episcopal community for church and potluck (the gift economy is thriving in this community!). On our short drive back to Cecil Street, a stone’s throw from our apartment, a home was burning down (our neighbors say it’s either some teenagers on the block or, more likely, the banks cashing in on insurance payouts on the original value of the home). The only thing we expected to be burning this Sunday were candles. In the church.
Later that day, we joined a group of a dozen pastors, teachers, school board members and community organizers who were passionately discussing the ongoing injustice around water, schools, public transportation & housing. We were moved by their deep social analysis combined with a creative and compassionate desire to actually do something about it. This Spring, the city of Detroit, “governed” by an Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor of Michigan, began shutting off the water of residents who were $ 150+ behind on their water bills. Some of these folks are renters whose landlords didn’t pay the bills. Many others have fallen on hard times and cannot afford the steep payments. This has become national news: even the L.A. Times has been covering it (my Dad told me he read this article today).

Meanwhile, it was reported that many of the local stadiums and corporate headquarters in downtown have been tens of thousands of dollars behind on their water bills. Perhaps the city should turn off the water at Comerica Park? Perhaps the Tigers would have a rain water shut-off delay? Even the UN has declared the whole situation a human rights catastrophe. Fortunately, many faith leaders are following through on their pledge to be a voice for the most vulnerable in the city (Below: St. Peter's is an official water station to meet the needs of residents who have faced shut-offs).

Last week, we traveled 2500 miles from our native land, plagued by drought, but still, ironically, showcasing lush lawns, washed cars and abundant produce. This week, we dwell in a city that is price-gouging its residents even though the region has access to 20% of the entire fresh water supply on the planet. On Tuesday, we became witnesses of this, making pilgrimage to the long lines at the water payment centers, listening to the stories of Detroiters clinging to dignity & hope in the face of monstrous adversity. We held back our own tears as we tried to find ways to be helpful in the face of their impossible plights. We gleaned hope from their resilience, realizing there was little we could do to assist in their struggle to maintain (for at least one more month!) this basic necessity for life.

We are learning quickly: Detroit is a world away from where we grew up in South Orange County, adding more and more layers of truth to the phone conversation I had a few weeks ago with the L.A. Times customer service representative:
Her: Thanks for calling the L.A. Times customer service hotline what can I do for you today?
Me: I’m just calling to cancel my subscription.
Her: I’m sorry to hear that. May I ask why you want to end your delivery service?
Me: We are moving to Detroit.
Her: Oh, I see. You are moving out of the country.
Me: Uh, kind of.
Indeed, this historic Land is foreign to us. Many of the statistics, reported by the mainstream outlets, intended to shock & startle, are well known at a head level (record-setting bankruptcy in the billions, 14 arsons per day, 57 minute average response time to 911 calls, 90,000 foreclosures since ’08). But it is the stories of survival, resiliency & what Dr. Cornel West calls “hope on a tightrope” that are beckoning to be experienced deeply in our souls. This year, we expect to be confronted with Divine surprises, a sacred blend of desolations and consolations around every blighted corner. We sincerely hope that you, too, are inspired by the stories of this underdog city. Thank you for journeying with us, through encouraging word and engaging prayer.
We have very little furniture, but not to worry: we just picked up a dorm-sized refrigerator and an old book shelf at the little "pop-up" thrift store down the street. We weathered a vintage Midwest storm over a dinner of salad (with veggies mostly from neighbors & the church garden) and oatmeal. We are finding deep joy in the everyday pleasures of being in a new place matched by unexpected generosity & hospitality around every corner.

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