Last month, my wife and I headed north to the ailing city of Detroit. She was going on business. I was tagging along, earning my keep as chauffeur, unpacker of boxes, and runner of other random errands. When folks heard where we were headed, an expression of bewilderment usually came to their faces. “Why in the world would you want to go to Detroit?” many people playfully, though slightly seriously, asked. Like most folks across the U.S., I’d heard the narrative of decline concerning the Motor City. The infrastructure is crumbling. Industrial facilities sit vacant or mostly empty. Dilapidated houses overwhelm city block after city block. Many aspects of city life prove the narrative of decline to be true. The city has been hit hard over the past several decades, and no immediate, easy route to recovery is clearly discernible.
While visiting the city, I spent a few evenings with an advisor and professor friend of mine, James Perkinson, who has now spent several decades there living and working. He often remarks that living in Detroit has provided a crucible-like space in which he underwent (and continues to undergo) a deep transformation.1 Even with many books and articles published, Perkinson is quick to remind listeners that he has long been in the role of a student, learning from the residents of Detroit. For decades folks have had to find ways to thrive and survive in the midst of a devastated city. As Perkinson has lived and worked with these folks in the midst of such struggles, he remarks that he has been changed by witnessing the “genius” of many residents in their efforts to “[make] desperation yield beauty in spite of itself.”2 In other words, as outsiders looking in, many would expect that folks in such a blighted area would be hopeless, or, at the least, that there would be no measurable presence of creativity, resistance, or spiritual vitality. Perkinson, on the other hand, argues that underneath the narrative of decline and devastation, real as it is, there are also many points of hope and beauty to be found, even as they have to be wrung out of bleak, harsh conditions.
The beauty attested to by Perkinson can be found in the faithful prayers of religious folk, the junk art of Tyree Guyton and the Heidelberg Project, art collectives and bazaars housed in empty industrial complexes, the rhythms and words of youth participating in hip-hop and spoken word performances, the growing number of urban gardens springing up in abandoned lots, and in countless other gatherings and community-based projects. On Perkinson’s read, these different ventures illuminate and are influenced by the movement of the Spirit, which ceaselessly works to bring new life and energy to hard hit communities and the individuals just trying to get by who live within them.
I mention all of this simply to give witness to what I’ve learned from one of my advisors, and what he’s learned from countless individuals who have been committed to “making desperation yield beauty in spite of itself.” While these particular reflections pay tribute to what’s happening on the ground in Detroit, I am suggesting here that we can learn to see the struggles of others as not dissimilar from our own and that we can learn from their creative countermeasures. There are plenty of foreclosed opportunities and struggles to be found in both urban and rural areas, from coast to coast and certainly beyond the shores of the U.S. I hope that we work creatively, wherever we may be, with the same Spirit moving in Detroit. In whatever ways that may be culturally relevant to the reader, I hope that we can find creative and healthy measures to create more just, sustainable communities that are welcoming and affirming for all God’s children. Wherever we find ourselves planted, I hope that we, young and older adults alike, make an effort to learn from and listen deeply to those who have been making a way out of no way with the help of the Spirit, remembering that it is in these places that we most often find Christ present and at work.
1. James Perkinson, Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts, and Empire (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), xxix.