The sound of raindrops outside the 53rd story window was a surprise at first so early in the morning. It was so peaceful, but soon we would be walking in it. A whole lot of us.
We woke up early. We had to. It was service day, which at first didn’t really mean much. We all had no idea just what it would be that we would be doing. After breakfast we walked out in the rain to a place with a big television screen on a stage where many Lutherans stood dancing and waiting. We had our gloves. We had our bags. And we waited.
For about an hour and a half everyone gathered in the rain for dancing, to hear prayer, and to get pumped up to serve. Then we were separated onto buses. The St. Paul group tagged people’s bags with a dog face with our name on it before getting on our buses. We had to do this sneakily, but every group there had some way of “tagging strangers”.
Our guide was Toni, who told us after leaving the area that we would be boarding up houses and cleaning up yards in one of the worst parts of Detroit. She warned us about tall grass where ticks lurked, and to watch for any guns, blades, glass, or drug filled syringes we may find for these were all common in the area we were going.
“If you find any”, she said very seriously, “come and get me or another leader. Don’t pick anything up that you shouldn’t. We don’t want any cuts or other serious injuries!”
When we got to the place we were supposed to be we saw people working. Some boards were already on houses since we could only go up to a certain height for safety. But they were so glad to see us. A neighbor from the area was cleaning up a yard, his name was Geno. I saw God’s work in him throughout the day. He was an amazing person as was his wife. They helped for no reward or value, they just wanted a better place to live in. We met a man and lady there who helped lead the work that day and they gave us a pep talk on what to expect. They told us that all of this was for a good cause but that it wouldn’t be pretty.
“Just stick together”, the man had said, “never go on your own. This has been voted time and time again the worst area here in Detroit. Maybe today you’ll see why. But it’s getting better, and now many think it’s no longer a candidate for that list. It gets better because of people willing to help like you! Get as much done as you can please but always be doing it safely!”
So we did. They put one third of us on boarding the remaining four houses and the others on cleaning up the yards.
I was put on cleaning up the yard. Tall grass covered the fences, you couldn’t see other houses around because the grass was there. No one knew what was in it. So we had to use blades connected to a stick, a horizontal scythe is the best way of putting it, to cut the grass at a slow pace. Cutting the grass for 2 homes took a good 3-4 hours and we couldn’t get all of it done. Because buried in some was dozens of capped syringes. So they told us not to cut it in those areas for safety.
Before lunch I found a bottle full of gasoline, a garbage bag full of dirty clothes, a television, a few empty picture frames, empty beer bottles, broken glass, dozens of those capped syringes, spiders, ants, and dirt mixed in with all of it.
We continued to work. Not stopping because a common goal was in mind: we wanted to do as much as we could in the time we were allotted to be there. We knew we wouldn’t get everything done, the leaders had said these homes were worse than they figured.
A lady whispered to me though, “I’m glad no one yet has had any sight of a gun.” I was too. It was common to find one there in almost every vacant house. So we were definitely lucky.
We had boxed lunches in a church. There were children spending their day there. At one point we ran into some. They wanted to talk with us so badly, they wondered why it was we were there. Some looked confused. But most looked joyful. The main thing we got to say was hi. And that for the most part was it. Because we both had things to do. And after lunch it was right back to work.
We collected the grass and trash into garbage bags.
“Our main goal is for the safety of children walking to school and many cut through here”, the man had said. “We don’t want a kid picking up a gun, or stepping on a syringe. Could you imagine that? How it would end?” I thought of the smiling faces we had just seen in the church.
He continued, “It happens. You better believe that it happens.”
Some people cut down trees. Many started to unfasten weeds from the mess. There was junk in almost everything and everywhere. It was sad to see. It was impossible to picture children crossing through here. We had gloves and equipment to protect ourselves. And they all always had nothing but their eyes to look for danger.
I went out toward the curb after lunch and a kid named Tyler from another group had told me that they found baby rats at the other house. And that there were so many of them so they placed them into one of the two dozen garage bags toppled up on top of each other. I thought I had heard something in one of them earlier. And I’m not being overdramatic here.
Suddenly right after that another man came by and he complained that all our trash was located on his property.
“I’m not mad at you”, he had said, “but Geno should know better.”
He went up toward him. “Get it off now! I like what you are doing, but I am not letting this on my property. Move it over!”
I saw Geno become angry, but only for a slight second. He followed the man in the street to talk to him and the discussion became heated. I thought that they would fight, but they did not. At first when he came back he told us not to move the trash, but then the leaders had started to and he cooled down.
I could tell why he was frustrated. Geno had said that the building wasn’t even really his property. It belonged, I believe, to a local church.
I helped move the heavy bags, without knowing what was inside of them. Maybe one had the helpless rats in it. Nobody knew. The last thing to move was a rug filled with a few maggots and long tubular worms. Dr. Holly moved most of it. And a few others picked up the rest.
The rest of the time there most of the St. Paul crew piled up twigs and trees into piles by cutting them into smaller pieces. This was very labor intensive. A few people left to go get popsicles for everyone else.
After all the cutting was finished and all bags were filled we left with pictures and hugs. Geno and his wife thanked us. His wife had planted flowers outside their house. They remained untouched as we promised her.
It made me think of a poem 2pac wrote before he became famous which its message had a lot to do with the area we were in.
It goes like this,
Did you hear about the rose,
That grew from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong
It learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
It learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live that rose that grew from the concrete,
When no one else seemed to care.
Children in the hardest hit part of the city still believed in themselves, a child next to us pushed his toy lawn mower beside us up and down the side walk. He continued to as we left on our buses. He must have been 4 years old.
We showered when we got back. I smelled worse than ever before in my life. I took off my ELCA gathering shirt right away once I got into my room.
We had dinner. And we went right back to Ford Field.
Rachel Kurtz played that night. And a surprise performer was there as well. It ended up being two Temptations as well as two other men from other Motown groups. The crowd was wild! Both Rachel Kurtz and the Motown singers were amazing that night!! They did also sing My Girl and some early Michael Jackson songs too.
We listened to talks of encouragement as well. Here are some Youtube links to the speakers that Friday night.
A speech given from Rani Abduhlmasih
A Pastor talks about a kid he had in his congregation who spread love but was killed with hate over the color of his skin. He talks about how the Lord was present through the traumatic experience.
Friday Rachel Kurtz’s closing song:
The midtown tribute with all the songs they performed.
We again walked home in the streets. The Detroit Tigers had beaten the Orioles that night. The city was overjoyed. God shined his light everywhere, even in the early morning rain.
And on the walk back I even saw a glimpse of that rose sprouting from the concrete.by