On a warm spring day in May, as flowers and weeds sprouted through the cracks in the streets of Detroit, clergy, lay people, and activists gathered at Cass Community UMC to participate in this year’s Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training hosted at this historic inner-city Detroit church. Held on May 18-20, 2016, the event was the second of at least five Ministry with the Poor experiential trainings that will take place across the country in 2016..
Unique among United Methodist churches, including churches practicing vibrant Ministry with the Poor, Cass Community UMC and its associated nonprofit organization, Cass Community Social Services, actually create jobs, revenue and opportunities in their local urban economy. The experiential training at Cass allowed us to participate in these burgeoning industries and learn about their creation and evolution.
Still in Good Friday
Once considered a cautionary tale of urban blight and inner city crime, Detroit has seen some good press in recent years. The Detroit revival has seen young millennials return to the city of their birth to partake in exciting examples of contemporary food culture, a lively arts and music scene, and new forms of tourism and entertainment.
But this renaissance hasn’t touched all parts of the Motor City. “Most neighborhoods haven’t seen the Resurrection, they’re still in Good Friday,” preaches Rev. Faith Fowler. Cass’ neighborhood—so undesirable in recent years that it doesn’t even have a name—is riddled with dilapidated buildings, empty lots, and discarded tires. A pall of decay remains over the area.
Yet Cass refuses to abandon its neighborhood or declare “urban revival” without real economic changes for the poor and marginalized. Cass has a history of work with the poor and unhoused, a tradition that accelerated rapidly with the ministries of Rev. Fowler. This is why Cass’ motto, emblazoned on a banner in their Green Industries factory, is “Fighting Poverty and Creating Opportunity.”
In introducing us to Cass and Detroit on the first day of the experiential training, Rev.Fowler asked us to name three things Detroit brought to mind. Besides Motown, cars, and sports teams, urban decay was unfortunately one of our foremost images of the city. With this as a stepping off point, Rev. Fowler gave us a brief history of Cass in the context of its role and relationship with the neighborhood, as well as the recent gentrification issues in the city. Cass has always had anti-poverty ministries, but Rev. Fowler explained that the drive to create jobs and industry in recent years came from a desire to foster a sustainable impact in the lives of the people.
Unlike other urban UMC churches that serve a congregation of folks who drive to the church from the suburbs or from a more affluent part of a city, most of the people at Cass are chronically underemployed, unhoused, or struggling with mental or physical disabilities. Cass is truly a church of its neighborhood. In response, Cass has initiated many ministries and programs through its nonprofit social services organization.
Following Rev. Fowler’s overview, we took a tour of the Activity Center at Cass where services are provided for those struggling with developmental disabilities. The Activity Center also houses Cass’micro-enterprises, where chronically underemployed folks are able to start micro businesses with the support of Cass staff. These business opportunities, which range from hat-making to custom dog leashes, from button selling to jewelry, produce income for consumers in the developmentally disabled program, but even more importantly are a source of pride, dignity and purpose. The items are frequently sold at local arts and crafts fairs, as well as on the internet. Cass has also provided no-interest micro-loans to individuals who want to start small businesses, from street art to attending beauty/barber school.
The jewel in the crown of Cass’ job creation efforts is its “Green Industries,” an amalgamation of environmentally sustainable, entrepreneurial, and creative industries that employ local people who would otherwise find it difficult to find or keep paying jobs. These jobs all pay more than minimum wage, while at the same time cleaning up Detroit city streets and producing fine examples of local crafts. The “green” nature of the industries is important to Cass, for, as Rev. Fowler explained, “Global warming effects the poor first and worst.”
Green Industries is now located in Cass’World Building, a huge multi-story structure that once housed a medical supply nonprofit before succumbing to abandonment. Beginning with the creation of mud mats from discarded tires, Green Industries has expanded to Detroit-themed coasters, sandals, and elegant macramé planters. Cass also operates a paper shredding business that processes paper for local Detroit businesses and professionals.
During the training, we got to experience some of these industries first-hand. On the initial day of the training, we sorted and shredded documents for Cass’ Document Destruction enterprise. Feeling a bit like Lucille Ball on the chocolate factory assembly line, we learned quickly that though the paper shredding business offers low-skilled employment, it is by no means an easy job. Those of us stationed at the shredder rather than the sorting line found that our paper sorting skills definitely could use improvement.
On Friday, we also got to participate in the creation of Green Industries Mud Mats. Although this work is designed to employ people who are chronically underemployed or struggling with disabilities or addiction, the work is satisfying and results in a complex example of artistic creation. We had to learn how to match a color design for a mat to the reality of assembling strips of rubber from recycled tires, which Cass “harvests” themselves from the streets of Detroit.
In pairs, we put together the mats under the supervision of one of Green Industries’ regular employees, men and women who are formerly homeless. The supervisor of my group frequently had to correct our mistakes assembling the mat. But at the end of the afternoon, we had one completed product on which to sign our initials in silver ink. The sense of accomplishment I got from finishing just one mat illustrated how important the dignity of work and creation is for those folks whom our society has discarded as almost as useless as old tires. Yet here at Cass, both the raw materials and the people were considered valuable and the abandoned buildings were seen as potential venues for new enterprises, housing, and communities.
Housing the Marginalized
Many of the folks at Cass are unhoused, a deep shame for a city that contains a huge number of abandoned properties, empty lots, and urban sprawl. Cass Community Social Services has responded to this issue through a variety of forms of housing, from emergency housing for those who need a temporary place to stay, to transitional housing for those recovering from addiction or domestic violence, to the beautiful Antisdel Building, which permanently houses dozens of people in a rehabilitated apartment complex.
We received a tour of these facilities, and ate breakfast several mornings in the Antisdel Building’s basement. One of the women attending the training, who had first visited Cass several years earlier, expressed amazement that the building had gone from an example of urban decay and abandonment to a clean, comfortable apartment building in just a few years.
Folks who stay at Antisdel may remain there for as short or as long as they desire. Cass’ variety of housing options reflects the fact that Cass does not dictate to its people what they need or require—Cass respects people to have agency over their own struggles, even if they are underemployed or addicted. On working with the homeless, Rev. Fowler suggests, “The important thing to remember is it’s their goals.”
On our final day at Cass, we had the privilege of witnessing Cass’ philosophy of job creation and entrepreneurialism in action when we were at the church for the announcement of their new Tiny Homes program. The Tiny Homes program aims to create a neighborhood of tiny houses on the church campus. Essentially comprising a miniature town, these homes will be sold for less than their value to folks who can live in them as long as they desire, or resell them at a higher price to others when they have gotten back on their feet and moved into more traditional housing. It is thus both a housing program and a direct financial investment in the people of community.
Worship at the World
Cass’ power-sharing with the marginalized was evident in the hospitality and dignity we witnessed at Cass’ ministries and programs. Folks who had been homeless before finding community at Cass were servers, not recipients. For example, they served us delicious meals cooked in Cass’ million-meal-a-year kitchen.
On Wednesday evening, we worshipped in the new World Building on an industrial floor still half empty and ready to house new ministries and businesses, right next to Cass’ free clinic. A musical group called the Ambassadors, consisting of formerly homeless members of the Cass congregation, led worship. Rev. Fowler gave a stirring sermon, but she also drove us herself in a church van to dinner and around the campus buildings.
Much like the flowers sprouting up in the Detroit concrete, Cass is a place where radical community has sprouted in a neighborhood that many would have abandoned to decay and blight. Even if many of Detroit’s neighborhoods are still in Good Friday, Cass Community UMC, at least, is walking in the light of the Resurrection.
For more information on Cass Community UMC, read our Transformational Ministries profile on the church.
The next Ministry with the Poor Experiential Trainings will be held on
- October 6-8, 2016 at St. John’s UMC, Houston; and
- October 24-26, 2016 at the Church for All People, Columbus, Ohio.