Cass Community UMC: Cherishing the Discarded

Cass Community UMC
11850 Woodrow Wilson
Detroit, MI 48201

Cass Community Social Services
11745 Rosa Parks Boulevard
Detroit, MI 48206
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Cass Community UMC in Detroit, MI.
Cass Community UMC in Detroit, MI.

Ministry Overview

At Cass, the Holy Spirit invites all in. Old tires dropped off in empty lots are sought after because this community sees purpose and value in the discarded. They know that these are not simply old tires but treasures ready to give new life by creating employment and community. Yet people are sought after even more. Everyone has value, gifts, and something to offer. (Sandy Devoid, UM Christian Educator, “Ministering with the Poor at Cass Community UMC“)

Cass Community UMC in Detroit, Michigan and its affiliated not-for-profit, Cass Community Social Services, are located in post-industrial, economically stressed neighborhoods in Detroit. Cass includes many folks who lack a roof over their heads, along with people struggling with addiction and people coping with physical and mental disabilities–“three dimensional, flesh and blood” people with their own talents, hopes, and dreams (This Far By Faith, x). Cass offers welcoming and spirited worship at the church on Sunday mornings, and at “The World Building” on Wednesday evenings.

Cass offers many ministries and programs, including those relating to food, health, housing, and jobs, and other services and activities that foster a community-centered future of economic and spiritual growth for those living in inner city Detroit. These programs include:

  • Cass Green Industries, a collection of environmentally-friendly, job-creating endeavors including Detroit Treads, a company that produces sandals made from illegally dumped tires. The company provides steady work for over a dozen people and produced 3,000 pairs of sandals in just five months. Green Industries as a whole employs over 85 people.
  • Two Free Clinics on Wednesdays at the World Building and on Saturdays at the Activity Center, offer medical care and medications to patients free of charge.
  • Street outreach, emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing for over 300 people through Cass Community Social Services.
  • A food program that serves a million meals a year. Matt Prentice, a well-known and respected restaurateur, trains staff, supervises volunteers, and prepares food.
  • An urban gardening program that began in 2010 comprised of garden beds and plots all over the Cass campus as well as a hydroponic greenhouse. The program grows more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables for use in Cass’ commercial kitchen.
  • Cass Community Publishing House, which produces books on social change that traditional publishing companies might not embrace, including Rev. Faith Fowler’s memoir about her first twenty years at Cass, This Far by Faith.

Urban Reclamation and Rebirth

Cass Community UMC. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.

Detroit, Michigan is a post-industrial city, whose images of urban decay and weeds breaking through the cracks in mid-century infrastructure are well known. But those pictures rarely show the folks who still live in inner city Detroit, who are making a way for themselves in a place that sometimes seems abandoned by those with power and privilege.

Cass Community UMC and Cass Community Social Services fight poverty and foster dignity and self-sufficiency in Detroit in large measure by helping to cultivate opportunity. Cass’ model differs from the traditional church anti-poverty ministry, in that it is a holistic approach that emphasizes using community resources, volunteers, and skills to provide food, housing, and healthcare and to create jobs for those who are chronically underemployed.

Unlike many older, urban churches that have failed to embrace shifting demographics, Cass UMC has a storied history of adapting to the urban landscape of its city and partnering with the community. After the area around Cass deteriorated and fell to urban decay, Cass seized this as an opportunity rather than a cause for despair.

Under the leadership of Senior Pastor Rev. Faith Fowler, in 1995 Cass established the Activity Center (in a building that was originally a factory and a blood bank). In 1996 and 2000 Cass acquired further properties for its five block campus, including the building which houses several programs for the homeless–the Women and Family Shelter, a Transitional Housing Program, Safe Haven, the Detroit-Wayne County Rotating Shelter, as well as a large commercial kitchen.

Cass Community Social Services converted several other buildings into program locations, including the Cass House (a residential program for homeless men with HIV/AIDS) and the warehouse that houses Green Industries.

Ministering with the Community

Green Industries is emblematic of Cass’ transformational style of ministering with the very landscape of its community. Rather than merely focusing on alleviating symptoms of poverty or even advocating for systemic change, Cass, under Rev. Fowler, has created a new system of uplift and employment that simultaneously transforms the urban environment as well.

Cherishing the discarded: gathering the raw materials out in Detroit. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.
Cherishing the discarded: volunteers. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.

In 2007, in response to the recession, Cass created its first Green Industry–Mud Mats, doormats made from discarded tires. Up until this point, Cass had dabbled in creating short term work such as assembling popcorn envelopes on display boards, wrapping printed materials, and, notably, packaging catnip.

But it was in 2007 that Cass decided to “start a self-sustaining business of our own in order to provide ongoing jobs” (This Far By Faith, 126-127). The idea was for “the work to be linked to the environment because poor communities are hit hardest and first by environmental degradation” (127).

Southwest Detroit provided the inspiration. This area of the city has a vibrant culture and community, but has a problem breathing. In Southwest Detroit, poor communities of color live in close proximity to multiple industrial chimneys billowing thick, polluted smoke. Trucks haul cement, asphalt, steel or oil to the freeway. According to Rev. Fowler, “nearly everyone has health issues that they attribute to the polluted air, water and land” (This Far By Faith, 127).

Another issue in the community is unemployment. Beyond the lack of available jobs, much of the population around Cass struggles with homelessness, addiction, or mental and physical disabilities. Long-term employment in traditional industries is not a possibility for many of Cass’ people.

Cass’ response to these crises was Green Industries:

Document Destruction enterprise at Green Industries. Photo credit Faith Fowler.

Green Industries was born first as the idea that we could marry two urban problems–unemployment and pollution–and create a solution which would change the odds for everybody. (This Far By Faith, 128)

Mud Mats, the first Green Industry, started by employing ten men, a mix of homeless and formerly homeless folks, to create the products from tires dumped around Detroit. In 2008, Green Industries ventured into the Document Destruction business. In 2014, they launched the popular Detroit Treads project, which reclaims dumped tires and recycles them into sandals.

Along the way, an old building was reclaimed and converted into a warehouse where polluting trash was transformed into new sustainable products, and jobs were created by and for the community, harnessing the people’s energy, work ethic, and talent to produce the items.

In ministry with the community, Cass is helping to change the very landscape of the city.

Worshipping at the Margins

Nora Colmenares of Global Ministries participated in a Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training at Cass in 2015. During that experience, Colmenares was especially inspired by Cass’ Wednesday evening worship service. Held at the warehouse where Cass’ Green Industries are situated, this service epitomizes Cass’ relationship with its people, their community, and the city.

Worship at "The World Building." Photo credit: Faith Fowler.
Wednesday evening service at the Warehouse. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.

The warehouse is open to the outside; there is no separation between the worship service and the city itself. The warehouse is the place where Cass fosters new careers for people living on the margins; the worship service embraces the struggles of the world rather than closing out the world in spiritualized, otherworldly religious piety. The warehouse is where Cass recycles and repurposes elements that otherwise pollute and deface its city; but in the worship service, the material, sensory, and spiritual elements coalesce in transcendent preaching, music, testimony, and prayers offered to God.

As Colmenares explains, many of the folks who attend the service, like those who flocked to see, hear and touch Jesus, might be considered “the outcasts of the world” by society—the unsheltered, the addicted, and people with physical and mental disabilities. Yet at this service, not only are the so-called “outcasts” welcome to attendthey are also welcome to give testimonies, sharing their hurts, their struggles, and their dreams.

To quote Sandy Devoid, a United Methodist Christian Educator who participated in the Experiential Training at Cass:

This is Cass UMC. It’s a feast where everyone is welcome. No one is left out. Lost? Come in.  Sick?  You are welcome. Tired, hungry, lonely, cold?  You are needed. You are respected here.

In a city where the time for celebration seems to have passed, Cass knows something else.  God is present here, and through the Cass Community UMC, God’s love and grace are shared with everyone. (“Ministering with the Poor at Cass Community UMC“)

Running Far By Faith

Poverty is complex but . . . its multifaceted nature is no excuse for failing to solve the toughest problems. (This Far By Faith, x)

Solving the toughest problems requires many things. Poverty is multi-faceted and so is Ministry with the Poor. One of the things required is long-term commitment. Rev. Faith Fowler describes this by way of the aphorism, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”:

I think that’s the key, especially in tough cities. Can you run the marathon? Just about anybody can run the sprint and do good work, but it takes a long-term commitment to understand where you are and how you can make an impact with other people. (“A ‘Faith’-based look at urban ministry“)

How does Cass run the marathon?

Cass prepares and serves a million meals a year. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.

Besides long term commitment, Fowler emphasizes the importance of working at the grassroots level, keeping an eye out for opportunity, and respecting the “obstacles, foibles, tragedies, triumphs and tenacity” of the people she serves (This Far By Faith, x).

Mary Ellen Kris, Global Ministries consultant for Ministry with the Poor, says of Fowler and her team, “They’re entrepreneurial, they have vision, they live on faith and take risks.”

For example, there was the time that Rev. Fowler put her own house up as collateral for a bid Cass submitted on a contract to make sandwiches three times a day for Detroit police precincts. The church succeeded in landing the contract and earning $300,000 to fund Cass’ ministries. Then there was the time that Rev. Fowler converted a swimming pool at her house into a neighborhood pool for the community. Many other stories of risk-taking leaps of faith abound in the history of how some of Cass’ powerful ministries and activities got their start.

Global Ministries’ Nora Colmenares heard these stories and more at the Experiential Training at Cass in 2015, leaving her with this impression: “I think in all of these stories, this pastor and this church have been very involved in the community. They’re involved, they’re out there, and they know what’s happening.”

In It for the Long-Haul

Powered by the Holy Spirit and an abiding faith, an indefatigable pastor, a strong team, and many helping hands, Cass has been engaging in ministry with a challenged inner city community for over twenty years. Radical welcome that invites all to share their gifts and graces in new careers, hospitality, and other forms of service, has kindled palpable rebirth and renewal—transformation.

Having come this far by faith, Cass is in it—ministry with and by the community—for the long haul. The race to the finish line continues.

Worshipping at the margins. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.
Worshipping at the margins: Wednesday evening service at the Warehouse. Photo credit: Faith Fowler.

More Information on Cass Community UMC:

Experience Cass Community UMC first-hand and discuss how their “best practices” might be applied in your context. Register for the May 18–20, 2016 Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training at Cass. You will witness all of their programs, with an emphasis on housing, employment and community development, explore the city, discuss gentrification, and discuss how to fund affordable housing. Register here.

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