Early last week I was working on Detroit’s West Side, putting a fresh layer of paint on an old, wooden garage with a team of volunteers from Lambertville, MI. That morning, my colleague Will and I had—quite unwittingly—decided to wear matching maroon T-shirts. The maroon T-shirts were an old edition of the Motown Mission shirt that featured the organization’s logo on the front and on the back, “Speramus Meliora – Resurget Cineribus – FOUNDATION.”
That afternoon, Will asked me what the Latin on our shirts meant. I’d studied Latin for a few years a while back and had a very rough idea of the meaning. I knew “speramus” was a verb meaning ‘we hope,’ “meliora” a sort of adjective meaning ‘better,’ “resurget” a future verb meaning ‘he/she/it will rise’ and that “cineribus,” judging from its ending, was a noun.
But it bothered me that after five years of Latin I couldn’t figure out what “cineribus” meant. Frustrated and embarrassed, I turned to my last resort—a Google search on my phone. I quickly found that “cineribus” is the ablative form of ‘ashes.’ Of course! The etymology seemed blindingly obvious—‘cines/cineres’… cinders, cinderblock, etc.
Translated, the Latin on our shirts mean, “We hope for better things – It will rise from the ashes.” After the Detroit Fire of 1805, French priest Gabriel Richard penned this double motto; the words have since become the motto of Detroit.
Father Richard’s words, though over two centuries old, are more relevant than ever and center my work with Motown Mission this summer. Our T-shirt this year is even more direct, with the word “Hopetown” emblazoned across the front.
I’ve now spent a month working in Detroit, and though we confront bleakness and blight nearly every day, far more compelling is the evidence of hope across the city.
A couple weeks ago I was in a neighborhood on the North End, shadowing some Motown volunteers who’d come all the way from Maryland. It was a trying, stressful, and hectic day, as my colleague Kirsten and I ran around, making sure volunteers had work to do at different sites, running to the church again and again to pick up supplies, and making runs to the hardware store for painting tools.
That afternoon, I met an extraordinary Detroiter. She owns a house in the North End and the structure is worse for wear. I’ve no intention to romanticize or sentimentalize her house’s condition, so I plainly state: the front porch is missing, half the exterior wooden paneling is gone, the rooms lack proper walls or ceilings, the house currently lacks running water, and there were no stairs to the second floor; the homeowner was using a ladder to get to her room on the upper level.
That day, skilled volunteers installed two brand-new doors at her front and side entrances. And once they finished doing that, they built new stairs for the homeowner to reach the second floor.
I see in this extraordinary woman and her home the very embodiment of hope within Detroit. You should’ve heard the way she talked to us, beaming, about her plans for the future and her family. She intends to continue remodeling the house, and even has plans for ecologically friendly practices such as solar panels and geothermal energy.
As cool as all that is, what affected me the most was her pride in her home, even with all the work that still must be done. She inherited the house from a family member. Once remodeled, the house will become a home for her own grandchildren.
There are far too many false, racist narratives about this incredible city and its citizens; narratives focusing on flight, stereotypes of African-American families and parenting, and ‘lazy’ people doing nothing to save their city. The homeowner I worked with in the North End is irrefutable proof of the lies and injustice of the naysayers’ words. She is a proud, tireless woman who is energetically investing in her family, her home, and her future. She is one of countless Detroiters tied to and tying this community together with family, decades-old roots, and a vision for the future grounded in the work of the present.
I chose to work with Motown Mission this summer so that I could take part in the vital mission before us. That is, working with and alongside the unshakeable people of Detroit to transform this city.
To tell the truth, I think “Resurget Cineribus” is a bit outdated as a motto. Why? “Resurget” is in future tense—it will rise from the ashes. But that’s wrong. Resurgit Cineribus… Detroit rises from the ashes of its past. Present tense.
Jonathan Jue-Wong is a native of Ann Arbor and a senior at Oberlin College, studying history and religion. This is his first summer with Motown Mission.