Waukesha's Motown Mission Experience!

Day 1

Posted by: Amanda on 7/24/2011

Who gets up in time to be at church at 5:30 am on a Sunday morning? A mission team who is TOTALLY EXCITED to be headed to Detroit! Oh, and Pastor Dan! Loved ones and friends gathered to send us on our way this morning and helped us creatively packed the belongings, tools and snacks for five people into a mini-van. The trip was fast, safe and delightful and we managed to arrive in time to "check-in" to our rooms at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church AND visit the Detroit Historical Museum before dinner. Don't get us wrong - we're roughing it - floors and air mattresses, locker room showers, etc. But, the building is exquisite and the city has already captured our hearts.

The theme for Motown Mission 2011 is "Revived." Our exploration of the Detroit Historical Museum emphasized the theme for us as we learned more about the regional roots of the city. This year, Detroit is celebrating its 310th birthday. Began in 1701 by a French immigrant named Cadillac, Detroit quickly became known as a city where immigrants could own a piece of land for "ribbon farming" (each piece of land held waterfront property and was 2-4 acres wide, reaching up to 80 acres inland. Immigrants from around the world came to know Detroit as a place where hard work paid great dividends.

By the early 1800's it was one of the most prosperous places in the world. By 1910 it was the auto capital of the world. Hard, industrious work had paid off! Between 1910 and 1930 Detroit's population increased by 300%, but local governments voted on zoning regulations that continued to increase the segregation between whites and all minorities.

With the civil rights movement in the 60's the tensions rose to unprecedented proportions and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream..." speech was first preached in Detroit after 200,000 people walked down Woodward Avenue (the street we're staying on!) In 1967 race relations came to a head and the "race riots" (according to the whites at the time) or the "uprising and rebellion" (according to the blacks). Much of Detroit was destroyed and the tensions between races can still be felt.

Now, community leaders, non-profit organizations and development programs are all focusing on how to bring revitalization to the city that is loved by so many. Detroit is in a transition time: between the industrial age and the technological age, between hollowing away the core and building up a broken city, between division and healing.

Hence, Motown Mission 2011's theme: Revived. This week we seek your prayers and support as we work to revive one small neighborhood in Detroit. We ask for your prayers that we would also revive our connection with the Spirit of the One who sent us to this city. Please pray that we have the strength to do the work we are called to and hearts that are open to those we meet.


Day 2

Highlights from Monday:

  • Working in the Brightmoor neighborhood, a neighborhood where people are making the choice to live there in order to revitalize the neighborhood. They understand the power of community and their motto is "Brightmoor by Choice."
  • Exploring the Brightmoor neighborhood because it felt like the whole neighborhood was a rescue mission.
  • We worked with Mr. Jackson, a courageous homeowner who is making sacrifices for his family and his neighbors.
  • Homeowner Dawn, Professional Clown
  • Watching Amanda demolish overgrown trees with a pair of dull clippers.
  • Sharing baked goods prepared by First Church members with our new friends from Minnesota.
  • Witnessing the dedication of the work team as they cleared an entire city lot sized field with a dull manual weed whip.
  • Experiencing homeowners catch our vision and join in the work that we were doing.
  • Starburst fueled, deep theological discussion with the Waukesha First work team.
  • Eating Goldfish crackers in the van!
  • Experiencing the Heidelberg project: art made out of re-purposed items making bold statements about a vision for Detroit.
  • Hot showers and tacos.
  • Reading notes, prayer cards and blog comments from our friends and family at home.

Today was so awesome!

We woke up feeling refreshed after a full night of sleep and joined our new friends from Minnesota and Michigan for breakfast in the dining hall. We loaded up the vans and headed toward the Brightmoor neighborhood.

In the growth boom between the 1930’s-1950’s, there were so many people moving into Detroit for the manufacturing and automotive industries that housing became its own industry. With the greater need for housing, communities developed on the outskirts of the city. Brightmoor is a neighborhood that was outside the city limits and had no zoning codes so inexpensive, primitive housing was created to provide living space for the industry workers, many of whom came from Appalachia after losing jobs in the closing coal mines. As people established themselves in the city of Detroit they moved “on and up” and the already primitive housing of Brightmoor became a breeding ground for drug trafficking and gangs.

Now with the declining population of Detroit, city officials are looking at “right-sizing” the city. If this happens, Brightmoor would be a community outside of the city limits leaving residents without essential services or the option to relocate from the places they call home. Today, the Brightmoor community is making a concerted effort to reclaim and revitalize their neighborhood.

Today, we began to be a part of this revitalization work with the Brightmoor Community Development Association. While we came thinking we would be demolishing abandoned homes, instead we are demolishing overgrown city lots. What we are learning is that it is not about the weeds and boarded up doors, it’s about safety for children and a sense of hope for a community.

This is really difficult work, both physically and emotionally, and we are grateful for the words of encouragement sent through email and blog comments that sustain us. Please pray for the Brightmoor community, the work teams here this week and the city officials faced with difficult decisions.

Thank you for your support. Feel free to leave us a comment or ask a question via email.


Day 3

Highlights from Tuesday:

  • Nine people from the block seeing our work and coming out to join us in the clearing of brush and overgrown yards.
  • Hanging out with the neighborhood kids and learning about their lives and teaching them how to do yard work.
  • Finding a candy cane in the middle of a field...to go along with the Christmas tree we found yesterday.
  • A fantastic blues concert with the members at Metropolitan UMC and the surrounding community. The harmonica and piano duo were phenomenal.
  • Tom and Zella doing dishes with smiles on their faces.
  • Our prayer drive in the city visiting and praying for a police station, a homeless shelter, community gardens, a medical center and abandoned buildings.
  • Finding two praying mantids.
  • Speaking with one of the homeowners on Patton Street, Dawn, about her experiences in the Brightmoor neighborhood and hearing her passion and her conviction that one voice can make a difference and is making a difference.
  • Finding a house with scripture passages painted on the boarded up windows on our way to the work site this morning.
  • A refreshing gift of lemonade in the afternoon from a neighbor on Patton Street.

One of the gifts of having a small, deeply theological mission team is that day three began early (smaller group packs up faster!) with a drive through of the Brightmoor neighborhood so that we could see and experience more of the community we are serving. While we saw the usual burned and/or boarded up houses, we also saw a beautiful new elementary school still under construction, a well-kept community center and some strong concentrations of newly constructed homes for low income families. To see seven or eight newer (1-15 year old) homes on a block meant that we also saw neighborhoods that were more well cared for than if there was less "buy-in" on a block. Another sign of hope for us was a house that was abandoned and boarded up but which had inspirational quotes and scriptures painted on the boards, sending a clear message to those around that this was not an abandoned and forgotten house, but a home that was being reclaimed by the neighbors as a beacon of hope.

That glimmer of hope was the story of our day. We have now cleared the equivalent of five city lots on one block of Patton Street in Brightmoor. While the work is important to creating a sense of safety for homeowners and their children (no one and no thing can hide in the overgrown fields), the sense of community that our work is bringing to the block is far more important and impressive. Today we had NINE different residents on the block helping us with the work! One offered us gasoline for the lawn mower and then the use of his lawn mower (and lemonade as a refreshing break!). Another homeowner had recently had a stroke, but sent two of her sons out to help us haul branches, weeds, and vines. Another homeowner has allowed us to use his garage to store our tools at night. Another came out and began hacking away at the huge weeds and bushes with us! We are also gifted with the realization that our presence in the neighborhood is offering a bit of the idea that everyone has something they can do to make a difference. Three homeowners on the block have been out in their yards doing cleanup work while we have worked in an adjacent lot!

For those of you who journeyed with us last year, this year is turning out to be a very different kind of experience. Last year we worked with one family and were able to connect with them in a very deep way. Many of us expected that this year would not offer us that same kind of personal bonding experience but we are quickly finding that instead of bonding with one family, we are bonding with an entire neighborhood! We have now talked to almost every homeowner on the block. The kids all know we're around and want to be with us either to work or to entertain us when we take a water break. It's hard not to love the neighborhood when you meet and work alongside the gracious and grace-full people living here. This week, we've joined them in saying, "Brightmoor - by choice!"

Tomorrow will be day three on the worksite and with the sore muscles we have today, we realize it will be a painful one. Pray that we might have positive attitudes and remember the reason we're here. Please also lift up the homeowners we are working with. They want to do the best to care for one another and their community and we hope that you will join us in praying that they will continue to build on the energy of this week. Keep your email and blog posts and questions coming. Our group may be small - but everyone here knows that we're well-loved because of your ongoing and up to the minute support.


Day 4

Highlights from Wednesday:

  • The taste of the wonderful and nutty dessert we ate on our evening excursion at Shatila, a Middle Eastern bakery.
  • Hearing about the stories of other abandoned homes and commercial properties being stripped and turned into greenhouses.
  • Pulling up on Patton Street this morning to see that the neighbors had continued working after we left yesterday, cutting down additional trees and mowing lawns.
  • Spending time with the neighborhood children and the younger children on our work team from Minnesota. Their energy is contagious and it is fun to see their excitement to learn about yard work.
  • Seeing a city lot cleared in a matter of a couple of hours.
  • The look on Mr. Jackson’s face when members of our team left him a new lawn mower to help take care of the neighborhood.
  • Tom, Zella and Emily cleaning the men’s bathrooms at Metropolitan United Methodist Church.
  • Seeing one of the teenage boys giving one of the young neighborhood kids dating advice.
  • A beautiful Swallowtail butterfly flying around the back yard this morning.
  • Sharing cookies and Bing cherries with the neighborhood kids at lunch.

Our block in Brightmoor has only one lot left that is overgrown with weeds, grape vines and unidentifiable ferns!  This morning began with our team tackling the backyard of a house that has sat abandoned for over three years.  This house is next-door to Mr. Jackson, one of our closest friends from this week.  We had to literally cut, chop and saw our way into and through the yard.  The backyard looked like a jungle and there were a few grape vines that were so wrapped into the trees and fencing that we discussed a reproduction of "Tarzan." Come to think of it, "Tomzan" could be the Detroit remake!  

While this kind of outdoor yard clearing is not what we thought we would be doing, we are finding great satisfaction in the very obvious progress we are making and the impact it is having on the neighbors.  This morning we arrived to find that one neighbor who began the week being a little standoffish, had cut down the two large, dead trees in his front yard to make his lot look much nicer!  Our demolition of the urban jungle gave way to the start of the demolition of the house.  The goal: tear the house down to just the studs and then create a greenhouse.  From urban jungle to urban garden.  

This process of gutting abandoned buildings and turning them into greenhouses has become common in the last few years.  One neighbor shared with us that recently a local church was turned into a greenhouse for another neighboring community!

While it may sound odd to many people, this new project will mean more to this neighborhood than you can imagine.  Detroit is a food desert.  You will not find a Pick N Save, Sentry or ANY grocery store chain within the city limits. (Did we tell you that Detroit is 173 sq. miles, almost double the size of Milwaukee?!?)  On the other hand, McDonalds, Burger King and other fast food restaurants flourish as they are able to provide inexpensive and quick meals for families on small budgets and with limited time as parents work multiple jobs.  

Consider your typical experience at the grocery store.  Think about the building you walk into, the variety you have to choose from and the nutritional value represented in each aisle.  Now, think about what your grocery shopping experience would be like if you were purchasing your weekly groceries at gas stations, liquor stores and the rare locally owned shop that has been able to stay in business.  The image is not one that brings much satisfaction, is it?  It doesn't bring much good nutrition either!

A neighborhood greenhouse means fruits and vegetables that are difficult to find in the city being found on the dinner table.  It means a level of nutrition that the kids who are working with us are not getting at home right now.  It means lower grocery bills.  It also means a sense of pride and community among neighbors, including the children we have been working with all week. A greenhouse on their block will be a place for Elijah, Shania, Emily and Elaina to put into practice all they are learning about nutrition and gardening at school and in local day camps.

Tomorrow we hand off our neighborhood to another workgroup as we head into two days of work with the organization, Greening of Detroit.  It is with a little sadness and regret that we won't be returning there tomorrow.  After all, we were in Brightmoor - by choice!  

Please pray for the work team that will continue our work as we want "our" neighborhood to really be the best it can possibly be for all of our new friends.  You can pray for us that we might find the strength and energy to push through the sore muscles so we have a strong end to our work week. You can join us in praying for the hundreds of thousands of people living in this food desert and those like it around the world.  Tomorrow we hope to have news for you about an organization that is doing something to help with the issue.  

Thanks for your texts, comments and emails.  It's great to have the reminder that we are carrying our church, our families and our friends with us.

May you know God's grace - and may you be overwhelmed with gratitude for what you have.  


Day 5


Highlights for Thursday:

  • Playing adults only four square.
  • Seeing the edible play scape garden for kids in Brightmoor.
  • Enjoying the murals painted on abandoned buildings.
  • Experiencing the vacant house turned into a theater.
  • Walking down the sidewalk on Beaverland Street after we finished clearing the overgrown grass.
  • Learning about the different ways community members are using gardens to sustain themselves.
  • Sharing stories about the week at worship.
  • Rock ‘n’ Rye Faygo floats.


Day 6

By the speed with which we all rose this morning, it seems pretty clear that fatigue has set in for the week.  Rain greeted us this morning, which is a welcome sign for gardeners, less so for weary mission trip volunteers.

The gift of the day was to discover that we were headed back to Brightmoor, although to a different neighborhood.  Today we met, Scott, an employee with Greening of Detroit. Our work was based on a simple concept, create safe sidewalks for the neighbors and help to make the area a more desirable place to live.  The work; however, was intense.  Edging sidewalks, pulling up soaked sod, and collecting lots and lots of garbage.  Scott's hope is that by re-creating clean sidewalks in the neighborhood, the homeowners will begin to take a greater pride in their community and the kids will be safer (people currently walk in the streets because the sidewalks are so overgrown.)

Scott also oversees community gardens in the neighborhood; some which are used to feed single families, some of which are open to the community, and some of which are used to sell at local farmers markets.  The scope of the project is really quite large.  One garden area was a park with a spiral herb garden and a theater/stage created out of an abandoned house.  Another area was a butterfly garden created in a lot next to a homeowner who loves butterflies.  The garden was her idea and was created under her leadership.  While we also saw a garden called "The Second Chance Garden," created and kept by those who are returning home after an incarceration, the most impressive garden was for the children.  

A special grant allowed for an "edible playscape."  Minty, the turtle is a small patch of wintergreen, surrounded with painted rocks.  A tunnel of cucumbers, a teepee of pole beans, a circle fort of corn and a maze of collard greens creates an amazing, fun and creative place for kids to play and learn about nutrition.  

As we walked through the neighborhood on our garden tour we realized how close we were to our previous worksite.  The house that we referenced earlier in the week as one of our highlights (the one with inspirational quotes on the plywood that boarded up the doors and windows) was created by a work team with the Greening of Detroit!  Tomorrow we will be doing a similar project; boarding up an abandoned home so that it cannot be used for unsafe purposes, and then painting murals on the outside so that it isn't an eyesore for the neighbors.  

What we learned today is that the city of Detroit has a list of "demolition properties" that is a mile long and very little funding to pay for the projects.  Often neighbors will board up a house until it is demolished, but as we heard from some community members, houses go on and off the list quite often.  It only takes a phone call to remove a house from the list, which is easy enough for someone who is using it to make, grow or sell drugs.  It's far more difficult and costly to get a house added to the list.  

While it doesn't seem that something like a can of paint could really make a difference in a neighborhood, the feel that we all used to describe this community was "hope."  After four days of work, "hope" is probably the best word to describe what we have experienced.  It's also what has carried us.  
As we head into our final day of work, pray that we are re-energized by the vision laid before us.  Join us in praying that the mural we have discussed will offer back to the community a portion of what we have received from it - a new view of beauty, a sense of hope for something better, and an awareness that God is not done with Detroit.  

Exhausted but grateful,
Tom, Zella, Emily, Amanda and Kris