Prodigal City

Prodigal City January 9, 2014


The bankruptcy of Detroit is a consequence of multi-faceted social problems that defy simple solutions and pat answers. To love the city will require more than creative thinking. 

When news broke of Detroit’s decision to file for bankruptcy, The Onion dealt with the matter, as it so often does, with sharper insight than any of the news articles my concerned friends and family sent me—“Report: Detroit Bankruptcy Might Transform City Into Some Kind Of Hellish, Depopulated Wasteland.” In the piece, the author warned of Detroit crumbling as a result of the filing: with hour-long police response times, swaths of neighborhoods blighted, and streets darkened without working streetlights. The irony, of course, was that this is the current reality of Detroit, and has been for years.

It was a friend in New York who first alerted me, breathlessly, that my city had filed for bankruptcy. I was at work in downtown Detroit, two blocks from my apartment, in a bustling co-working space. I was told that my home for the past year had broken a record: the largest city in American history to file for bankruptcy.

Detroit is a city on its knees, if not its face. To live here is one part “I am Legend,” two parts “Oklahoma!” and a heap of one of those inner city teacher dramas. As a resident, I learn more about the city and its struggles every day. In coming to terms with the breadth of this city’s problems and the long path that remains for Detroit to recover, I have wondered what my role is as a Christian in the city.

In an urban reality so desperate with such enormous challenges, how can the Gospel provide healing? More than that, can we expect Christians to be equipped to serve the city in ways that the many other, secular groups in the city cannot? If the starting point is the Gospel, what are the outcomes?

Detroit is abandoned, yes, but there are still communities: Old, established neighborhoods and fresh groups of young professionals eager for adventure and opportunity.

As the government pursues bankruptcy, these communities will continue their navigation through confusing, tumultuous times. Each will maintain their disparate narratives. For the young, educated professionals who started moving into the city over the last five years, it’s a positive one. To them (or us, I should say), Detroit is on the upswing. The bankruptcy is a step of progress. In fact, representatives of this community have already published their celebrations of the bankruptcy, seeing it as a jubilee.

Meanwhile, in the blighted neighborhoods, the older, less educated, citizens of the city have a sadder story to tell. The bankruptcy is a threat to their future, not a boon. Thousands of pension holders face a devastating loss to their promised retirement support. Detroit’s Emergency Manager estimates that even before the bankruptcy is completed, Detroit’s pensions were only 77 percent funded. Chapter 9 bankruptcy could shrink that number further. What one community sees as debt relief, another experiences as financial devastation.

In between these two margins lie variations of this negative/positive balance. In general, the question of whether real reform will occur dominates. Will schools ever get to a point that they’re empowering young people? Will public safety ever get to a remotely normal level? What will it take to get streetlights working and abandoned homes demolished?

And these don’t even touch the fundamental question of Detroit: can it ever win back a tax base capable of supporting a city of such size? How will it convince more people to move without the resources it needs to make it livable? Debt relief is a step, but the systemic issues that make the city economically unviable remain.

It is in this context of tumult that the Gospel must shine. But how should the Church think about this city? We must ask ourselves what it means to follow Christ in the midst of such an unusual circumstance. For the individual Christian, what is our posture towards this city and its residents, and how does that impact our behavior?

Detroit operates with what Americans would consider the bare minimum of a government. The public safety mechanism is in shambles. A full 40 percent of the city’s streetlights do not work. From the Fire Department to the zoning commission, understaffing and unresponsiveness is the norm.

As a result, many functions that would otherwise be shouldered by a city government are left to the people. This city is in many ways an unintended experiment in radical libertarianism. In Midtown, the streets are illuminated by a community organization’s efforts and funding. In Downtown, one of the largest companies has taken it upon itself to fund a private police force and establish a state-of-the-art security command center that would rival most cities’ police capabilities. Throughout Detroit, private citizens take it upon themselves to care for vacant lots, tear down abandoned houses, and serve the destitute.

This is the traditional domain of the Church, and there are plenty of them in Detroit serving the public. We adopt parks, feed the homeless, refurbish homes, clean neighborhoods, provide skills training, organize job boards, host career fairs—the list goes on.

It is truly noble work, and it is motivated in a uniquely Gospel-centered way. The service is given out of the generosity we were called to when Christ admonished his followers to care for the orphaned, the widowed, the helpless. We do our best to serve as people who were saved by service, and who want to imitate the way that Christ loved the people around Him.

Of course, this ethic has been dominant for so long that it exists, detached from the Gospel, in the secular context. As great as the work that these churches do in Detroit, it is not necessarily a uniquely Christian approach any more. They work side by side with nonprofits and community organizations with no interest in the Gospel but which have a similar impact on alleviating the physical needs of the city.

Is, then, there anything that only Christians can do? There is an impulse to find “the way” that Christians should serve Detroit but the reality is that the Gospel defies a universal response. To act in response to the Gospel can vary on an individual level, with some responding with feeding the poor, others serving in a local school, and countless others finding their personal response.

However, there is a way of tackling the systemic struggles of Detroit that would be a radical departure from the current environment of secular and faith-based services. The Gospel is uniquely suited to address both sides of structural conflicts that exist in Detroit.

To fully describe this potential solution, we need to understand some of the root causes of the city’s issues. They can, in large part, be traced to deep social fractures. Detroit has been falling into the gaps left by conflicts of race, economics, and privilege. Each is taking its toll on local communities and perpetuating the pain. And each is unsolvable unless the Church invokes the Gospel’s most radical principal: reconciliation at all cost.

The history of Detroit is defined in large part by racial strife. While blame shifts depending on whom you speak to, it’s a generally acknowledged fact that race relations in the city of Detroit and its suburbs are abysmal. Even today, leaders in the mostly-white suburbs will use racially charged terms in criticizing the city and the way it has been managed.

This racial gulf is only exacerbated by its geographic manifestations. The suburbs hold the majority of wealth in the region, even while the majority-black Detroit spirals into financial decline. However, the independence of these suburban municipalities means that they have the ability to escape any responsibility for the city’s financial health. Their proximity does not grease funding channels.

Instead, the suburbs only intervene when their own interests are threatened. For example, the Detroit Institute of Art was recently saved from financial crisis when the suburban cities voted for a tax hike to benefit the Institute. Suburban residents saw their ability to access the world-class museum as worth their investment, so the Institute received the funding and introduced a free admission program for those of us who live in Metro Detroit.

A second rift that has come to contribute to Detroit’s fractured state is that of the privileged and underprivileged. Despite the overwhelmingly negative news that seems to come out of Motown, the past 5 or so years have brought remarkable success and growth to the private sector in downtown Detroit, and with it, its lucky beneficiaries. Companies like Quicken Loans, Detroit Medical Center, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and others have moved jobs downtown and grown, hiring thousands of educated young people.

It is because of companies like these that many pundits see a bright future for Detroit. They are the only institutions that have a proven ability to bring people into the city and create wealth. In a city that sees decline across the board, these are the harbingers of progress and development. But it is precisely because of their uniqueness that this private sector community is creating a chasm of privilege in Detroit.

The people who are able to participate in this growth and capitalize on it are not representative of the majority of Detroiters. They are young, college-educated, and typically not native to the city. They are former suburbanites, recent graduates of Michigan State University or the University of Michigan, or escapees from the coasts. The companies are desperate for this talent and do their best to attract them, hence the Quicken Loans’ security apparatus and a subsidy funded by downtown companies for employees who move downtown.

The cumulative result of this system is that the majority of Detroit residents do not get these incentives and lack the skills or education to participate in the thriving industry at the city’s core. Instead, new residents import their abilities and experience the benefits. Thus, downtown Detroit prospers while the neighborhoods on the outskirts continue to decline into poverty.

More recently, economic conflict between bondholders and residents of Detroit threatens to throw thousands of pensioners into financial crisis. This is arguably the most pressing and most devastating conflict that the Church should focus on, and it is one that may only be solvable through Gospel-born reconciliation.

To give a full review of Detroit’s financial misadventure would test the limits of this essay, so allow me to give the overview. Detroit began to lose its population to the suburbs starting in the late ‘50s. That, paired with a long history of governmental abuses, union con- tracts, and other unsustainable practices, has produced a city with $18 billion in debt and a population base slightly more than a third of what it was 50 years ago.

As decades went by without any significant progress, the governor of Michigan finally appointed an Emergency Financial Manager in March 2013. With the combined powers of the City Council and the Mayor’s Office, the appointment was supposed to concentrate power for maximum efficiency. However, when the Manager attempted to effectively default on the city’s loan obligations (primarily those of municipal bondholders), lawsuits followed. As a result, the Manager decided that filing for bankruptcy would be the only way to make progress on Detroit’s economic woes while also avoiding crippling lawsuits.

The problem with Chapter 9 bankruptcy fillings is that there are different types of debt that are given different degrees of preference. Specifically, pension holders (who represent a significant portion of the debt) do not receive the same protection as other bond- holders, like financial institutions who bought municipal bonds. In fact, pension holders are being told to expect 10 cents on the dollar, whereas financial institutions with municipal bond holdings are expecting 75 cents on the dollar.

This is both the most devastating rift affecting Detroit right now. Pension holders face a mortal loss to their retirement and financial security, but financial institutions that do not have a presence in Detroit will be spared a larger write-down. A non-personal, foreign entity is at odds with retirees, with the deck stacked in its favor.

This city is plagued with brokenness across race, finance, and privilege. In each, the two sides of the injustice—the powerful and the powerless—can live the Gospel and overturn the status quo. Both can take cues from their counterparts in scripture.

Those on “the powerful side” of the conflict should live Christ’s example of self-sacrifice. The participants have the ability to act radically to alleviate the injustice, but to do so will require the strong to serve the weak, to the detriment of their own well being. If we are to believe that Christ sacrificed himself to redeem humanity, at huge, unnecessary cost to himself, then we have a rubric for Christians among the powerful in Detroit. If we think of Christ’s example as something that is not only revolutionary, but is actually the standard we must hold ourselves to, then the Church has an action plan for this city from its position among those with privilege in the city.

This means white Christians in the suburbs need not only combat racism in their community, but proactively give their time and resources to bring life and racial reconciliation to Detroit. Gospel-minded young professionals downtown should feel a burden to solve the problem of inequality and invite those without their privilege to participate meaningfully in the success of their world. Christians in the financial realm, as radical as it may be, should consider the human impact of their bonds taking precedence over pensions and adjust their claims accordingly, to promote justice and reconciliation even at monetary cost.

Among the powerless, the Gospel is just as necessary and provides an equally appropriate rubric. If those with privilege are to imitate Christ, those without it must imitate the Church in its acceptance of sacrifice. As the Christian knows, it takes a humility to accept salvation—it requires trusting the same God against whom we had been in rebellion. The same holds for those who are the victims of such injustice in Detroit. Christians among the powerless must practice forgiveness for the old enemies of their community. Accepting their help, like accepting the Gospel’s salvation, is not an easy thing to do.

Their responsibilities do not end with their own acceptance of assistance. Christians in those communities have their own battle to fight in convincing their neighbors and community leaders that the rivalries that are so entrenched must be cast aside. This is hardly a passive stance—it will take work for bitterness of this caliber to be forgiven to the point of reconciliation.

Obviously, the continued efforts to alleviate the physical suffering and insecurity of Detroit’s residents are critical. Christians are called to provide physical service to their communities, and in Detroit there is a seemingly endless list ways in which Christians should be providing real resources to confront social problems. But to leave it at that would be analogous to Christ limiting his ministry to the expansion of fish and loaves, not the sacrificial redemption of souls.

In a city that has prided itself on its independence and strength, accepting service will not come easily. And for now-powerful entities that have been spurned by the city, humbly offering service makes little sense outside of the Gospel’s rationale. Because of this, Christians in these contexts will be fighting their communities, whether advocating for sacrificial action or the acceptance of it. It will be a struggle, but so was the Gospel. The possibility of healing the Motor City, though, is worth this sacrifice. The Church cannot work a spiritual resurrection in the city (that’s up to Christ), but it can work an economic one .


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