Growing up in Muskegon, Jon Wilson rarely set foot in Detroit. Like many Michigan residents, particularly those in Detroit's own suburbs, he had his misgivings about the nation's poorest big city.
"I went in for a Detroit Tigers game, but that was just once, and even then you'd go in and get out fast," said Wilson during an interview at his new home-located in the heart of Detroit.
Through his adult years Wilson not only developed a love for the Motor City, but has recently moved his family from Ypsilanti into a home blocks from the Wayne State University campus.
The move is a part of a project called Detroit Community Outreach (DCO). in which Michigan Christians committed to year-round ministry have opted to leave behind their old lives in order to live and work in Detroit.
Wilson, who serves as DCO’s director and his. wife, Melody, and their
9-month-old son, Peter, share their spacious two-and-a-half-storey brick
home with three single women. In a house not far down the block, seven
single men, part of an international ecumenical lay brotherhood called
Servants of the Word, have recently made their home.
Roots of the ministry
. DCO is an outgrowth of Detroit Summer Outreach (DSO), a six-year-old summer volunteer program. This past summer 35 volunteers worked in Detroit’s Cornerstone Schools teaching religion classes, substituting, tutoring, and heading up a vacation Bible school. At Highland Park Community Outreach, volunteers helped launch a new neighborhood youth program, while other volunteers spent their time with the Missionaries of Charity, serving in their soup kitchen and day youth camp program.
By the time the program wrapped up in August, more than 300 Detroit young people had by the volunteers' work.
Maxine Crenshaw, of Highland Park, said her son Desmond, 17, was involved with a street gang before he attended Cornerstone Middle School, a private Christian school in Detroit. Cornerstone and his new acquaintance with members of DSO turned his life around, she said.
Six years ago DSO joined forces with Highland Park Community Outreach, a local ministry that needed assistance with its summer street team, a project designed to teach youth how to find and keep a job.
But, more than anything else, "it's a friendship thing," said Crenshaw. "The guys (in the program) helped Desmond and my other son Douglas work through things they might not have been comfortable talking to me about."
And for the volunteers, the chance to serve is an opportunity for personal growth, said Wilson.
"Some of the kids who come down for the summer are from places like Rochester Hills -- places where you'd think they'd never want to spend time in Detroit.
But by the time the summer is up "they've made friends here; they love it and they don't want to leave."
It's really a matter of overcoming stereotypes, he explained.
"You see these kids walking down the street, with their nylon caps -- you think for sure he's got to have a gun -- but those are the people you come into contact with, who become your friends."
Fall is on its way and, with the summer volunteers gone, for the first time a core group of workers remains. The DCO members recently came together for a prayer meeting to inaugurate their new life.
Several members of DCO teach at area schools and universities and volunteer with area ministries. Others, committed to a year of service, will begin volunteer work with an area ministry, paying out of their own pockets and/or through the support of sponsors.
Right now they're relatively few in number -- 12 men and women from two households.
But, according to coordinator Don Schwager, the group hopes to buy and renovate a few more houses in the neighborhood. The goal, he said, "is to welcome more Christian families and singles" in order to further a singular mission: Christian service.
What Detroit needs is not new casinos, stadiums, or even the steady influx of money from suburban restaurant-goers, say those involved, but to be revitalized. The city needs time and energy invested into its neighborhoods.
"We need 700,000 programs just like these," explained Pr. Tim Kane, pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church in Detroit. Fr. Kane has been acquainted with the ministry of DSO and DCO since early this summer when the housing arrangements for 18 male DSO volunteers fell through one week before the summer program was to begin. In what was an answer to prayer, the men found lodging in St. Rita’s newly refurbished convent facility.
“There’s so much divisiveness,” added the pastor, explaining that racial tensions between some black Detroiters and white residents of its suburbs are a major concern to him. "It's just a matter of fear of the unknown. People need to realize that people who are not white, or not black, are normal just like them. It's just a matter of uniting people. Fear is what keeps people away from Detroit."
But for those few who have made the move, being a Detroiter is no sacrifice.
"It's a privilege and joy," said Schwager. "People here are unpretentious. They have learned to pull together ... and care for one another in amazing sacrificial kinds of ways. We receive more than we are able to give.”
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