The Spirit of Detroit – By Nick Klingler

As our group walked through downtown Detroit we passed a storefront with a neon sign flashing “NOTHING STOPS DETROIT.” Not more than a few doors down was a 13 story office building that is completely boarded up. Less than two years ago Detroit became the largest city in US history to declare bankruptcy. Yet while we were there, everyone in our spring break service group experienced a palpable sense of hope and optimism. It is still easy to find blight, but just as common to find a Detroiter whose resilience, creativity, or pride for where they live makes it easy to believe in the city.

In 2003-04 I spent a year as a Jesuit Volunteer teaching at a middle school in Detroit. Once the decision became final that the Brebeuf group would be heading to Detroit for spring break, I checked in with one of my former students with whom I had kept in touch. Ten plus years later, Gaby Romero is graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy with a Business degree while working at a local non-profit called Alternatives for Girls. She’s a budding photographer, active in community issues, and is pretty much an expert on all things Detroit. I asked Gaby to show our group around the city and share some of her experiences as a lifelong Detroiter. Gaby gave a great tour and we began to understand that Detroit should not be defined by the blight that is so prevalent, but by the spirit of the people there.

While in the Brightmoor neighborhood we happened upon a young man named James who was ecstatic to show us the urban gardens in his neighborhood. All the while he shared his experience growing up in Detroit and the hardships he has overcome. His enthusiasm for his neighborhood and his city were contagious.

Experiences like this seemed to occur everywhere we went throughout the rest of the week with our volunteering:

The pride of the employees at Cass Green Industries as they turn old tires found on abandoned lots throughout Detroit into welcome mats and sandals. It was hard strenuous work but they were so passionate about their jobs.

The wisdom of the guests at St. Patrick Senior Center as they shared stories about their past and would glow when talking about the families they raised in Detroit.

The care for creation and commitment to sustainability from Earthworks Urban Farm as they provide fresh produce, meals, and education to Detroit residents that come to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

The creativity of the Youth Advisory Board at Urban Neighborhood Initiatives as they beautify their neighborhood with murals and work to build intentional community in Southwest Detroit.

The hospitality of the Jesuit Volunteers and the Jesuit Community at University of Detroit Mercy as they invited us to dinner and shared stories about their work in the community.

As we gathered in the evenings for our nightly reflections the experiences mentioned above were what made a lasting impression on our students. We continually came back to reflecting on the way that everyday people we met cared deeply about their city and, with their own unique gifts, worked to make it a better place. As importantly, they were proud to share that with any and everyone. This is one of the many lessons our group took away from the experience and wanted to bring back with them to Indianapolis. A newfound desire to build up our sense of community and invest in what makes our city unique. Invest in building kinship and community with our neighbors.

As we continued our walk through downtown Detroit we passed a statue called The Spirit of Detroit. The iconic piece of art is one of the images most associated with Detroit. The statue represents man lifting up his community. In one hand he is holding a symbol representing God and in the other he is holding up the human family. In reflecting on our time there it was clear that the spirit of Detroit is alive and well in its citizens and we hope in ourselves as well.

*Special thanks to Fr. Tim Hispkind S.J. ’78. Fr. Tim works at UDM as the Director of Service Learning and proved to be an invaluable resource in planning the trip.

Nick Klingler

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