Excerpt from the book
After 20 years at Hull House, Jane Addams wrote a memoir describing her life and work. In so many ways, I am no Jane Addams. She was obviously stationed in Chicago and I’m in Detroit. She dealt with the abhorrent conditions in factories and child labor abuses while I have become preoccupied with creating employment. Her settlement house was situated in a crowded neighborhood composed mostly of immigrants from European countries. My city has experienced an exodus of biblical proportions and African-Americans make up the majority of the remaining residents. Addams dealt with the Industrial Revolution. I have struggled with the onslaught of information, the technological revolution and globalization. Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I operate a haunted house.
Still, I feel a kindred spirit with the reform leader. I gravitate toward Addams because she wasn’t afraid to work at the grassroots level. She spent 36 years in Chicago’s 19th Ward, most of it in tireless activity as if she understood that only a fraction of the things that cry out to be done can be accomplished in a lifetime even for those granted longevity. I hold her in high esteem because she was appalled by the injustice and indifference she witnessed. She reached the conclusion that poverty is complex but that its multifaceted nature is no excuse for failing to solve the toughest problems. Her bestselling book, Twenty Years at Hull-House, still provides a window through which to watch her personal development as well as the struggles and triumphs of her neighbors.
It is my hope that Twenty Years at Cass Community will install a window in much the same way. The short stories included are meant to reveal some of my incremental changes while they provide a fuller picture of the people of the community—their obstacles, foibles, tragedies, triumphs and tenacity. So often, poor people get reduced to numbers or graphs. When they are not treated like research data, they tend to be either vilified or regarded as helpless victims. One of my goals is to give a sense of them as three dimensional, flesh and blood people. A word of disclosure is needed though. Most of the names in the book are fictitious to protect the identities of those who wish to remain anonymous. A couple of the characters are actually composites, representing more than one person, because maintaining confidentiality required it.
I hope, too, that the book will capture some of the historically significant events that have transpired in the last 20 years. The O.J. Simpson verdict came down shortly before I started as pastor of Cass Church. During my tenure, we have collectively experienced 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the election of Barack Obama, the Arab Spring, and mass shootings from Columbine High School to Sandy Hook Elementary. At the same time, as Thomas Friedman has observed, the introduction of technology has flattened the world. Twenty years ago, the Internet was surfed by only a handful of people. There was no social media—Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram all came after Y2K. People didn’t Skype. No one had a smartphone. We used to take pictures with cameras and leave the film at the store to be developed and printed. We were still using beepers and scurrying to find pay phones 20 years ago. We rented movies from Blockbuster, not Netflix, and drivers unfolded huge paper maps without a GPS or Siri to direct them.
Like Addams’ classic book, I expect that this one will serve as a time capsule of sorts, chronicling a particular period in southeastern Michigan. Two decades back, Detroit was a different place. The area has experienced a significant loss in population, political shifts and, of course, a financial crisis that pre-dated the national recession. In 2009, TIME issued a special report about these realities. The edition’s cover superimposed bold white letters over a photo of the abandoned Packard plant which read, “The Tragedy of Detroit.” What’s more, the magazine purchased a house within the city limits for reporters, photographers and videographers to occupy for a year to further their coverage, not unlike the journalists who were embedded with the troops in Iraq. Michigan’s governor appointed an Emergency Manager for Detroit and, within months, ours became the largest municipality in the country to file for bankruptcy in 2013. The impact was seismic. I have intentionally interspersed time and place sensitive information within the stories.
My Twenty Years book will also describe the evolution of the Cass organizations. It is important to note first that Cass Community United Methodist Church was involved in out- reach and advocacy before I was born. Rev. John Perkins procured a pickup truck and used it for gleaning, thus starting the Cass food program during the Great Depression. Rev. Lew Redmond initiated programs for area children and seniors. He also established activities for adults with developmental disabilities during his 28-year appointment. Rev. Ed Rowe began the Homeless Drop-In Center, the Intra-Faith Rotating Shelter and the Free Saturday Clinic. When I arrived at Cass, all of these programs were going strong and all were under the church’s administrative umbrella.
It became clear to me at the onset, though, that the neighborhood wanted fewer social services in the Cass Corridor and that the people needed more than emergency programs. Moreover, Cass Church had become the classic “tail wagging the dog.” Every need and activity of the congregation was eclipsed by one of the social programs. Every inch of the church building was being used for supplies, food boxes, staff offices and meeting areas. Finding space for a funeral dinner or a youth group was problematic. So, we invited Lee and Jan Loichle to facilitate an exploratory team of congregation and program leaders to consider how we might reorganize Cass. At the conclusion of the sessions, the church voted to create a legally separate but linked nonprofit organization, naming it Cass Community Social Services (CCSS).
In 2002, in conjunction with the opening of the Scott Building four miles north of the church, CCSS was established. Since then, the nonprofit has grown exponentially. By 2013, the Food Program prepared and served a million meals annually. The Activity Center for Adults with Developmental Disabilities had increased to 125 participants, five days a week. In addition to the Warming Center and the Rotating Shelter, Cass added all of its transitional housing and permanent supportive housing so that 325 homeless men, women and children stay in one of our buildings every night. In response to the financial crisis, Cass began offering employment in 2007. Eighty-five permanent Green Industries jobs have been created and linked to sustainability. Finally, seven of the agency’s 10 buildings are located within five blocks, establishing a pedestrian campus for residents, staff and volunteers.
The title of my book begins with a play on words using the African-American spiritual, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.” It is a reminder that the stories in this volume are from my viewpoint. Others certainly have been privy to most of the captured experiences but their memories may not be the same as mine. Just as Moses’ 12 spies returned from Canaan with two different reports, a person’s perspective filters everything. Beyond this, I have tried not to interpret the stories for you. You must decide what they mean.
The ‘this far’ in both the song and my title implies that we have been on a long, often arduous journey and that it is unfinished. As long as poverty persists and opportunities are limited or denied, there is more work to be done.