On Sunday afternoon, the Detroit Free Press estimated that 1,000 men, women and children braved storm clouds to gather in the heart of Detroit to lift this entire region in prayer.
I wish I could have bottled the tangible good spirit in that circle of prayer so we could send it to the far corners of the Earth. It was an afternoon I won’t forget.
Storm clouds moved the gathering into a covered amphitheater along the Detroit River, but the rain held off just long enough for this high-spirited experience to unfold.
People have been pausing in prayer for many centuries at this particular spot on the globe. It’s where Canada now meets the U.S., separated by one of the world’s great commercial waterways. But people have been praying here long before either country was formed.
In my own very brief talk to the crowd, I said: This concrete theater where we’re gathered today may not look much like one of our beautiful cathedrals, mosques or synagogues, but this is a sacred place. This is an international crossing place of land and water where Native peoples have paused for thousands of years.
In 1701, Europeans landed here to establish Detroit and on that first day here they prayed, too. Then in the early 20th Century, just a short distance from this place thousands of families arrived at Detroit’s train station, moving in the Great Migration from the South to find jobs in northern factories. Those families helped to form the backbone of this internationally known community. And one of the first things those hopeful families did was: Pray.
Today, this is sacred ground once again because you are here, each one of you, ready to pray.
That was the message of the day. It was proof of the power behind a simple spiritual idea that ReadTheSpirit helped friends like the Rev. Greg Barrette of Renaissance Unity church to shape into “LIFT (YOUR CITY) IN PRAYER.” The idea was emblazoned across yellow bumper stickers, promoted in articles on ReadTheSpirit and sent out through a huge word-of-Email network. And, it continues to spread through the news media and many other avenues.
We’ve already reported on people praying from Calgary, Alberta, to the Florida Keys. Union College in Kentucky is hosting a campus-wide LIFT IN PRAYER campaign and folks living in Alabama’s Wiregrass region are LIFTING their grassland community in prayer.
In Detroit on Sunday, it was clear that the people who have been praying in preparation for several weeks are deeply committed to their community. They came to hear just brief messages from Greg and myself, then to pray together for a while and finally to write their prayers for the city into blank prayer books. But the truth is: These people who showed up for the rally already were helping their city.
Lillie Ming taught elementary school in Detroit from 1965 until her retirement in 1996. Her prayerful concern for the city has led her to organize neighbors to plant flowers in median strips along an east-side stretch of an important urban artery called Outer Drive.
First, she got all of the proper permits lined up. “And now I’m organizing families to adopt each patch along Outer Drive,” she told me. “We’re going to transform this city one block at a time.”
Then, she leaned toward me sternly—a veteran teacher underscoring a vital lesson to this listener with my notepad in hand. “Write this down. People may say they want to leave this city. I say to people: ‘Don’t move—improve!’
”We need ideas like this,” she said, pointing at a yellow LIFT bumper sticker, “They help to ignite people. Do you understand? When an idea is shared, it’s strengthened.” Then she eyed me carefully. “Did you get that? When an idea is shared—”
”—it’s strengthened,” I said. After all, that’s a guiding principle here at ReadTheSpirit.
That’s why we tell you about things like the LIFT Resource Page, the Interfaith Passport and a host of other ideas we’re sharing week after week.
Gary Madden, a retired elementary school principal, came downtown with his wife Shirley, a retired school counselor. Gary told me, “We’ve spent our lives working and living in Detroit and we know this city has gone through some very hard times, but it feels to me like it’s finally time for us to make a come back.”
Shirley said, “This city is my home. My father came here when Ford was hiring in the 1930s. At that time, Detroit was a life saver for so many people. And I know that this city can be a life saver for families once again.” (Gary and Shirley are at right. The photo below of the boy in the cowboy hat is someone we spotted in the crowd who was among the first to put his bumper sticker across his back.)
Will Wilson, a retired community organizer, said, “Coming together like we are today reminds us that there is an umbrella above all of us. Whatever we do in the community has to start with this movement of spirit. I say: ‘You pray first and then you put your feet on your prayers and you walk together.'”
We’ve written a lot at ReadTheSpirit about the spiritual gifts and challenges of aging, so I was thrilled to find friends like these who weren’t devoting their retirement years to the golf course. They were braving a looming storm to pray for strength and creativity to roll up their sleeves once more in a city they love.
But this crowd came in all ages, sizes, hues and religious backgrounds.
Victor Begg, a nationally known Muslim leader, made a point of bringing greetings from Muslims fasting in Ramadan.
It was that kind of day. Newspaper writers showed up, including some who weren’t on duty—they just wanted to share in the spirit of the day.
Some parents brought babies.
I finally spent some time with Wayne State University student Anthony Swancoat, who volunteered to sit behind long wooden tables to assist people writing their prayers into the yellow-white-and-black memory books (the book colors were designed to echo the bumper stickers).
Soon, people were so caught up in spreading this message that they began placing bumper stickers across their backs and strolling around downtown Detroit, often with big smiles or hand-in-hand with friends despite the approaching storm.
Anthony looked at what was unfolding around him and told me, “There’s real power when people gather like this.
”I know the history of this city, too,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of great successes in the past—the auto industry, the music business are just two of them—and I know there’s more to come, don’t you?”
Yes, Anthony, I do.
I truly do.
SPECIAL THANKS to ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile for his photography today!
(Originally published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)