‘Hope for the City,’ the story of Father Cunningham’s Focus:HOPE

Jack Kresnak Hope for the City in the Free Press 2015 (1)

DECEMBER 13, 2015, UPDATEToday The Detroit Free Press devoted a three-page spread in its Michigan-wide Sunday newspaper to excerpting and celebrating the publication of Hope for the City. As a result, the Amazon stock of the book was temporarily bought up by eager readers.

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Cover Hope for the City biography of Focus Hope founder Father Cunningham by Jack Kresnak (1)

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As the year-end holidays are upon us, Jewish readers are thinking of religious freedom and social justice during Hanukkah and Christians are feeling the generosity of Christmas. These themes are bound up in the real life of Father William Cunningham, the courageous Catholic priest who founded one of America’s great social experiments. Two decades after his passing, Cunningham’s Focus:HOPE continues to help needy men and women work together to transform their lives and their community. This week, we invited Front Edge Publishing’s Dmitri Barvinok to write about this important book launch.

By DMITRI BARVINOK
Front Edge Publishing

Focus:HOPE’s campus buzzed with activity one evening last week as Detroiters—and friends from as far as California—came together to celebrate the launch of Hope for the City: A Catholic Priest, A Suburban Housewife and Their Desperate Effort to Save Detroit, a biography of their dear friend and Focus:HOPE co-founder, Father William T. Cunningham.

This is the fourth book by Detroit-based Cass Community Publishing, which so far has focused on inspirational nonfiction and memoirs. This book’s publication represents a collaboration between two of Michigan’s best-known charitable organizations. The Cass publishing house is part of Cass Community Social Services—and, like Focus:HOPE, Cass is sparking national interest in the innovative ways the organization engages men and women in rebuilding Detroit. The Cass logo appears on the spine of new book; the Focus:HOPE logo appears just below the title Hope for the City.

TWO DECADES IN THE MAKING

As he took to the podium at the launch event, author Jack Kresnak—former award-winning Detroit Free Press journalist and longtime friend of the priest—was celebrating the culmination of a nearly two-decade-long effort filled with research, writing, re-writing, editing and re-writing again.

Cunningham’s life was as sprawling, complex and turbulent as the life of Detroit itself since World War II—from the world’s teeming arsenal of democracy in the war years to the boom in the auto industry to the explosive collision of races and cultures as thousands of families flocked to the Motor City. Researching Cunningham’s life required a years-long exploration of archives, letters, news clippings, personal interviews and other connections that span the nation.

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer at the Hope for the City book launch

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer talks about his friend Father William Cunningham at the book launch.

To celebrate the book’s publication—and Cunningham’s life(1930-1996)—members of the Detroit community, including former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and the Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services, read excerpts from the book. They paused to recount fond personal memories of both the priest and Focus:HOPE co-founder Eleanor Josaitis (1931-2011). They explained why the passages they read particularly resonated with them.

A lot of emotions surfaced in that gathering, said Free Press staff writer Patricia Montemurri. “Dennis Archer’s voice broke when he took the podium to talk about Cunningham and Josaitis, and read an excerpt from Kresnak’s book.

“They chose great selections,” Montemurri said. “The readings put attendees on the back of Fr. Cunningham’s motorcycle, on a fundraising come-to-Jesus shakedown of a benefactor; and on the receiving end of racist hate mail.”

Other notables who read excerpts included current Detroit Deputy Mayor Ike McKinnon, former Marygrove College President Glenda Price. Talking about their departed friend and colleague was not easy, but the warmth and enthusiastic applause that packed the room carried the speakers through the most challenging recollections.

Jack Kresnak addresses folks at launch of Hope for the City book

Jack Kresnak speaks at the book launch.

Videos of Father Cunningham and Eleanor Josaitis were played between readings and Father Cunningham’s voice once again filled the halls of the Center for Advanced Technology (CAT), a building Cunningham himself had envisioned as a Star Trek inspired hall of learning. Guests experienced his vision for themselves because entering the building required a hand in front of a touch sensor, not an old-fashioned doorknob.

Cunningham’s former English and Seminary students sat together and cheered Kresnak, who was also in Cunningham’s English class and was encouraged by the priest to pursue journalism. After the reading, Kresnak signed books on the “bridge” of the CAT, where Cunningham himself once stood, commanding Focus: HOPE like the Starship Enterprise.

A TRUE GIFT

Buying a copy of Hope for the City is also a way of giving to the cause that mattered most to Cunningham and Josaitis. Half of the book’s revenue goes to benefit Focus:HOPE.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Cunningham biographer Jack Kresnak at book launch with video of the priest

Biographer Jack Kresnak waits to speak at the book launch as a video of Father Cunningham plays on one of the monitors behind him.