The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything
By Katharine Jefferts Schori

Recently, a congregation’s leadership team expressed frustration at their inability to connect contemplation and action in the mission of their church.  On one hand, the congregation’s activists saw prayer and meditation as a luxury and impediment to the critical political and social changes needed in our time.  On the other hand, the congregation’s contemplatives felt that without spiritual depth, social action becomes polarizing and may lead to burnout.  Katharine Jefferts Schori, in good Anglican fashion, seeks a middle way in which contemplation and action are one movement in responding to God’s vision of abundant life for all creation.  She believes that the interplay of spirituality and social transformation are grounded in “finding the sacred in the middle of everything.”  While she does not give the reader explicit spiritual practices to follow, it is clear that Jefferts Schori sees all of life as a spiritual practice in which we can, like Jacob, awaken from a dream and assert that “God was in this place.”  This place, for Jefferts Schori, is everywhere, but most especially in the cries of creation, vulnerable children, marginalized people, and the earth itself.  Social action is grounded in the vision of God’s presence in the least of these and is, by definition, a spiritual practice, bounding on the mystical.  Spirituality is opening our senses to experiencing God in unexpected places and then working to bring forth that holiness in others.

Prayer is at the heart of this book, but it is prayer with your senses open to the pain of the world.  Prayer brings comfort and courage; but this comes from embracing suffering and tragedy rather than avoiding the pain of the world.  Jefferts Schori advocates an “ethic of care for the least among us” which embraces all the major issues facing us as Christians, from the ordination of LGBT people to quality education, housing, economics, and global warming.  For Jefferts Schori, the meaning of life can be summarized by the words of the prophet Micah and Jesus of Nazareth:  to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly, and bring good news to the poor.

As the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori knows that the quest for God’s realm of Shalom can be controversial.  She recognizes that how we respond to the cultural and ethical divisions in the church is as important as what we assert politically, socially, and theologically.  We need to treat those with whom we disagree with the same respect as we treat those for whom we advocate.  In the book Tending to the Holy, Kate Epperly and I refer to this process as “prophetic hospitality,” the practice of listening to opponents as well as allies and discovering God’s presence in the “greatest” as well as the “least.”

The Heartbeat of God will be helpful to those who wish to connect spirituality and social action.  Although people in the congregation will have different emphases in the living of their faith, based on vocation, personality type, life-experience, and divine inspiration, this text enables Christians to begin right where they are to join prayer and protest and meditation and hands-on involvement in city hall and the soup kitchen.  God is everywhere and in all things; we are connected with one another not only in the congregation as the microcosmic body of Christ but the world as the all-encompassing body of Christ.  This book is accessible to laypeople and can be used as a congregational small group adult study.  If your group chooses to use this text, I would suggest that the group add spiritual practices at the beginning and the end of each session.  This text complements practices such as lectio divina (holy reading in the spirit of the Benedictine tradition), Quaker silence, focused centering prayer, or guided visualizations.  Using these spiritual practices will not only enrich the text but enable participants to more fully experience the heartbeat of God in the topics of each chapter.

This text is right for the times.  Although most of the examples arise from her experience as presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the message is relevant to moderate and progressive Christians everywhere, especially to persons who wish to join spirituality and social transformation in ways that unite rather than divide Christians in their mission to heal the earth.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary, and the author ofTending to the Holy: The Practice of Presence of God in Ministry andStarting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership.

Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City
By John Gallagher

There was a time when Detroit (AKA Motor City or Motown) was one of the great cities of the nation, ranking with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, and having a population touching the two-million mark. Like a number of other cities across the nation, especially cities in the so-called “Rust Belt,” time has not been kind to this city. Its population has plummeted along with its fortunes. This is due to two intersecting issues: the decline of America’s industrial/manufacturing base and white flight. Concerning the latter development, since the mid 1960s, the city of Detroit has become a predominantly African-American and impoverished city, even as its whiter suburbs have prospered and grown (at least until this last recession ravaged even the suburbs). Over the course of time, this change of fortunes has left a cloud of despair and emptiness hovering over this once great city. Although Detroit has become the poster-child of urban decline, is it unique among urban centers. There are certain factors that affect Detroit in ways that might be mitigated in other urban centers—the most important being Detroit’s lack of a significant mass transit system due to its commitment to the automobile. Still, the Detroit experience might prove enlightening to others, especially religious communities that wish to engage urban issues.

I approach this question from the perspective of one serving as pastor of a smaller suburban congregation that once stood proudly amongst the preeminent religious intuitions that dotted Detroit’s “Piety Row.” Indeed, this congregation that I now serve was once one of the largest and most prestigious congregations in its denomination, but by the time it left the city for the suburbs, following in the wake of many other Anglo churches that moved from city to suburbs, it had become a greatly diminished institution. Over the past three decades this congregation clung to its heritage even though it no longer had the prestige of an earlier era. Old Central Woodward Christian Church still sits grandly on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, but today it is home to one of the most prominent African-American congregations in the city. We, on the other hand, inhabit a much smaller space, wondering what role we should play in our broader community. The memory of “once was” fades with time, and our congregation has let go of many of yesterday’s ghosts, but the transition to a new phase of ministry has taken nearly thirty years to occur. For most of these years we lived in the suburbs as if were exiles, though we knew that we would never return to the city that gave birth to this ministry. It took many years for this congregation to begin owning its place in its suburban context, but this realization must occur before we can reengage the city from which we came.

Prior to my arrival, the congregation embraced a call to become a missional congregation, though we’re still learning what this means. I suggested that we follow the principles laid out in Acts 1:8 and think in terms of ministering in concentric circles, moving outward from our “base” in Troy, and from there out into metro-Detroit as well as into the city, and then beyond this circle to Michigan, the nation, and the world.

In trying to discern what this calling means for us, I found it necessary to understand the city and its social and cultural dynamics. One of the resources I turned to was John Gallagher’s Reimagining Detroit. Gallagher is a Detroit Free Press reporter who covers urban and economic issues for that paper and in this book he takes the reader on a tour of the city, noting its rise and decline, as well as its potential for rebirth. While it might be apparent that a book such as this would be valuable to a metro-Detroit pastor, readers of Congregations that live outside this area might wonder why they should turn to it. My answer is rooted in the decision made byTime Magazine to spend a year focusing on Detroit’s troubles and its potential for reinvention. Although Gallagher doesn’t address the role of religion in the rebirthing of the city, understanding Detroit’s situation might provide lenses by which one can examine one’s own context. Besides, if in the end Detroit does succeed in reinventing itself, other communities might learn from what happens here. More importantly for readers of this journal, the question becomes: what role might religious institutions play in the healing of the nation’s urban landscape?

Gallagher’s book helps us understand how Detroit got to this point in its history and then offers a tour of some of the efforts underway or under consideration that might reverse the trends of the past half-century. What is missing from the book is the presence of the church—both the African American churches that have emerged as some of the most important institutions within the city, and the mostly white churches that have taken root beyond the borders of this city. Before we get to the role of the church, we must first understand the story of Detroit. It is a city of 139 square miles, nearly a third of which lie vacant due in part to a steep decline in population as well as the closure of many of its massive auto factories. Whole neighborhoods lie abandoned while industrial areas have fallen into ruin. At the same time, nature has been reclaiming vast acreage, turning parts of Detroit into an urban prairie. So depressed is this city that Forbes Magazineconsistently ranks it among the nation’s most miserable cities. Detroit’s troubles are, however, of longer standing and thus rebirth will be all the more difficult.
In many ways, due to the rise of the auto industry, Detroit became the symbol of the rising American middle class. These factories offered high-paying low-skilled jobs that drew vast numbers of people from around the world. But that world has largely disappeared, and in the wake of this reality many feel abandoned and hopeless. There are, therefore, elements to the story that are both unique to Detroit and telling as to the nature of migration patterns within the nation.

As is probably true in other cities, large and small, political will is needed if a new vision is to emerge. And the political elements must wrestle with the kinds of issues that are uncovered by Gallagher’s book. As a relative new-comer to the region, I found that it not only offers a realistic look at the city, but it introduces the reader to some of the ways in which a city like this could redefine and recreate itself for a new century. To do this new thing, the leaders of Detroit—political, business, and religious—must not only understand the challenges, but also see the resources that are present in our midst.

Some of the possibilities for reinvigorating the city are controversial, in part because there is a significant fear of “gentrification” in the city. Many who live in the city are concerned that an influx of wealthier whites back into the city will undermine the political clout of the African-American community. There is also the fear of an embrace of urban agriculture, something that is regularly in the news as a way of doing two things—making use of the vacant land and also dealing with the food desert that exists in this city. Although urban agriculture seems to make sense, many in the African-American community see this as a return to share-cropping, something their parents and grandparents left behind when they moved from the South to the industrialized North. This is but one of many issues ranging from mass transit to governance that the author looks into. Although he is realistic about the challenges facing the city, noting that Detroit’s current path “portends only more abandonment, bankruptcy of city services, and economic distress” there are examples of cities with similar problems that have found ways of revitalizing themselves by “healing the land, nurturing community-based companies, and revamping how we govern” (p. 149).

Although the religious community is largely absent from the book’s conversation, religious institutions, often are the strongest remaining institutions in urban centers. This is especially true in Detroit. And if a solution is to be found, then it’s likely that the religious community must be part of the solution. We know that when African-American pastors speak, they often represent large segments of the urban population. They can, if engaged, also move the population toward embracing and engaging the changes that must come to the city. Unfortunately, the deep suspicion that exists on both sides of the “border,” often stifles opportunities for revitalization.

If we are willing to use Gallagher’s analysis of Detroit’s problems and promise as a case study, then faith communities and religious institutions might begin to imagine ways in which they can engage the city. The story of Detroit is important because it is the story of urban decline and suburban sprawl. It is the story of suspicion and betrayal. It is also the story of promise. Gallagher calls for the reimagining of Detroit, but he’s realistic, and so should we be. Detroit can become a “gritty success,” but this will require much from people not only in the urban center, but also those who live far beyond the core. The question is: what roles will the church play? And perhaps more importantly for churches like mine, how will predominantly white suburban congregations respond to the issues facing the city? Do we even see ourselves as part of the community called Detroit? Do we see it as merely a mission field, or is it our own home? The ways in which we answer these questions will affect the way we respond.

My own congregation has taken a few steps towards engaging in such ministry, but we are only early in the process of discerning our direction. Considering the deep racial divide that has existed for so long in the region, we understand that creating effective partnerships is difficult. We must always keep in mind the too easily expressed sentiment that we’re going into the city to save residents from themselves. That is, white congregations must beware of messianic complexes. With that concern ever in our minds, we have joined with a Methodist-sponsored ministry that brings mission groups into the city to assist in urban gardening, home revitalization, and other projects. Most of the congregations sending youth and adults on mission trips to the city are white, so what will they experience and how will they be perceived? Doing good things is important, but what is our motivation? Our hope is that together we can be transformed by our experience of ministry in the city.

Parallel to this effort is a conversation that is being launched by a young community organizer. He has the enviable job of bringing together suburban clergy and community leaders to deal with suburban issues. Many of us are eager to engage the city, but until we work on the problems facing the suburbs will we be in a position to work in successful partnership with urban churches? We’re also working on building partnerships with our urban congregations that bring white and black together in service and in worship. We’re hoping to participate in a conversation between urban and suburban congregations and their leaders to see how we can engage in this work of healing a region that is deeply divided along ethnic and class lines.

For there to be success, the wall that lies between the city and the suburb must be breached, and the church, even though it doesn’t figure in the story told by Gallagher, will need to be involved in the process. The message that needs to be heard in reading a book like Gallagher’s is that despite the reputation Detroit has garnered, it isn’t all that different from cities across the nation. In fact, in the last Forbes list of the nation’s most miserable cities, Detroit only ranked number fifteen. It would seem that if our faith communities are willing to answer the call, the opportunities for transformative ministry is immense.

Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1