Can Christians Save Detroit?

Mrs. Frankenfeld and I returned from a week of vacation this weekend (Leaving behind a sunny, warm, and flower-filled Chicago spring to spend a cool, cloudy, and rainy week surrounded by swarms of hornets the size of your big toe in the Appalachians), and one of the first stories to catch my eye in the news – apart from Mark Sanford completing a comeback that still leaves me scratching my head – is the fact that we can finally put numbers to the story of Detroit’s decay-pocalypse.  The news reports vary slightly, but the AP reports that the city is projected to fall roughly $386m short of what it needs this year alone, and the Detroit Free Press says Detroit has long-term debts totaling $17-22 billion dollars.

We’ll get to the numbers, but in order to grasp the topic we should first highlight this idea Detroit is still a city, or at least what we understand by that word.  Once home to millions, Detroit presently has about 700,000 residents, most of whom are presumably too impoverished to leave town and join the millions who have already fled to the suburbs.  The result is a vast urban expanse of abandoned and decaying buildings and houses, and a mess that’s nearly impossible to police or protect from fire.  So while an aggregation of 700,000 probably is best termed a city, we won’t pretend it resembles any other city in the developed world.

At any rate, Detroit’s population plummeted while its debts exploded, which means that every man, woman, and child in Detroit would owe between $24,000 and $31,000 if the debt burden were divided amongst the citizenry.  Bear in mind, this is a city in which – according to Trulia.com – the average listing price for a home was $44,318 as of May first, and the median household income is only about $25,000.

So the situation has deteriorated such that the state of Michigan has taken over the city.  As well as disclosing the financial catastrophe in Detroit, reports ordered by the state have also added color to other elements of life in the city, with depressing results.  For example, one report suggests that the police force can be improved, so long as they procure “more and better technology, equipment, police cars, and personnel.”  Which I suppose at least implies that their buildings would be satisfactory, so long as everyone and everything in them changed.  At least Detroit has that.

You get the picture.  Detroit has problems.  My point in all of this is to float one crazy idea: what if the United States’ Christians banded together to bail out Detroit?

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I know.  Churches are not in the business of handing Jesus’ money to degenerate municipalities.  But hear me out.

For one thing, let’s establish that we could.  It is a feasible course of action; if 100 million American Christians – which is roughly equivalent to the number that regard themselves as born again, and thereby excludes tens of millions of additional generous Christians – were to pony up the cash, the upper limit estimate of Detroit’s obligations would amount to $220 per person.  Not easily met, but doable, and we actually need only a fraction of that much – some of Detroit’s obligations are pensions; a bailout today doesn’t really need to come up with pension cash that will be needed 5 or 25 years from now.  There’s also the option of simply making Detroit’s budget good for a few years – this year we’d have to raise $3.86 each, and future years would hopefully demand less.  Good idea or bad, it is possible.

Secondly, permit me to argue that Detroit is a special case.  There are tens of thousands of places on earth worthy of special attention from the church; this tends to function as a particularly effective excuse to address none of them since we can never decide where to start.  With that said, there is no place in the United States as bad as Detroit.  It’s barely part of the first world; consequently, if we want to help somewhere in the U.S., Detroit may be the least arbitrary starting spot.

Thirdly, Detroit’s plight makes the entire city one of the “least of these.”  In addition to Detroit’s third-world police force and Robocop-like urban blight (and let’s pause to admire the prescience of setting that film in Detroit in the first place), the city boasts an unemployment rate some estimate to be as high as 25%, a poverty rate three times higher than the nation as a whole, and a median household income less than ½ the national median.  Every urban area contains concentrations of people in need, but Detroit essentially lacks concentrations of anyone else.  To help the city of Detroit is to help the people Jesus told us to help.

Fourthly, Detroit is a chance for the church to take a visible stand for justice and redemption at the same time.  Look, no municipality reaches such dire straits without loads of corruption.  Detroit’s population decline has been a financial catastrophe, but it’s also seen enough corruption to make a Sicilian blush, and in fact lost a recent mayor to prison for it.  And while we could blame Detroit’s voters for making some poetically disgraceful decisions in the voting booths, we should also remember that Detroit’s voters were educated in Detroit’s schools.  Their critical thinking isn’t as honed as yours.

Anyway, Detroit is collecting the fruit of corruption that has little to do with the little old lady who can’t get the police or fire department to come when she needs them.  Not only could our money go far to ensure that such little old ladies have access to justice, not only could our money go far to prevent renewed corruption (as always, it’s about the strings you attach to a gift), but our money could go far to give 700,000 people a second chance.  We can reverse years of injustice and redeem an entire city.  Can you think of a better witness?

I know many of you will remain unconvinced that we should do this.  You’ll argue that it creates a moral hazard; if Christians start footing the bills incurred by corruption, you’ll argue that this incentivizes corruption.  Maybe, but that’s missing the point.  Christians – and evangelicals in particular – spend too much time worrying about what we must do or should do.  What about what we can do?

In this case, what we can do is take a massive public step that reminds the world that we’re about more than conservative political causes.  Like Jesus, we’re also about forgiveness, second chances, and generosity, and now is a great time to remind the country of that fact.  My checkbook’s ready, so how about it?  Wanna bail out Detroit?

Note: uncited statistics in this post are from the Detroit Free Press or http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2012/09/detroit_has_half_the_median_in.html

2 thoughts on “Can Christians Save Detroit?

  1. I think it’s an intriguing idea. I’ve never looked at it from a top-down/macro perspective like that.

    However, having lived for the last five years in an ordinary neighborhood in Detroit, I must say that the picture you paint here is not entirely accurate. Detroit is filled with people, both indigenous and missional transplants, who are working hard towards transformation. There are nice neighborhoods in Detroit – that I could not afford to live in! Churches in and around the city have been coming together to pray, serve, break down spiritual strongholds of oppression, injustice, racism and fear. And we’ve seen things changing. The church in Detroit is rising in this season with the power of the risen Christ, showing a broken city that God saves and makes all things new.

    I get what you’re saying and appreciate your insight into why we don’t do anything, but I also want people to see what God is already doing in the city.

    • Sarah – Thank you for reading, and thank you especially for adding your on-the-ground perspective. It’s very helpful, and not something I could add myself.

      While I acknowledge that I’ve chosen statistics that illustrate the negative about Detroit rather than the positive – and I freely acknowledge that there is positive – do understand that very few of those who read my blog are from Michigan at all, and consequently should not be assumed to know Detroit’s plight over the past several decades, so I really wanted to emphasize that. With that said, your reports of the spirit and vitality of the local church are profoundly encouraging; what would you think if I suggested that might be the strongest argument yet in favor of the rest of the American Church pitching in? To just send money would be a risky proposition; to have partners on the ground who are already fighting the good fight is obviously preferable.

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