When you think of exotic American destinations, which cities are at the top of your list? Possibly not Flint, Michigan – aside from a few Michael Moore documentaries, it might have passed you right by. But not so for Laura Fawcett, a second-year ordinand from the Southwark Diocese. She, her husband James and their toddler Aahana are spending the month of April in America, starting off in that most typical of Rust Belt cities, Flint.
We asked Laura for a few highlights of her journey so far.
The car manufacturer GM was born in Flint and employed 80000 people who moved to the town with their families and invested millions of dollars in buildings, shops and museums, many of which now lie abandoned. GM employs 7500 today. Such massive decline has lead to more than simply widespread unemployment. Those that could moved out of the city in the 70s, 80s and 90s, a movement often called the ‘white flight’. The population has gone from 300,000 to under 100,000 today. Yet this move was less about race and more about education and opportunity. Those that could get a job elsewhere did, those that couldn’t stayed behind.
Today we visited a project called Christ Enrichment Centre which is part of St Paul’s Episcopal Church Flint (the church we attended yesterday). The centre was once an Episcopal church but as folks moved out congregants dwindled and this church was closed. Today it supports those people who have been left behind because they can’t get a job elsewhere. For many of these people, they, like a third of the city’s adults, are illiterate.
Part of the reason for this widespread illiteracy is that factory jobs that existed previously did not demand many of the workers to read and write. These people – black and white – cannot now work anywhere else.
Christ Enrichment Centre focuses on literacy amongst families and training people learn how to read and write. They are supported by St Paul’s and other local churches, by the Episcopal church centrally and they also receive some government funding. They also have an onsite foodbank, work to support young mothers and run a summer camp for children. Today we met a 73 year old gentleman in the centre learning to write for the first time.
In the creation story there is a pattern in which God names things. In doing so God draws them into being. In Genesis 1 God names the light ‘Day’, and the darkness ‘Night’, God names the dome over the earth ‘Sky’, the dry land ‘Earth’ and the waters ‘Seas’ and so on. God names each of these things with individual names, and then he names them again – he calls them ‘Good’.
After creating Adam, God invites Adam to follow this pattern. In Genesis 2: 19-20 God brings to Adam the animals ‘to see what he would name them’ and then ‘whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.’ Whatever Adam named things, that was its name. Bad luck for the hippopotamus.
Names are incredibly important to us, new parents spend ages thinking of what they can name their child, believing that in some way, this name will influence their future and their very being. We name and re-name things all the time, its helps us to understand who and what we are – and our cities are not immune to this.
Flint, the city in Michigan where we have been spending time this week is often given names. I mentioned that it is known to some as the most violent or most dangerous city in America (actually since February this name is now passed to Oakland in California… lucky for them). Other names given to Flint have included the most Illiterate City, or the city with the highest levels of arson. Detroit where we have spent the last couple of days has also earned these titles, and a few others; in 2013 it was named the most miserable city in America.
These names stay with us, and as we are called, so we become. For this reason it is so important for the Church to name hope in our cities. One of the episcopal churches we visited in one of Detroit’s poorest neighbourhoods is called ‘Spirit of Hope’. From this church and its with a small but growing congregation, an urban garden is tendered. From here the church with only a handful of volunteers and much less cash manages to give away six tons of food and 20,000 meals every year. In the spirit of the Heidelberg project members of the church are praying for their community. They are also telling them – naming hope. Some of the members are decorating old church pews and hymn boards with messages of hope for their community, placing them in public places,. This kind of hope whispers resurrection, whispers that a city is not dead in a tomb, Christ is risen for the all of us, and all of us are a part of sharing a hope filled resurrection life that we share in together. Resurrection isn’t just for the shining cities and booming financial districts and fashion capitals, resurrection is for the derelict, the forgotten, the places that have been named the bad names.
One of my friends, Andrew, is working on a performance project with the Flint Youth Theatre. Its called “Flint, the most _________ city in America”, part of the project is allowing the community to fill in the blanks, to make their own name for themselves, based on the positive that they bring not simply acknowledging the negative that they are labeled with. We need to stop ‘name-calling’ in the negative and start ‘name-calling’ our cities in the positive, we need to be honest about our problems but we also need to speak that truth in love and in the light of resurrection hope. So we are named so we create who and what we are.
You can read more about Laura’s experiences on her blog: urbanpondering.blogspot.com.