Living for the city: spiritual exercises from Detroit
Utility workers in Detroit erected a streetlight in front of my house this past March. It is one of 65,000 lights that Mayor Mike Duggan has promised will be up and on by December of 2016. While watching two men guide the light pole into the ground, I felt a combination of relief, joy and cautiousness. Since purchasing a 100-year-old house in 2010, I have been frustrated by stolen front porch furniture and two car break-ins.
City living can be tough. And yet, more and more people are choosing this lifestyle, either out of necessity or to gain certain cultural amenities. According to the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population lived in cities in 2014. Whether one lives in an urban environment that could grace the front cover of a Condé Nast periodical or in a struggling, post-industrial, rustbelt metropolis, urban living offers a wide variety of blessings, challenges and opportunities.
This light was a blessing. It offered me hope that petty crime might cease on the block. Could it also be a sign, I wondered, that our city, recently mired in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, might be on the path to functionality? My emotions, however, were shrouded in cautiousness. Detroiters have experienced more broken promises from local government than just about anyone. It is important to me that my cautiousness does not slip into despair or cynicism, so as of late I have been reflecting on how to practice a spirituality of urban living.
This is not a novel concept. I have discovered the work of several scholars who have done some serious thinking about urban spirituality from a Christian perspective. Two people whose insights I have found particularly helpful are Philip Sheldrake from the Cambridge Theological Federation and Chad Thralls, a teaching fellow at Seton Hall University. Both look at the city as the site for daily human interaction and emphasize the importance of cultivating particular spiritual disciplines for healthy city life. Professor Sheldrake insists that solidarity is a key virtue for urban living, to ensure concern for the common good. Mr. Thralls, drawing upon the wisdom of St. Ignatius Loyola, suggests that a daily examen focused on city life experiences can help one grow in self-awareness and love of neighbor. These are important ideas for city dwellers who are concerned about cultivating spirituality within a daily existence that can often seem chaotic.
Pope Francis, too, addresses urban life in his encyclical “Laudato Si’,” stating that city dwellers should feel connected to one another, be concerned about the common good and think of the entire cityscape as their home, rather than confining themselves to one neighborhood. In this way, “Others will then no longer be seen as strangers, but as part of a ‘we’ which all of us are working to create” (No. 151).
My own reflections on this topic are grounded in over 10 years of living in the city of Detroit. I propose three characteristics of a robust and nourishing spirituality of urban living: 1) Attempt mightily to find beauty in desolation; 2) Move from helping others to sharing aims; and 3) Allow deep joy and grief to affect your soul.
These themes are not meant to be exhaustive, and I do not want to imply that I have mastered them or that I ever will. They can, however, help guide decision-making in the face of the gritty realities of urban life and give one the perspective to pursue a rich sense of meaning and avoid dark cynicism.
A Deeper Beauty
Detroit, like many large cities, has an overabundance of burned out buildings and homes, overgrown vacant lots and desolate landscapes. In the midst of these sad sights, however, it is possible to locate suppleness and beauty. This takes the form of wild flowers, the return of some animals, like pheasants, to the urban prairie or the sun playing off a broken window at dusk. But the search for beauty in desolation needs to progress deeper than this, lest it romanticize the real human pain that these settings can represent.
A spiritual exercise I employ is attempting to imagine who occupied a particular space in the past. Many fellow human travelers set foot on these spaces, and for some the ground was holy. A particular abandoned lot could easily have been the location of a home or a small business or an athletic field where neighbors gathered to celebrate life—and perhaps, with some imagination and care, it could become a garden or park for a new generation. The late rapper Tupac Shakur proposed a beautiful image in his lyrics of “the rose that grew from concrete.” This is a very urban symbol that represents hope and life conquering all odds.
The possibility of finding splendor among the ruins should not absolve us of considering the reasons why devastation is so rampant in our cities. Globalization, unhealthy forms of capitalism, racism and a lack of concern for the common good all play a role in this heart-wrenchingly bleak situation. But just as a healthy sense of our own personal sinfulness can generate from within a desire to do better, a realistic understanding of our societal role in creating and sustaining these problems can encourage a personal commitment to becoming an agent of change. Cultivating the habit of seeing beauty in what popular trends deem ugly or unworthy can help us see potential in people and neighborhoods that are commonly written off as insignificant and even dangerous.
When I moved into Detroit I thought I was doing something helpful. Sure, the gorgeous architecture I enjoyed in my apartment, located in a late 19th-century Victorian mansion in the middle of the cultural district, was personally gratifying. But I hoped that being an employed, tax-paying resident who cared about the city would somehow translate into support for the nascent “comeback” that Detroit seemed to be mounting. The more I learned about the city and conversed with its longtime residents, however, the more I realized that I needed to revise my personal narrative of being the social justice-minded person who was going to reach down to assist the struggling urban population. I needed to start to understand myself as a fellow resident without the condescending agenda. It is humbling to do this, but very necessary, especially in a city with a history of racial tension like Detroit. As a Caucasian moving into a predominantly African-American city, it was vital to not be perceived as—or to be—a do-gooder trying to save what did not need saving.
Putting down roots by investing in a home has helped. With a good job and many resources I am still in a position of privilege, but now my struggles and my neighbors’ struggles are much more similar. I do still try to help folks, but I am also the beneficiary of aid from others. Residents, black and white, in my neighborhood have helped push one another’s cars out of the snow when the city does not plow the side streets (not an uncommon occurrence), and some have kept a watchful eye on our two boys, who tend to bolt down the street when my wife or I momentarily turn our heads. A group of us cleaned up an illegal dump site and boarded up abandoned homes in our neighborhood to keep scrappers away and protect the growing population of young children. These are small efforts, but they build trust and form bonds with people whom I would have once labeled needy or helpless, and I hope that over time friendships, based on mutuality and solidarity, will result.
Front Porch Spirituality
A neighbor and good friend down the block works as a handyman and I have rarely seen a person put such care into his work and take so much satisfaction from it. The projects he has completed on our house have helped transform it into a home. He and his spouse have become dear friends, often joining us for holidays or evenings sipping wine on our front porches. When our friend’s van, containing all the tools of his trade, was stolen from the street in front of his house, my wife and I were angry and heartbroken.
Events like this, all too common in Detroit, spark within me an “urban-living theodicy”—the question, why do good people, who are generous neighbors, have to become the victims of crime? Crime is a reality in urban America, and one cannot naïvely ignore that fact; but a violation of this magnitude is often the last straw for those with the means to move to the suburbs. We prayed this would not be the case for our neighbors. My wife made our friends dinner and walked down the block, bottle of wine in hand, to commiserate. Our 5-year-old son drew a picture to help “Mr. Dan” feel better about losing his tools. Eight months later the family has somewhat recovered, and they still live on our street. I hope they stay, but I also realize the enormous cost of doing so.
Sharing in the griefs and joys of neighbors and friends is a formidable spiritual exercise. It can be emotionally exhausting and requires patience, hospitality and a deep well of compassion. I admit that I do not possess these qualities in abundance and would sometimes rather bury my head in my own concerns and anxieties. But city life offers many avenues to transcend and avoid wallowing in one’s own inner turmoil. Front porches, which are very common in our neighborhood but are rarely seen on newer homes, are wonderful vehicles for sharing and conversing with neighbors. In our neighborhood folks are encouraged to stop and chat with fellow residents, whether they are longtime friends or unfamiliar faces.
Front porches are also places to which panhandlers come begging for money and food. This is a reality of urban life. One comes face to face with suffering people; these are fellow city dwellers and many struggle mightily with addictions, homelessness and poverty. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes, “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.” City life does not easily accommodate isolationism or suffering avoidance. One is often encountering others, hearing about the vibrant spectrum of human behavior and experiences and attempting to either deflect or integrate these experiences. It is by doing the latter that one can experience spiritual growth.
Five months after our block was illuminated, the city is ahead of schedule on its promise to turn on the lights in Detroit. Several neighborhoods, even some of the most neglected, are reaping the benefits of this basic service that folks in other places usually take for granted. It is too early to tell if this effort will deter crime citywide, but I imagine that my fellow Detroiters feel a sense of ease after the sun goes down that some have not felt in decades. Numerous challenges remain, however, awaiting creative solutions. And as urban dwellers everywhere work to transform our cities, we might just find the city is changing us, too, opening our hearts to the people and places that make up our common home.