Detroit’s glimmer of hope
By Mark Blinch
I’ve been to Detroit countless times over the years and though I’ve always known the city to struggle with poverty, I am usually sent to the city to cover another winning Detroit sports franchise, or the glitzy international auto show showcasing the years new cars from all the top auto makers.
As I drove down the highway from my hometown Toronto, I tuned into my favorite Detroit rock radio station 89x as I got close to the border crossing. The radio hosts began to plug an event where people with little means could go and get a free meal. It was just a few days until Christmas, and rockstar Kid Rock, a Detroit native, was putting up the funds to help support his hometown.
I was sent to Detroit to meet with the people who struggle the most during the holidays, to see the places where they seek comfort and to capture the spirit of the locals who reach beyond their own troubles to help out others.
St. Leo Catholic Church, located in the gritty suburbs of Detroit, was my destination. Like many churches across North America, St Leo’s is facing the threat of being closed down or merged with another church.
The Archdiocese of Detroit has said it simply can’t afford to keep it open. John Stoll, the Reuters reporter assigned to write this story, chose to feature this church in particular because of the important services it provides to the community.
As I drove the three miles to the church from my downtown hotel, I began to experience the economic disparity of this city. It is indeed ground zero for the severely weakened American auto industry. Once I passed the big, shiny Motor City Casino, which seems to be the last marker of downtown, I saw a number of abandoned houses that had been destroyed by fire, libraries forced to shut its doors for good, and countless empty lots among barren streets.
But among that disparity is St. Leo’s.
St. Leo’s is much more than just a Catholic church. In the basement there is a soup kitchen where volunteers serve up hot meals to the local residents who can’t afford to eat. They also have a medical center, where people can come and get free medical care and receive free medication from a makeshift pharmacy. The doctors and nurses who provide this service donate their time. In addition to the medical service, dentists provide dental care where patients can receive basic services.
And of course, every Sunday there is a church mass, where the community comes to worship. The church provides hope in a city where help is desperately needed.
Chris Mitchell, a volunteer in the soup kitchen, told me, “sometimes when I walk around this city, I try to picture it as it once was, with people walking around and smoking cigarettes with their sleeves rolled up.”
For Mitchell, that image was a picture of a once thriving automotive town full of confidence and people.
When I looked at St Leo’s from the outside it was hard to imagine that this place had been around for 120 years. A few spare tires can be found in an empty lot across the street and if you wander into the neighborhood around the church, you will find abandoned homes, scorched, empty apartment buildings, tax foreclosure notices on charred front porches, and a lot of vacant land. Maybe a handful of people could be seen walking around the neighborhood.
To try and imagine a thriving city is nearly impossible and I was left to wonder what went so horribly wrong over the years.
In the neighborhood surrounding St Leo’s, I did see a glimmer of hope: someone had built a brand new house right next door to a decaying, abandoned home.
Maybe someone has some confidence that Detroit can come back.