Urban Warriors7 min read

Educators and clergy. Students and law enforcement. We gathered out of concern for our schools. Those assembled were addressed by many leaders including the Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager and the Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, but the speech that impressed me the most did not come from a recognized leader—it came from a 16-year-old student. During a panel discussion with student representatives from each of Detroit’s public high schools, the question was asked, “What is your greatest concern about your education?” A young lady rose to speak. She identified herself as a 16-year-old student at Denby High School (DHS). She spoke the words I will never forget. “My greatest concern everyday is how I am going to get from home to school safely and how I am going to get from school to my job safely. I have to think about it everyday. I have to plan my routes.”

Her words struck me because she was our church’s neighborhood child. Charity, Detroit, which serves as a hub for mission efforts to bring the Gospel to the community, sits next door to DHS. This young lady said that she did not feel safe walking six blocks from her house to school, even when she was walking the last block past our church—God’s house. This was in one word, “unacceptable.” I have learned that when you refuse to accept the status quo things begin to flow.

It would have been easy to find excuses to avoid the problem. Charity is very small; we really do not have the manpower to monitor the streets. Charity has limited resources; security for special events is a luxury. It is always easy to find excuses and withdraw into a cocoon of inadequacy. But avoiding the problem was also “unacceptable.” Solutions are rarely found in a litany of limitations, but they are always found where God has blessed us with strengths. One of Charity’s strengths is community recognition far beyond our size.

Over the past 10 years, Charity has become a community gathering place. For many years, it was the site of the largest, and many proclaimed the best, Angel Night Volunteer refreshment stations in Detroit. It was the location for a city-wide candlelight vigil sponsored by the Detroit Police Department to bring awareness to youth homicides. Detroit City Council President Ken Cockerel hosted a Family Fun Day at Charity. Every Friday night in the summer, Wayne County Commissioner Bernard Parker hosted a Fish Fry in the parking lot as the community danced the Hustle. Surrounding neighborhood associations have sponsored various community events at Charity. In April 2011, Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee chose Charity as the site for the inauguration of his quarterly reports to the community. Through these events and others, Charity developed a reputation as being a church where the people and pastor cared about the community— “Like a good neighbor.”  And when there is a problem in the community, “good neighbors” talk about it.

In personal visits with the managers of a nearby fast-food chain and a party store across the street from Charity, I learned that they experienced their own problems with the youth violence. Each afternoon, the dining area of the restaurant was taken over by gang members and used as an urban hunting blind from which to select their victims as students left DHS at the end of the school day. I spent time with the high school administrators listening to concerns and sharing the concerns expressed in my conversations with area retailers. Soon, these conversations led to invitations to join other conversations and eventually led to participation from the City of Detroit Mayor’s office, opportunities with representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice Youth Violence Task Force, and with members of U.S. President Obama’s staff to work with White House initiatives to curb youth violence. At each meeting I attended there was the voice of the 16-year-old young lady reminding me, “My greatest concern everyday is how I am going to get from home to school safely and how I am going to get from school to my job safely. I have to think about it every day. I have to plan my routes.”

In late August 2011, a final meeting before the start of the school year was held at Charity. Representatives from Mayor Bing’s office, the Detroit Police Department–Eastern District, the Detroit Police Department Gang squad, Detroit Public Schools Department of Public Safety, the Detroit 300, the MAN (Maintaining A Neighborhood) Network, and Denby High School administration, faculty, and students gathered to discuss the upsetting news that Denby was one of three high schools with the highest rates of youth violence in the city. But more importantly, they gathered to make a change.

By the first day of school, volunteers from the MAN Network were patrolling designated school safe routes, the waist high grass in a city park adjoining Denby and Charity had been mown, and three Detroit Police squad cars provided very visible evidence of their presence before and after school. Although the squad cars were redeployed at the end of October, by that time, the pattern of violence had been broken. Volunteers continue to patrol the safe routes to keep the pattern from reforming. I continue to advocate for people’s safety, especially the most vulnerable seniors and children. Charity continues to provide a community location where resources can be organized to effectively impact the problems facing the community.

I understand that many who read this may think Detroit is a war zone. I agree and I pray that every congregation in the Michigan District, LCMS is in a war zone. The nature of the battle may be different, but the enemy is the same. Violence is spiritual warfare in which the victory has already been won by Christ on the cross, and because of that victory we live as people of hope in the midst of continuing skirmishes. It is that hope that drives the members of Charity to gather on the Sunday before school starts and form a prayer circle around our children, to lay hands on them, bless them, and pray for their safety as they go to and from school. It is that hope that forms our prayers before the altar every Sunday to ask the Holy Spirit to touch the souls of those who commit violent acts and bring them to salvation in Jesus Christ.

In the 10 years since 9/11, there have been more homicides in Detroit than those who lost their lives in the three attacks that day. This year at our 9/11 service, we prayed for the loved ones of those killed in Detroit and we prayed we would not forget those whose names no one would ever read. We prayed knowing that like the blood of Abel, innocent blood stills cries out to God and we prayed, unlike Cain, knowing that we are certainly our brother’s keepers. Beginning on our knees, God continues to raise us up to take a stand and take our feet to the street.

There are moments when faith gets tested. Recently, I was the last one to leave the church after an evening Bible class. Just as I was about to leave the parking lot, I saw a man assaulting a woman on the sidewalk. It was amazing how fast the excuses to not get involved flashed through my mind; too old and too out of shape were just the beginning. But someone was being assaulted in God’s front yard on my watch; and it was “unacceptable.”  I hit the car horn twice, turned the car off, and hit the panic button on my key fob. Then heading to the pair I uttered a simple prayer, “Lord Jesus save me!” Suddenly, the man looked up and headed across the street shouting some things that did not resemble anything like my prayer. I stopped when I reached the woman, she assured me she was alright. As I drove home, I kept repeating “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.” I knew it was not my fearsome presence that ended the assault. That evening, prayer and a key fob were mighty weapons in the Lord’s hands.

As a pastor, nothing tests my faith like meetings. Yet, I have hope through the numerous gatherings God has opened doors that I never would have imagined would budge. Although our paths have not crossed since that first meeting, the words of the 16-year-old young lady continue to fuel our efforts to keep the streets safe from violence.

The reality is, gangs still exist, but the “gang” I belong to—the gang we belong to—will win. After all, our gang is headed by God; it is time to tell Satan we are ready to rumble.

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About the Author

Steve Essenburg is the Michigan District Missionary-at-large in Detroit and serves as vacancy pastor at Charity, Detroit.

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