In the late 1960’s the “urban plunge” was an experience recommended to those who had not lived in an urban area or who had lived in a privileged area and had no direct experience of how the “other half” lived. The Methodist Student Movement was sponsoring a conference in Detroit in the summer of 1966. I was president of the MSM chapter at Illinois Wesleyan University, a farm kid, and I decided to go to the conference and, unknown to my parents (I was 19 after all.), expand that experience with an urban plunge.
Central Methodist Church, located on Grand Circus Park, hosted the conference, and several local leaders—professors at Wayne State University, political leaders, corporate leaders, and the president of the United Auto Workers, Walter Reuther—spoke to us, addressing the urban issues of the day. Reuther was particularly impressive, laying out the challenges to the auto industry, fully integrating the workforce, and expanding the base of unions internationally; he predicted the eventual decline of domestic industry, the unions, and the urban centers in the face of global competition, since people were not preparing for it.
Outside of the conference some of us wandered around and lived on the streets of Detroit. Much of the housing in many neighborhoods sat empty and decrepit. The immense Ford Rouge Plant stood empty. Segregated housing was the rule, and public services for the older neighborhoods were often scarce. I always walked around with one or two other friends from the conference, and we slept on park benches or in abandoned houses, and went to soup kitchens and day labor hiring centers. I never had more than a few dollars on me and dressed like I didn’t have much, which, of course, I didn’t. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, meeting people on the street—the veterans who had lost their way, the guy with an armful of watches that he would sell me, the children who begged during the day and turned their money over to an adult at the end of the evening, alcoholics, drug addicts, musicians and street artists, philosophers, people of all kinds. Throughout the weeks there I perceived no threat, other than the rodents and dirt of the streets. People were friendly, curious about us (We were college students here for a few weeks of the summer just to learn what we could.), willing to talk about their own lives, frustrations, and hopes. I discovered that all of these people were a lot like me under the skin. I could learn from them, but I had little to teach. That was the summer before the Detroit riots of 1967, and I wondered how poor people managed to live in the city, knowing they had no other home to go to.
One day a female friend and I got cleaned up and dressed up and went to a new high-rise apartment building in the urban renewal area just north of the downtown. We pretended we were a newly married couple looking for an apartment. The apartments were plain, small, and uninviting, and we finally had to admit to the nice woman who showed us around that $1000 a month was above our means. I couldn’t see how or why anyone would afford such a rental. Obviously most of the people we were meeting could not. We ate that evening at a Greek restaurant, spending some of my money hard-earned from loading and unloading trucks for a couple of days. We sat and watched as people came and went, finding or leaving something hidden behind the refrigerator that sat just outside the kitchen, but not staying to eat a meal.
I searched for the church that Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr had served for 13 years that had ended forty years before—Bethel Evangelical Church, two miles west of the downtown on Grand Avenue. What would be left of the German working community he served? It had become an African-American working community, and the building continued to serve, renamed Mayflower Missionary Baptist Church. I didn’t imagine at the time that I would eventually serve old German Evangelical Churches that looked a lot like it.
It is still hard to say exactly how those days in Detroit changed me, but they did. I was humbler, needing much less, but also less confident in my own ability to find any kind of success on my own. Anything worth doing had to be done together.