Editor’s note: Bankole Thompson, editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute and Op-Ed columnist at The Detroit News, was invited to deliver an address about the comeback of Detroit before the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors, Sept. 25 at Russell Street Baptist Church. The invitation was based on Thompson’s writings about inequality. The Baptist Council represents hundreds of churches in the city. Below is the entire 23-minute speech
Good morning. Thank you Rev Steve Bland, 1st Vice President of the Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors for the generous introduction.
I pray for a swift recovery of your president Rev Dee Dee Coleman. It is an honor to be here this morning, not as an observer in past years, but as what you would call in theological parlance, one you have chosen to bring the word to you this morning.
The Detroit Council of Baptist Pastors has a storied and noble history rooted in strong advocacy for the people of Detroit. By that I mean the people who sit on those pews every Sunday morning praising and worshipping an infinite God. Declaring their faith like that of a mustard seed or like Daniel in the lion’s den, I believe the members who sit on your pews Sunday mornings need you to rise up and defend their interests and speak on behalf of their issues. That is why you are more than just a collection of ministers who meet here for sessions. You are more than just an association of clergy members.
You are a prophetic voice charged to interpret true Biblical meaning to the social conditions of the day without fear or favor. You are the voices that ought to move beyond the obvious and speak out against injustice, be a light in a time of darkness, and be a lamp on the highways of justice.
My own recollections of the work of this Council goes back to the days when the late Rev Joseph Jordan, then senior pastor of Corinthian Baptist Church, served as your president. Rev Jordan and I would meet every other month in his office. I would listen to his countless stories about Poletown and what that meant in the long running history about the right to self-determination. I watched him rebuke a mayor before this council session and said no to that mayor’s highly controversial proposal. I watched him took this podium and declared that when politicians walk into the Baptist Council meetings they ought to listen to what the pastors have to say not the other way around.
Standing on the knowledge and history of what the black church has always meant in this ongoing American experiment since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, Rev Jordan, demonstrated the true meaning of freedom and what the great black theologian James Cone, sought to express when he wrote, “To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it.”
But Cone also warned us that, “Any theology that is indifferent to the theme of liberation is not Christian theology,” something that Rev Jordan understood so well.
As a man with deep appreciation for history Rev Jordan, also understood the significance of the written word and believed that writers can shape the course of history for generations to come. And like Frederick Douglass, he also believed that in the grand struggle for equality, writers and journalists can render the most permanent good to the cause of justice.
That leads me to the subject of my talk this morning: “Detroit’s Comeback and the Dejected Many.”
Rev Bland, I arrived at this topic after many years of chronicling first-hand the experiences and struggles of everyday people in this great and misunderstood American city. As a chronicler of the human experience, which includes the black experience, I could not speak to this body absent of the state of Detroit and the challenges the city currently faces.
Detroit is presently in a unique place in history where we are being told that it is living the best of times; that this moment is our last great opportunity to get it right, and that if we don’t rise up and respond to the opportunities that are so galore we will be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. This narrative that seeks to establish the current economic revitalization as the right course of action or prescription is the product of a school of thought that believes that any contrarian or alternative view to the current recovery is merely a distraction or simply oppositional.
I reject that premise because the numbers regarding the social conditions of the people of Detroit have yet to vindicate the current revitalization that is taking place mostly in midtown and downtown. And we can’t sit here in all honesty and continue to be fed without critical review, a narrative that simply ignores the human sufferings that are hidden in this city reflected in the lives of a growing and permanent underclass.
History beckons on us to not keep silent about what is too obvious.
The most recent U.S. Census report places Detroit as the largest poverty area among big cities in the nation at 35/34 percent. That designation is not one that vindicates this recovery. As I wrote in my Detroit News columns that Detroit is the headquarters of poverty in America today.
The fact remains what while some neighborhoods are poised to revive and soar, the vast majority of them are nowhere close to experiencing economic salvation. As a result, Detroit has remained a city of different and especially unequal neighborhoods where the future of the city’s kids is determined by zip coded.
Former President Lyndon Johnson delivered a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, parts of which capture the current realities of life for many in Detroit, where children wake up frightful and go to sleep hungry in high poverty neighborhoods.
“Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with and the neighborhood you live in, by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings.”
What President Johnson laid out five decades ago is what Detroit is going through now. There is a comeback. But there are many who feel dejected and their experiences of a city where economic misery is a daily existence are totally different from the ones that you hear from the trumpeters of the ongoing recovery.
This blazing reality of life in Detroit for many who are cut out of the economic engines of prosperity and upper mobility has forced some in Detroit to continue to ask the following Socratic questions:
Must Detroit’s rise to high levels of economic self-sufficiency be determined by the hands of oligarchs and a loose confederation of bosses or by the will of the people, the nerve center of democracy?
Must the majority of Detroiters and their future continue to be at the mercy of the political elites who demand a very slow and take-it-easy walk to recovery, while they champion the interests of a powerful and privileged few with all deliberate speed?
Last year, I wrote a column in The Guardian, in which I sought to explain to a global audience the realities of life in Detroit, and why the city is booming back, but you have to be rich and powerful to notice it.
In the column, I cited Adam Smith, who in the book “The Wealth of Nations, writes: “Whenever there is great prosperity there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”
I explained that Adam Smith’s prognosis of the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the fact that national wealth doesn’t necessarily bring an end to mass economic desolation, perfectly describes the state of Detroit, which is now heralded as a “shining city upon a hill,” especially after its 2014 emergence from the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.
But even five years after bankruptcy, inequality remains the dominant factor of this recovery.
Last year, I moderated a town hall with some 400 Detroit retirees at Calvary Baptist Church, where the Reverend Lawrence T. Foster serves as the senior pastor. I listened to countless and painful stories of senior citizens – retirees of city government- who are living on the edge everyday. Some with no health care or with exorbitant health insurance deductibles have no way out. They are trapped in an endless cycle of economic subjugation where their only sense of recourse is to hope that they don’t get too sick because they won’t be able to afford the deductible that comes with healthcare.
Reverend Bland, I sat there appearing helpless and looking at this particular senior citizen in her 80s share with me what she has gone through after having given the city so much of her life. In return, she is now confined to a place where she is crossing her fingers in hopes that an illness doesn’t hit her so bad that she would be required to visit a hospital because she won’t be able to afford it. It’s that plain and simple.
At the end of that town hall, I concluded that if the recovery of Detroit were an issue in litigation, the city’s defense would be a laughable and failing argument because the evidence against the city is so overwhelming. And a jury would conclude that Detroit’s comeback has not reached the many that matter.
After that encounter at Calvary Baptist Church, I only recommitted myself to God and to my conscience that the stories of those seniors and countless others including their experiences must be told. That we in the media have an obligation to keep their issues in the forefront. That the comeback of Detroit, must not be esoteric, and instead it has to be experiential, and we cannot dismiss those whose lives simply and truly represent a radical departure from the contrived narratives that are offered in the 24—hour echo chamber about the recovery.
In the midst of the challenges this city faces, Reverend Bland, what I observed is a lack of consistent and courageous leadership across the spectrum to ask some serious and basic questions regarding the recovery of the city. I didn’t come here this morning to ask you to be the Malcolm X of Detroit. I didn’t show up here to ask that you become the Shirley Chisholm of this dispensation. I didn’t come here advocating for this body to produce a Martin Luther King Jr. All I’m saying is that we are each mutually connected to the same garment of destiny as King said. Just because you are doing well and can pull a lunch meeting anytime with the powers that be at city hall doesn’t mean the senior citizens I spoke to at Calvary Baptist Church are going to be ok. You have an obligation to be a voice for them.
After all, this city’s own history is replete with many fine examples of courageous leadership. And history exists to inform us, not to leave us ignorant. So courageous leadership is not a foreign idea. It has long been a part and parcel of what gave Detroit its identity. That out of a sense of a hopelessness will arise a community who will determine their own faith and destiny.
I believe pastors have a role in shaping the future of this city. I don’t believe you should sit on the sidelines and a take back seat. I’ve always believed that. I expressed that firmly some years ago, when Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church invited me to keynote their 95th church anniversary breakfast. I spoke about the leadership of the late Rev Frederick G. Sampson and others.
The black church has always been at the center of black life. It is tasked with a unique obligation to lend voice to the struggles of our communities. But now that the battles for equality have become even more complicated, and institutional racism, often subtle, the church – and pastors – have to be even more proactive and show courageous leadership.
Dr. King whose work every black church has sought to raise as standard of excellence in leadership had this take about courageous leadership and I quote:
“Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1913, offered a remarkable tribute to the courageous leadership of Frederick Douglass that should not be lost on us today.
“And he was no soft–tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil’s due.
Through good and ill report he cleaved his way.
Right onward, with his face set toward the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman’s dread array,—
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning’s track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back.
As Dunbar noted, we must answer thunder with thunder. That means the thunder of this recovery that has left many Detroiters behind should be continually met with the thunder of constructive critic of what needs to be done to guarantee an inclusive Detroit where poverty no longer becomes the dominant issue.
In Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, he notes “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.”
It should be clear that no one has a monopoly over the facts of this economic recovery and that for every attempt to distort the facts and the historical body of evidence of the struggles of oppressed people, there should always will an equal reaction to correct the facts.
So let’s continue the debate about the comeback of Detroit. Let’s do so knowing that the ministers of the city are not sitting on the sidelines because history’s verdict will be laid at your feet.