By Mary Kettl
There isn’t a church building, and they don’t have a steeple. But if you open the doors — of a coffee shop or a house or, soon, a storefront space in the Southwest neighborhood of Detroit — you will see the people.
Grace in Action is a new mission start of the ELCA. Mission congregations are used to starting from scratch in terms of buildings and people, but Grace in Action has decided to base its community on the principles of community organizing.
That means that the interests of the people and the needs of the neighborhood are “the scratch” that will influence what it will become.
The process, a combination of conversation, prayer, Scripture study, art, music, poetry, entrepreneurship and community organizing, is still unfolding. Organizer and ELCA diaconal minister Meghan Sobocienski expects Grace in Action will take a while to figure itself out. “We’re a thing We’re getting there,” she says.
“We have a building!” interrupts her husband, John Cummings, an ELCA pastor. “Now,” he adds.
After meeting for several months in coffee shops, cafes, homes and public parks around the neighborhood, Grace in Action is now renting a storefront space.
A neighborhood focus
It’s a focus on listening in the neighborhood and then taking concrete action that attracts many people to Grace in Action. “A lot of people don’t fit the mold of the traditional church-goer. They’re spiritual but not always interested in a regular church,” John says.
Meghan shares that many of the people might be culturally Catholic but are interested in a spirituality beyond that identity. And, in this neighborhood, they want action. “If you want to be involved in change and action, you (have to) strip away the layers and get down to what matters; what are those things that are basic to our Christian tradition?” she says.
Besides hosting a weekly service, in “a typical week, we interact with 60 to 80 people,” often through art-based events, Meghan says. Some members have worked with neighborhood youth on designing and painting a mural. More people come to regular “Open Mike Nights.” What began as small jam sessions for musicians has turned into family events “where it’s standing room only with 50 people in a little coffee shop,” John says. Neighbors from the ages of 4 to 84 come to sing, play instruments or read poetry.
“The other neat thing that happens there is that people feel safe,” Meghan said. “They are able to get up and share. We’ve had people get up and talk about life-threatening diseases or going through abuse.” In this setting, Meghan said, “People get support. A lot of people give support. Some really deep stuff happens.”
John makes it a habit to meet people where they are and build relationships and connections with them. He is quick to say that he is not knocking on doors. “In this neighborhood, people don’t answer their doors,” he said. But he has a knack for meeting people in one setting who will hook him up with other people and other places.
“John’s like the mayor of Southwest Detroit,” Meghan says. “We went to a neighborhood meeting, and about 40 youths yelled out, ‘Hey, John! When’s the next Open Mike Night?’ He knows everybody,” she shares.
Meghan’s expertise is entrepreneurship and financial organizing. Using micro-loans obtained from larger suburban congregations, Grace in Action is exploring small business start-ups for a neighborhood where unemployment is high.
One of the most innovative projects is the group of 15 young people who are learning to write and sell computer applications, some relating to the music and cultural scene of Detroit. “There’s a big market out there for rap and hip hop,” she says, “and our kids are right in the middle of that scene.” Students make a nine-month commitment to training and learning about financial literacy. “We bring in university students to teach them how to design applications; we bring in lawyers to talk about how to develop a business.” The group is using a Domestic Hunger Grant from the ELCA to buy computers.
Besides twisting together several threads of society — neighborhood kids, university students, lawyers and business people — and giving young people marketable skills, Meghan also sees this group as one that will inspire and launch the next employment cooperative. Part of the mission of Grace in Action is to find ways to develop the capacity of the neighborhood’s own people in a place — urban Detroit — that has suffered widespread economic collapse.
Southwest, while struggling, is the only neighborhood in Detroit showing any growth, and Grace in Action is developing along with it.