Saturday, August 13, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 7: Moving On, Never Gone

It’s difficult to collect my thoughts here at the end of this experience. Being back in Little Rock, Arkansas, it’s difficult to think that it’s only been about 7 weeks since we were here for training. I am a changed person—changed by love, community, faith, and an overwhelming sense of peace that had fallen over me in Detroit. Stepping out of my City of Love and into the rest of the country and world with all its problems, shortfalls, insecurities, and misunderstandings is like not knowing the ground under me in soil my shoes have trampled many times before.

There are emotions here that are more than I’m willing to share on this blog. But if we meet for lunch or sit down for coffee I’d be more than happy to discuss my time here and converse over all the amazing things that have happened to me, to Detroit, and to the people I know there.

Peace and Love, forever and always.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 6: Change and Community

We're rounding the last corner of our time here in Detroit. In some ways, I feel that I am just getting started; just getting to become a part of the community here and feel that I have a place and a position to do things for this community. But at the same time I'm starting to realize just how much is changing in me personally, in the church I work at, and in this community.

This past week was a rough one. The heat index was well beyond 100 degrees, and without air conditioning in our house, I've barely had a decent night's sleep all week. The kids at the day camp were raucous and whinny, making it hard to keep a positive attitude with them. I was in a funk of missing home, missing the people and the places, and wanting badly to be swimming with family, or hiking with friends, or just seeing the Philadelphia or New York skyline.

But alas, "All Things Must Pass" fell into my mind as I saw things changing, as I looked back and saw difference from before, as I looked forward and saw hope for things to come. I was struck with positivity, despite the heat and the longing, and my heart smiled as I went into the final day of the camp for the week. With this new positive energy, I noticed better attitudes from the kids, I more easily coped with the heat, I had a great phone call from home, and I felt once again at peace.

All along I have wondered what effect the day camp really has on this community. Gradually I came to accept it and understand that I was doing good work through positive feedback from the parents and grandparents, but I still wondered what effect it might have on the larger community. Truth be told, only time will tell what this camp does for this church and this community. It depends on whether the camp has a second season next summer, if it ends up bringing families into the church, or if it has a continued and lasting positive impact on the children and their families. But this past week I learned of the extreme struggles this church, which I have come to love in the past few weeks, has experienced in the last ten years. Due to massive internal difficulties and disputes, the church lost 1400 people. It was so low down that it had considered closing its doors. But the resilience and efforts of a few people faithful to the church kept it going. It has lived on and really turned around since its struggles, having added several ministries that benefit the congregation and the community a great deal. But it has yet to reach out to a younger population or families. This day camp is the first time that children have been present in this church en masse in about ten years. To the congregation, it's practically a miracle. To be a part of this effort is humbling, and having a true scope of the work we're doing has shaken me.

Another worry of mine when I first arrived was that the brief window in which I'm here is not enough to truly become a part of a community. I never thought my introverted personality could quickly assert myself into an entirely new place. But I was so wrong. I feel tied to this community already. I feel a responsibility towards it, and a deep love and care for it. I have met some incredibly loving and wonderful people here and have in turn been accepted and loved by so many more.

Last Sunday, I was asked to lead worship at Metro UMC. Andrew, the great organist and music director here that I have come to admire so much, was on leave and asked me to lead worship-- not just one or two songs, but the entire thing. It was a daunting task, but it was incredibly humbling to be asked to do this. I practiced intently the nine new hymns I had to learn before Sunday, and came to enjoy them thoroughly. Andrew also hired a professional singer to perform with me. Meeting with him the Friday before the service was fantastic. I ended up singing tenor while he sang bass, and I got chills as we practiced these beautiful hymns in such a spectacular space. Sunday, the congregation took the change from a massive pipe organ to two singers and an acoustic guitar quite well. I worried that the elderly congregation would not be open to the change, but they took it with grace and it ended up being a beautiful and unique worship experience. So many of my worries in this experience have turned out to not be issues at all.

Beyond the Metro church community, I was asked to perform at St. Peter's Episcopal Church "Festival for the Arts" on Friday night. The church has close ties to the Jeanie Wylie Community in which I live, which is how I got involved with Friday night's fundraiser. It ended up being the first cool evening all week, yet the un-air conditioned sanctuary was blistering. Nevertheless, a full house packed in for the festival, which featured about a dozen artists including myself. There were some really fantastic performances from poets, singers, and players with an eclectic sound to each of them. Again, it was humbling to perform a set along side seasoned artists. I was by far the youngest player there, but I was shocked to hear from many in attendance how much they enjoyed my set. It was an interesting night in how the heat and the pressure of performing in front of an entirely new audience seemed to take every thing out of me; wring me out completely dry, and yet the love of the community there and the beauty of the art shared sustained me through the struggle.

All this is to say that there have been forces beyond my own that have allowed me to achieve more than I ever thought possible in my time here. Reflection on what's happened here has brought me to tears and brought me to my knees. The work of the holy spirit has been slow, but it is powerful and full of light and beauty.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 5: Flying

If this experience has taught me anything its to grab hold of or go after every opportunity that comes your way. Being proactive towards the things that excite you and inspire you is the only way to really make a set time in your life truly an experience.

Last week, one of our fellow interns invited a pilot friend of her's to come and speak to the kids at the day camp about flying. That night, I jokingly broached the topic and asked if he would take us flying, knowing that I actually was quite serious. Nino called Brian, the pilot, right then and set up a date for him to take us up. Had I not been forthright with my desires, I would have missed a fantastic opportunity.

So Sunday night, right around sunset, we arrived at a small municipal airport in Canton, MI to meet Brian and the Cessna 172 he had prepared to take us up in. He walked us through the pre-flight checks, and offered me the co-pilot's seat. With my head set on, he narrated the pre-take off preparations and filled us in on the flight plan. With the click of a switch, the runway lights were turned on and he pushed the throttle forward.

Soon enough we were in the air watching the city lights go on as the sun's light went down. He followed I-96 east towards downtown Detroit, pointing out landmarks along the way. It was incredible to see the dead-straight Midwestern street grids extend as far as the eye could see. We approached the Detroit skyline, and he began maneuvers that would take us on a loop around the skyscrapers twice while avoiding the Canadian border along the Detroit River. We flew south to do a figure-8, and circle around the skyline on the other side of the aircraft. The buildings shimmered as the street-light reflected off of different windows, changing fast against our high speed.

We banked left and headed back east towards Canton. Once we left Detroit Metro Airspace, Brian pulled his hands of the control wheel and asked over the radio if I wanted to take over. After wetting my pants, I excitedly agreed and nervously took the controls. I followed I-96 West, following the street lights and keeping my altitude at 2,500 feet. I have no idea how long I had the controls; whatever time it took to get from Detroit airspace to within site of the the field in Canton.

Brian re-took the controls and asked if we were all willing to go out over the woods and do some aerobatic maneuvers. We happily agreed, and Brian began careful maneuvers to ensure the airspace around us was clear. Once he was sure there was no one around, he banked hard to the right, pulling up to 2 Gs. He straightened out, and did the same to the left, and again to the right. I have to say that this trackless roller coaster is one of the coolest thing I've ever experienced. He turned around to regain his bearings and caught site of the airport. He switched his radio and began landing procedures.

Safely on the ground, I was beside myself with excitement and a strong desire to begin flight lessons. Alas, this dream may have to wait, but I am so thankful for the incredible gift that Brian gave us. This experience reminds me of the importance of spontaneity, good friends, and a proactive and adventurous attitude.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 4: The Deserted City

There's a strange pull between normalcy and desperation in Detroit. As I sit and write this on the front porch of my house, about a seventy year-old 2 level duplex split horizontally, the neighborhood is quiet, quaint, and seems healthy. It could be anywhere in America, really. An old-growth pine tree shelters my porch and the one above me. I rock gently in a cool breeze this lazy summer afternoon on a white hanging bench. Neighbors walk by, they're friendly and say hello. Cars packed with families and friends drive slowly by. But if I were to take a quick walk around the block, I would find a very different scene. As I look down the street, I see an empty lot covered in tall, uncut grass. Across the way, an entire block's length of street has only one occupied house. The house on the corner has not a single window unbroken. Some pictures and posters still hang on the walls, flapping in the breeze. Trash blows out from under the fallen front porch when the breeze picks up. Some streets in Detroit hardly leave a trace of the first-world nation they once stood proudly in. Even on my street, the unlit windows of nighttime reveal the empty or abandoned houses. After witnessing a shooting the other night, sporadic pops and bangs startle me as I wonder whether they are fireworks or gunshots, despite being the night before Independence Day.

The wide-spread layout of the city means that anyone in Motown without a car is stranded. There's no mass transit to speak of. The small bus system that does exist is about as reliable as a rain storm in the desert. The most walkable places from my neighborhood are the nightclubs that line Michigan Ave.

Downtown, the scene is eerie. Abandoned lots sit between towering skyscrapers. Many of those skyscrapers are entirely abandoned themselves, standing in a state of ruin. Some of the great monuments of this city, including the Michigan Central Station, are symbols of a once-great civilization in the likes of the Colosseum and the Parthenon.

There is a desperate and ever-present desire for hope in this city. I'd like to think that it is something I am working towards this summer, but I fear my efforts are only going so far. Some places in this city remind me of scenes of New Orleans after Katrina, but its havoc was wreaked by the slow decay of time, so it lacks the sense of national attention.

I have found incredible communities of love here, and groups of people passionately dedicated to this city's revival. But its hard to imagine how this current trajectory could really salvage this place. There needs to be more-- more action, more love, more passion, more community, more growth, more peace. This city needs salvation.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 3: Working in a Masterpiece

My internship in Detroit is proving to be just about perfect. With my musical soul thriving, the architect in me is jumping for joy. We hold the Summer Day Camp in Metropolitan UMC, which is a remarkable Neo-Gothic structure in fantastic condition-- and I have the run of the place. Its like a dream come true.

The building is massive. It has a full-size gymnasium, a kitchen and dining room that can feed about 150, a grand parlor (furnished in the original 1920s decor) with two fireplaces, a library, a chapel, an auditorium that seats 1500, a sanctuary that seats about 3000, classrooms and offices to boot, and beautiful vaulted stone corridors with hand-painted plaster walls. The 2nd Floor Corridor has niches in which three murals are painted with scenes integral to the creation of the Methodist Church- "The Dawn of the Reformation," "John Wesley Preaching on His Father's Tomb," and "Francis Asbury, Apostle of the Long Trail," all by artist George Boget.

The South Stairs are contained within the South Tower of the church, situated in the back left corner of the sanctuary. They lead to the small chapel on the second floor, a suite and balcony access on the third floor, and then the tower above. I had a chance to explore the tower the other day with the master key. On the first floor of the tower is a radio broadcast room (long since disused) and the "Buffalo Room." I unlocked the door to the mysterious room and found an incredible double-height room with detailed wood paneling and a full height brick fireplace on which is mounted the head of a buffalo. Above the entrance on the second floor is a balcony looking into the room. All windows are clerestory, so light pours in from above. The room is now used for storage and is slightly eerie. I walked through to the opposite corner and found another door. I slowly opened it and flicked on the light switch to find the attic space between the gothic-vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary and the steel truss and concrete roof over the church. I followed a stair case built directly on the vaulted roof. I was so impressed to discover that it was a true stone vault- not plaster suspended from a steel structure. It was an honest Gothic structure, only replacing traditional wooden trusses with steel (likely a reaction to the fire that destroyed the congregation's previous home in 1916). I climbed out of there and continued up the stairs in the tower-- now a small, winding steel structure between massive stone walls. On the next level is a door leading to the room that overlooks the Buffalo Room. This room also has a door to an outdoor balcony in the tower-- unfortunately I did not have a key for that. One more flight up, and a door to the bell loft and another large classroom that covers the rest of the tower not used by the bell loft. Two more flights up from there and there is a door to the tower's roof-- if only I had the key I'm sure I would discover a 360 view of Detroit.

I have been fascinated by this building and am trying to share my enthusiasm with the children. I created a scavenger hunt for them to find the hidden symbols worked into the paintings, tiles, and woodwork of the walls, ceiling, floor, and furniture. I feel like every day I discover something new about this building. I have never been so excited to go to work every day just to see the place its in. In my enthusiasm, one of the older church ladies gave me a copy of a commemorative book that was given out to the congregation at the building's completion in 1926. In it is a beautiful description of the building that I'd like to share:

Beauty of line, ruggedness, and practical interior arrangements designed to yield a maximum of service in the religious, educational and community work of the church, are combined in the architecture of the Metropolitan edifice.

Its plain but impressive exterior follows the modern English Gothic style. Its deep-set walls of granite are built to stand through centuries. The interior, restful to the eye and the spirit, is laid out to meet effectively every demand made by the widespread activities of the modern city church.

A member of the congregation, Mr. W.E.N. Hunter, is the architect...

Set in the ample grounds, a whole city block in width, the massive walls, buttressed and towered, are of ashlar granite, from quarries near Plymouth, Mass. There the stratification of the rock runs perpendicularly, and the varied coloration has been carried downward into the fiber of the stone by centuries of seepage to the crevices. The stone blocks, of many dimensions and shades-- 52,000 in number, have been laid so as to give ever-changing variety of color.

Grey Ohio sandstone forms the facing and trimming on the deeply recessed doorways and windows. Within, the floors of corridors and the stair treads are of differently colored tile; the floors of aisles in the church and chapel are of slate with insets of tile in traditional or symbolic designs.

The church is without wood or timber or other inflammable material in its construction. Wooden floors are laid in the recreation room and in some of the social rooms, biut these are based on an underflooring of concrete.

From deep concrete foundations the building rises to a height of nine ordinary stories. A fire might rage through the pile, consume furniture, papers, books, and melt some of the metal in the roof and pipes, but it would leave the structure itself, the concrete, the girders, the steel lath, and the slate, intact.

The external mass of the pile, all walls and concrete, centers in the great tower on the south, rising 105 feet, but so massively constructed and so resting on the broader masses beneath that the height is not immediately sensed.

The tower is 40 by 40 feet, there is space for the installation of a carillon-- 45 bells. Yet the tower is not merely a belfry, or a colossal ornamentation. The stories below the belfry are fitted up as classrooms.

Thus throughout the whole construction, the dignity of architectural tradition is maintained while the ends of modern usefulness are faithfully served...

This church was the largest Methodist Church in the world in the 1930s and 40s. Its congregation steeply declined after the Detroit riots of the 1970s, but despite that and the recent depression, the church still thrives with a good size congregation that mixes a range of classes and races. I'm sure I will blog more about it as I learn, discover, and explore more of it.

More pictures can be found in my flickr set for Metro UMC.

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 2: Kids Songs, Organs, Motown Legends, Recording, and Hippy Group Singing

I am astonished at what a musical community I have found and already become a part of in my first two weeks here in Detroit. For one, as the music director for the day camp I have been teaching music to the kids here each day. Its exhausting, but great to have music be a part of my day-to-day life again. I am working on music with the kids alongside the Music Director and organist of Metro UMC, Andrew Galuska. He's a phenomenal organist playing an incredible instrument. Metro has the second largest pipe organ in the state of Michigan, 30th largest in the U.S., and 80th in the world. I've had the great privilege of playing it and, of course, hearing it almost every day.

Its such a treat to work at Metro UMC with its vibrant community of music. Besides the fantastic organ, it has a weekly jazz concert that brings in Motown legends... for free. So Tuesdays after work I'm treated to a free jazz concert at my workplace. So far I've heard Fernetta Davis sing with her pianist, and this week Maryanne Robinson sang with Rob Jones of the Funk Bros on piano. Simply incredible.

On my first day in Detroit, I was speaking with a security guard at the church and he told me how he was trying to put together a recording studio and he had a few hip-hop artists ready to work with him. I told him about my recording experience, and he gave Parple a listen that night. The next day, he found me to tell me how much he loved our album "But Why, Sir?" and that he was interested in bringing me into his studio to work with his artists. That Saturday I went in and ended up cutting a track with them. We recorded a few loops live on my acoustic guitar, then the producer layed down some beats, and I topped them with some lines on the keyboard. So I have now officially recorded in Motown. Check that one off the bucket list. The track should be up soon. It was an amazing experience to work in a genre I have really very little knowledge of, and it was equally engaging for them as they had never worked with a live musician before. They were truly excited about it, and felt that they were breaking new ground in hip-hop. I love learning experiences that are mutually engaging.

In my neighborhood in South West Detroit, we live in an "intentional community." Basically, a group of hippies moved here decades ago with the intention of living together and supporting each other through community gardening, get togethers, and lifestyle choices. Every Wednesday night we have a community bonfire. Skeptical of this place at first, I went to my first bonfire this past week and had a blast. As it turns out, (unsurprisingly), hippies listen to the same music that I do. So when Julie, a fantastic guitarist and singer (who sounds like Joan Baez), brought her guitar out, the entire community was singing together. I brought my guitar over and became a part of the action. It was a magical night singing and playing together with my new community. Meeting people through music is deeply intimate and binding. After that night, I was invited to play at a fundraiser in Detroit in mid-July.

Its such a delight to find myself in the middle of this beautiful music community so soon after arriving in Detroit.

Diaries from Detroit, vol. 1: Catching Up

This much belated post comes with my most sincere apologies. My first two weeks in Detroit were hectic, and, until now, computerless, so communicating via blogs, facebook, etc has been quite challenging. But alas, we're up and running again and I will make my best effort to keep this thing going.

First, a little background. Two weeks ago, my flight from Little Rock got into the "D" at about 12:30 Sunday night. Work started at 7:30 the next morning. It was the first day of the Summer Day camp (ages 1st grade through 6th, held at Metropolitan UMC in the North End neighborhood of Detroit), and we had about 50 kids registered with only 4 leaders set to be there each day. The gym at the church was unusable due to a burst pipe, there was no playground to speak of, and no known number of volunteers that would show up: our challenges seemed daunting. Meanwhile, I had landed in Detroit in the middle of the night, moved in with 10 interns I had never met, and had to make my way around Motown without a car of my own. (Believe it or not, the Car Capital of the World has no mass transit to speak of).

Two weeks in, though, and things are really cooking. We had to cut off registration on Wednesday, with a little over 70 kids registered. We have had an amazing number of volunteers turn out each day and the kids have really seemed to be enjoying the camp. I have been leading music for them on my guitar, along with a world-renowned organist Andrew Galuska, the Music Director at MetroUMC . We went on our first field trip the other day, showing the kids an organic local food store and their community gardens, and have a great list of trips planned for them. The camp is only costing each child $5 a week, field trips included, and there is a scholarship fund available for those that need it.

So that's the extent of my employment here. I worried at first that it wasn't enough; that my job was a little pointless, especially in light of my fantastic training in Little Rock. I didn't think that this was really effective charity or justice work, and that I might be wasting my time. But by the end of the first week, I had a parent come up to me and say that "Mr. Matt" had been the talk of the household all week. When we closed registration on Wednesday, I had the terrible duty of turning mothers, fathers, and grandmothers down from bringing their kids to the camp. We've received great feedback from the church and neighborhood communities and I'm really excited about what more we'll be able to do this summer.

All my love to everyone back home and around the country. I'll keep you all posted on the goings on of the D.