2020, God and Flint, Michigan

The year 2020 hasn’t ended yet. Unfortunately, we still have a few days in the year. Very few of us will be looking back fondly on this year of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million dead, tons of canceled events, massive numbers of jobs lost, racial strife, and an incredibly divisive election that did damage to democracy. There was nothing good about the year 2020.

Right?

A few years I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. As I drove down Dort Highway on the east side of town a memory came back to me. The memory was from the 1970s when I was in grade school. Up and down Dort Highway, auto carrier trucks would lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on this side of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back to me forty years later because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. They hadn’t driven on that road for years. It was a reminder that things had changed.

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One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. One of the times the state intervened led to the now-infamous Flint Water Crisis where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

I’m a minister, so it’s not a surprise I would go to the Bible to see if there are any parallel situations we could learn from. Turns out there is a powerful example. The Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 585BC. It was a Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a faraway land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folks decide to make the journey back.

The Israelites return to find Jerusalem in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. When the people of Israel came together at this momentous occasion, something interesting happened. Among the young who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple, there was excitement. They now were home and had a place to worship God.

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Flint’s 235-acre complex known as Buick City was in operation from 1904 until 1999. The facility was demolished in the early aughts. Public domain.

But the older Israelites were sad. They knew of the splendor of Jerusalem of old. They had memories of the old temple and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, they could only feel a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. The days when Israel was a free and prosperous nation were long gone. They had to live in this new reality, and it paled in comparison to their memories.

Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed and it can be quite painful. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand), it was hard to face reality. That’s why 2020 has been so difficult. These days people cling to familiar or live in extreme denial. Everything that we once knew, everything that seemed certain is now no gone. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

But nostalgia is tricking us. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We can’t regain the past, we can only reach for the future. Easier said than done.

While we can’t go back in time, and neither could those Israelites. When we go back to that festival in the book of Ezra, we find something interesting. The cries of joy and pain were so that no one could tell the difference. The passage never says that the old Israelites were wrong to weep. It just says they weep. They are happy to be back home after decades away and they are hopeful in seeing a rebuilt temple even if it isn’t as grand as the old temple. But in the midst of their joy is a lot of pain. For them, this wasn’t a time that was simply joy or simply pain, it was both. It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet. What better word could define 2020? We’ve lost a lot in 2020. There is nothing wrong in grieving for that which we lost. We mourn because we can’t be near the ones we love. We mourn because we live in a new reality that pales in comparison to the old. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is one that has changed all of our lives and we are left with a lot of bitterness because we have lost the life we once had and maybe people we loved.

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Volunteers in Minneapolis clean up the ruins of an Arby’s restaurant that was burned down in the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

But there is also sweetness in this year that we see as so dark. And it has truly been dark. But there have also been signs of hope in this long year. It’s the people who would clap for first responders. Or the grandmother that lives next door to me that gave up her job so she could be there for her grandchildren as they took part in distance learning. It was the army of volunteers that I saw in Minneapolis with brooms in hand trying to clean up parts of the town that were overcome by rioters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It was the communities of faith that had to learn how to pivot and become virtual overnight and still find ways to be church while apart. It was people visiting with friends over Zoom or socially distanced outside in the summer air. It’s the sign of those trucks filled with vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out of those warehouses in Michigan. There is a lot of pain to be found in 2019, but there is also much joy.

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Flint Farmers Market. September 2018. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I still miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I miss that old Flint. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story of hope that is growing up right alongside this sad story of decline. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked down the street that late summer day, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. This is still a Flint in process. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike for my hometown, but it’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. So, even when my heart sinks passing by the old Buick plant where my Dad worked for nearly 40 years and stare at a barren field, there is also a sense of hope because there is something new taking the place of the old. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like maybe my hometown will have a future, after all. It’s just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to. There is sadness at what has been lost, but a slight sense of wonder about the green shoots starting to appear.

We need to grieve what has been lost in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have joy as well. Life is many times a mix of happy and sad times. We need to feel them both.

Featured image: The first Chevy Corvettes roll of the line in Flint, Michigan- June 1953. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

This essay originally appeared at Medium.

Slouching Towards Detroit

Fellow Disciples pastor Steve Knight shared a good post yesterday on the need for more missional communities, which is a fancy way of saying we need more new churches.  Why?  Beside that whole Great Commission thing, it’s also because at least in mainline churches, we are growing smaller and smaller.  Here’s a graph that Steve showed about our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, over the last decade:

The picture it shows about the denomination is not pretty.  (It’s even worse for Episcopalians.) It shows at least over the last decade a steady decline.  As Steve notes, it doesn’t show the number of new congregations added (which is now over 700), but you can’t really deny that things in the Disciples of Christ are not well.

Steve starts talking about how the Mainline churches are a lot like Detroit, something that I commented on back in 2009.  As I thought about that more and more, I’ve started to think that if this analogy is true, mainline churches are in big, big trouble.

Comparisons to the largest city in Michigan hit home for me because Detroit is only an hour south of Flint, where I grew up.  I’ve seen the decline of the auto industry close up and I’ve seen how cities like Flint and Detroit have slowly declined and lost their luster, becoming shattered hulks of their former selves.  I’ve seen how these places knew the decline was happening and half-heartedly tried different schemes to bring back the shine, only to have those attempts fail.  I’ve seen the hope that somehow, the glory days would come roaring back, not knowing how, but just believing that it would.

The thing is, you tend to get used to the decline.  Things get a little shabby here and there, but we trick ourselves into thinking everything is okay…until it isn’t.

Something similar is happening among the mainline churches.  We see the decline happening,  and we try again and again to try this scheme or that scheme in the hopes that it will right the ship.  But we really don’t try hard and in someways we just expect that somehow, someway the glory days will come back.

What does this have to do with church planting?  Everything.  I’m not advocating we plant churches for the sake of saving mainline churches, thought that could be a result.  I am advocating planting churches to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the problem here is that in some ways we in the mainline stopped believing in spreading the message of Christ.  We got comfortable and pursued of other agendas.  We plant churches, but sometimes the whole endeavor seems half-hearted, like we are doing something just because it seems right.

I’ve noticed over the years how hard it is to get people in mainline churches animated when it comes to new churches.  Plans to give money to church plants are met with skeptism.  If we have a meeting dealing with homosexuality? We get a full house and people getting all passionate.  Talk about new churches?  Crickets chirping.

This is not me just spouting off.  I’ve seen how people have responded in my various roles when we start talking about new churches and it seems that people just don’t seem when it comes to new churches.

None of this means I’m going to give up.  I’ve seen utter decline and I want to see mainline Protestantism be vital in the coming decades.  But, mainline churches have to stop being comfortable with decline and be willing to give up everything to save themselves- not in the hope of getting back to the glory days, but to something new and better than before.

One more auto story.  In 2006, Ford decided to place everything it owned, down to it’s blue oval logo, in hock in order to get a loan to keep the company going.  

That move was prophetic.  Two years later, the economy tanked and Ford’s crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler were bankrupt and running to Washington to be saved.  Ford was able to weather the storm.  Earlier this week, Ford’s credit was raised from junk status and scion Bill Ford was able to get his family’s logo back.

Ford was willing to let go of everything in order to survive.  It was a risky move for this century-old company to do something so bold, but it paid off in the end.  Ford is a much stronger company, more competative, coming up with some cool cars that people want to drive.

Are mainline churches willing to do something that ballsy?  Are we willing to sacrifice, to lose ourselves for God’s kingdom?

I don’t know.  I hope so.  Let’s not get to comfortable with decline or expect easy solutions.  That roads leads to Detroit and well…you don’t want that.  Trust me.

Photo: Areial view of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s main train station from 1913 until the end of Amtrak service in 1988.  The intervening 25 years have not been kind of the grand building. The website seedetroit.com notes, “Most of the interior has fallen victim to ‘urban miners’ who break in to steal any stone accents, wire and even copper tubing and bricks to sell as scrap. The removal of these materials causes extensive damage throughout, resulting in the interior being completely destroyed. Urban guerrilla artists have taken advantage of the vacant wall space.” You can see more photos of the building by going here.

Repost: Are Mainline Churches Like Detroit?

From April 2009.  The Big Three have made some changes for the better (the city of Detroit itself is a whole other story).  Have Mainline Churches made any changes?  Should they?

 

I’ve been wondering lately if there is anything in common with Mainline Protestant Churches and the American Auto Industry.

Having been ordained in a mainline denomination, working for a church going through change and having two parents who spent years working for General Motors has made me thing there are similarities in the two.

With the onset of the financial crisis, Detroit is having to face its problems in a big way. The Big Three had their heyday in the 50s and 60s, building large cars that Americans purchased like crazy. Gas was cheap and the foreign automakers were not as present on the road.

All that changed in the 70s. The gas crises of that era caught Detroit flatfooted. People started looking for more fuel efficient cars. Japan started showing its muscle as people looked to Toyota and Honda for cheap and efficient cars.

Detroit decided to make changes. But in some cases the changes were small and not major. People complained about the quality of the cars and started abandoning domestic automakers. Detroit kept making small changes, a badge engineering here, a plant closing there, but never made the big costly changes.

The late 90s brought the SUV craze and Detroit went big guns over it. The Big Three were now flushed with cash and the good times were rolling in. The Asian automakers, no joined by the Korean upstarts like Huyndai, also built SUVs, but they also kept selling small cars to people who wanted them.

The gas started getting more expensive. First $2, then $3, then $4 per gallon. It got too crazy to spend so much in gas for an SUV that got 12 miles to the gallon. People started to look to small cars. Again, Detroit came up short. It had spent years neglecting its cars, so when people came looking for more efficient cars, Detroit had few.

Finally, the credit crisis hit. Banks weren’t lending which meant, people couldn’t buy cars. Two of the Big Three stand on the edge of oblivion.

Like Detroit, the heyday for Mainline churches was in the 50s and 60s. Christianity had a big place in American culture. People went to church, and the sancutaries were full. But things changed in the 60s. Other religions came to the fore. Also, all those “blue laws” that closed stores on Sunday, vanished. Going to church was only one option of many.

Like Detroit, the mainline churches made some small changes, a renewal movement here, a new youth program there, but they weren’t willing to see how the times had changed around them.

The mainline churches as a whole aren’t at the point where Detroit is, yet. But I think the problems are similiar: we are trying to pretend it’s still 1958. We think that if we make a few changes, then everything will be as it was. But the problem is that we can’t go back to 1958- not for cars or for churches. America is not the place it was 50 years ago. We have changed as nation and both institutions have to learn to change.

But that change is hard. It means giving up things that have been tried and true. For a company like GM, it means letting go of some storied brands like Buick (where my Dad worked). For churches it means things like giving up the way we’ve done worship, or learning to welcome gays and lesbians when that was even on the radar years ago.

But the thing is, for both the auto companies and the churches, you either have to make meaningful change, or die. I think for both we are way past the point of small change.

Change requires a leap of faith, a belief that in the end, God there with open arms waiting to catch us. For the church, we have to be willing to trust, not in practices and memories of the past, but in God; knowing that God is always with us.

Who would ever have thought my love of cars and love of the church and God would ever combine. 🙂