I returned home a week and a half ago from my J-term course, an 11-day immersion experience in Detroit with 10 students, and I am still trying to figure out how I want to relay this experience on my blog (In fact, it took me a week to finish this post). The focus of the course was "Racism, Classism, Sexism, and Heterosexism." The city of Detroit was the "lab" for growing in our knowledge of how these "isms" operate in society--and in ourselves. While overt racism is alive and well, we were reminded of the many subtle but insidious ways that racism has been structured into the very fabric of our society, and how the system perpetuates white privilege. Detroit is a city that was shaped by racism: we recall that Detroit was the place of "race riots" (or rebellions depending on your perspective) in the 40s and 60s, but as Kevin Boyle of the Washington Post puts it, "40 years later, the urban crisis still smolders." Detroit continues to be the one of the most segregated cities in the United States (right after Milwaukee, according to the last census). There is no mass transit system linking the city and the suburbs and there is not one major grocery store chain in the entire city of Detroit.
The pastors of Acts in Common were our teachers along with the many leaders they scheduled for us to meet. Jim Perkinson, professor of theology at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, framed our time in Detroit with lectures on the "isms," drawing from his own work and that of Ched Myers and other biblical scholars who apply a socio-political hermeneutic to the reading of scripture. We learned of the devasting effects of environmental racism from the Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion and our tour guide Lila Cabbil who directs Wayne State University's Multicultural Experience in Leadership Development program. We learned about the crimminal (in)justice system from Regina Jemison, a lawyer who also shared her gift of music with us at the Tuesday Night AIC Prayer Meeting (and who also happens to serve on Trinity Lutheran Seminary's Board of Trustees!). We learned about ministry to the homeless during our visit to the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS). We learned about community organizing from leaders in Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), the local Gamaliel chapter, and joined them for their annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. banquet. We heard from school principals and superintendents about the challenges of educating children in an urban context. We did ride-alongs one evening with the Detroit Police and even got to meet Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and some members of his staff (one week before this story hit the papers). We were moved by what we saw at the "And Still We Rise" exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. We were introduced to the ministry of the Ruth Ellis Center, one of only four youth social service agencies in the U.S. dedicated to helping LGBTQ teenager and young adults who are homeless. And there was much, much more.
As one who had served as a pastor in an urban setting myself, much of what I saw and heard was not "news" to me. Nonetheless, the experience deeply impacted me and challenged me to do more. In the classroom, I enjoin my students to "open their eyes" to the reality of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism through readings and discussion, and I will continue to make this a mark of my teaching. But I need to move beyond the classroom and find ways other ways to actively participate in the struggle for a more just and anti-racist church and society.