“I need you to be a part of this community.”
More easily said than done, especially when the place in question is a poor neighborhood in Detroit.
I was spending the afternoon with the Reverend Faith Fowler, executive director of Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a nonprofit organization that for many years has worked to transform a cluster of largely abandoned city blocks into a functioning community, an oasis of truly normal life in an urban center where a typical “normal” day may include sporadic gunfire.
What does it take to help people in our most blighted cities? I was visiting with Fowler to learn about CCSS and what it’s like to be poor in Detroit. But more than anything I hoped to learn about her philosophy and working style. Fowler is one of those leaders who’s full of innovative ideas and has seemingly endless energy for getting things done. Even more important, she has a way of connecting with her clients and making them see the worthiness buried within them beneath years of hard knocks.
One summer afternoon when I was helping make sandwiches for the 20,000 meals CCSS puts together every week, I started chatting with the staff member in charge of the kitchen. “You writing about Rev. Fowler?” she asked.
She raised her hands above her head. “Halleluiah! I’d like to write her a big thank-you card and get everyone to sign it. Thank you from everyone you’ve helped.” She dropped her arms and looked straight at me. “ I’ll tell you, she’s a modern Mother Teresa.”
Later another woman told me about a gospel group called the Ambassadors that Fowler had started, made up entirely of formerly homeless men. She’d heard some of them singing one day outside one of the residential facilities, so she recruited them to start giving concerts, singing and talking about their lives on the streets. Other CCSS clients have since joined them, and the group has become well-known in the Upper Midwest.
“You know,” the woman said said, “people think the homeless are lazy and don’t have anything to offer. The Ambassadors show them.” She nodded hard. “Yes ma’am, the Ambassadors tell them our stories.”
A big man in a dark T-shirt walked by where we were sitting.
“He’s in the Ambassadors,” the woman volunteered.
The man turned. “The Ambassadors? Yes ma’am, I am. I’ll tell you what, singing with that group will do something for you. It’ll bring you back to life.”
What did Faith Fowler have that allowed her to so clearly see the potential in the people she helped? I wanted to find out.
One afternoon she graciously agreed to take me on a driving tour of the city. As she turned onto the John Lodge highway and headed south, I asked what she most needs from her volunteers.
“That’s easy,” she said. “I need you to be a part of this community. Don’t come here and treat it like it’s an outing at the zoo.” Which, I gathered, happened far too often.
She turned off the Lodge and headed east onto Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Tall office buildings and apartment complexes surrounded us, but few appeared to be occupied. With its broken glass, empty windows, and graffiti, the cityscape had an apocalyptic feel. Fowler drove slowly by a low yellow brick building with a crowd standing outside. Many people held bulging black plastic bags. “That’s the NSO,” she said. The Neighborhood Service Organization, one of numerous local poverty groups. “As you see, they’re doing a thriving business.”
I wondered how the city could deal with nearly 20,000 homeless. Finding meaningful ways to help was difficult, Fowler acknowledged, and it meant learning more about the homeless than many volunteers are willing to do.
“You could set up a food service booth on some corner about every half hour,” she said, “and you’d get homeless people running to you saying, I haven’t eaten for weeks. And you’d think you were really helping.” She grimaced. “It’s such a lie by everyone to everyone.”
But how do you get people to slow down and take enough time to understand what the poor need?
She sighed. “Usually you have to let them come to that realization themselves,” she said. “Just the act of coming into Detroit is a lot for some people to handle.”
We passed the city hospitals—excellent care facilities, she said, but people were afraid to venture downtown to use them. She herself travels the city without fear. “I can walk into any ER or meth clinic, and they know who I am. They may not know my name, but they know I’m the minister from that church. So, yes, I feel safe here, any time of day or night.” Traveling with her dog, an aggressive mixed breed, also helped. “I don’t like to leave him at home, because if crack heads break in, they’ll shoot him.”
We entered another bad neighborhood. Boarded up windows and broken glass were everywhere I looked—except for the places where buildings had been razed. Those blocks had an eerily rural feel, because they’d been taken over by long grasses that waved in the summer breeze.
I couldn’t fully absorb it.
“What makes you angry?” I asked.
I’d posed the question a bit impulsively—but Fowler’s eyes flashed. I seemed to have hit a nerve. “What makes me angry? The general obliviousness that people have to what’s going on. ‘If it’s not happening to me or my family, it doesn’t matter.’ That makes me angry.”
I considered all the hours I hadn’t given a single thought to the poor. They added up to most of my life. “But how do you fight that?”
She was quiet for a moment. “By exposing people to the problems and showing them how to be compassionate, I think. That’s hard to do. It takes time and willingness on their part.” She paused, and I saw her eyes half close, as if she was thinking deeply. “To the extent that you can tap into the dignity and intellect of people who need help, then you can relate to them in a way that matters.”
Tapping into their dignity and intellect: What a novel concept when it comes working with people who have been stripped of self-respect and are assumed by many to be unintelligent. No, not just unintelligent—also ignorant, lazy, potentially violent, and not to be trusted. Seeing what Fowler has accomplished, talking with the people whose lives she has helped restore, I realized she’d hit on a strategy more valuable than gold.
Six years have passed, but I’ve never forgotten Fowler’s words. A few times I’ve managed to connect solidly enough with the people I’m helping to be able to sense who they really are, and to glimpse their dignity. This only happens when I spend real time with them, perhaps days or weeks of patience companionship.
On the fleeting occasions that I’ve succeeded, I’ve managed to forget that I’m “helping” the person. I’ve interacted with him or her as a peer, batting ideas around, working side by side, sharing everything from, say, digging the latrine to enjoying the credit at the end. I think of Fowler’s words, and I know:
This is how I want to serve.
You can read more about the work of Cass Community Social Services, including the Green Industries Program that employs the formerly homeless to manufacture products made from trash, at www.casscommunity.org