By Rev. Bill Wiley-Kellerman
It is ten years since I came as pastor to St Peter’s Detroit. And ten years since Jeanie Wylie crossed over to God in fullness. Now as I write, Detroiters find themselves in a social crisis like no other. Jeanie’s freedom and dignity in the face death, limitation, and pain tutored me in the communal resources for facing the power of death in emergency management, the extractions of bankruptcy, the expulsions of gentrification, foreclosure and water shut-off, the dismantling of public education, the appropriation of the commons, and all the latest varieties of assault on human community. As William Stringfellow insisted, the grace to confront and transcend death is one and the same in each. So to say: at St Peter’s practicing the grace of resurrection has been our common call.
Through Jeanie’s illness of near 8 years, I worked in Chicago directing an Urban Ministry training program for seminarians all while we lived here in Southwest Detroit. Though long distance commuting ironically served well for working much from home and doing caregiving, it was nevertheless profoundly dislocating. When she passed, with our youngest, Lucy, still in high school, it was time for me to re-root. This decade at St Peter’s marks the recall of my vocation as actually place-based. Like monks who make a vow of stability, I know my calling is inseparable from the city of Detroit.
I think how my history with St Peter’s goes back almost 40 years through the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and our annual Good Friday Stations of the Cross walk. It connects with the ministries of John and Kathleen Meyer here. In Lent of 2006 when the vestry had failed to find a priest interested in half-time ministry in Corktown, the door opened. Because I’ve been half-time for over thirty years, I’ve had tremendous freedom in locating my ministry. Though it’s not the Methodist way, I’ve pretty much always made my own appointment. (Or maybe it’s God who’s had more freedom with me). St Peter’s is simply the most recent. I have successfully neglected attention to career ladders and salary concerns. I’m aware this freedom has also come from a certain location at the margin, living in a liminal zone – within the hyphenated spaces between activist -pastor- teacher-writer. Now between two churches not in full communion. I think often of the ways John Wesley occupied such spaces and take comfort. Put out of pulpits for the street, he clung to his orders even as he pushed the church’s boundaries with a movement, praying transformation.
For ten years I’ve had two bishops, one Methodist and the other Episcopalian. I believe both are surprised I’ve survived this long without becoming a priest, straddling instead the ecclesial margin. Sometimes, liturgically, it’s been, as they say, “complicated.” And yet I’ve been supported by both and by this congregation almost without qualification.
Our worship has been framed by a non-patriarchal, yet authorized liturgy. Music is mostly by guitar and acapella gospel these days – though in Advent we can mount a full Taize orchestra playing by candlelight. We gather in a sacramental circle. I struggle to hold the Episcopal and radical discipleship center for an eclectic crew of come as you are movement Christians: some Methodists, a bunch of marginalized Catholics (who could well be wooed home by Francis), baptized Quakers, post-evangelicals, Manna guests, streetfolk, and a handful of confirmed Episcopalians. Among the latter, Sylvia Merberger is a Day House resident trained as a Eucharistic minister who also leads the prayers of the people, and Darrell Walker who works in the soup kitchen, has forever selected readers for the morning, and now becomes our crucifer. In the early days when my liturgical credentials relegated us to Morning Prayer, we used to process to the tables at the back for closing prayers and hymn, making the potluck our communion. These days after a Eucharist everyone stays round for another hour talking and hanging, even if the feast is meager. The one Prayer Book office we do is Compline, perhaps my favorite, usually after an evening study group. On that point, together we’ve read through more than 30 substantial books in ten years, a bunch of them about Jesus. We fly the rainbow flag and on any given Sunday perhaps a quarter of our communicants are LGBTQ. I was the first Methodist clergy member of the Detroit Conference to be charged with officiating a same-sex marriage. The good news is that I remain undefrocked.
I think of three weddings to come this spring, one yet again defrockable. I also think of folks we’ve buried and memorialized in services luminous. Among them: Shirley Beaupre – hospitality maven and fifty year resident of Corktown; Paul Brown – soup kitchen guest, flee-market connoisseur, faithful communicant; Debbie Ingram – one time athlete, diabetic amputee, St Peter’s crucifer; Susan Rohr, aka “Ruby” – a former Detroit social worker turned street person by mental illness; lived beneath Hart Plaza in the days when you still could, struck down on the street in a snow storm. All these and more. Amen. Alleluia.
Tiger Stadium is buried too. When I arrived, though closed and with it the St Peter’s parking lot enterprise, it was still standing. Now a great hole in the world, it is poised for upscale housing and commercial space. The handwriting of Corktown gentrification was already on the wall. Hipsters and entrepreneurs concocting a destination, mostly of brews and bars. Early on the “conquistadors” asked for a sit-down meeting and promptly proposed that we close the soup kitchen (thereby hangs a tale). Manna guests have been beaten and harassed, surveilled and criminalized, falsely accused of the thefts which the destination attracts. Last year we even had an exploratory offer to buy the building – for what pray tell? A distillery and club?
I have such great gratitude for a congregation who by temperament is more inclined to modest house church trappings, yet who step up and support a building on this corner. They hold down the space, a welcoming place for streetpeople and hospitality for social justice ministries. That, of course, is a long- standing charism of this faith community. St Peter’s Home for Boys, the Prisoner Half-Way House, COTS/the Coalition for Temporary Shelter, WARM training/Eco-works, the Refugee Coalition/Freedom House, Alternatives for Girls, and Young Detroit Builders have all been hatched and housed here. And of course Manna Community Meal.
Now we add Manna Community Garden, our participation the urban agriculture movement, and the Social Justice Hive in the parish house. The latter pays our heat bill, and tuck points the bricks and mortar, by providing space for justice organizations: among them the Detroit Area Restorative Justice Center (which we founded – https://detroitrjcenter.wordpress.com/ ), Michigan Peace Team (http://www.metapeaceteam.org/ ), Affirmations Youth Project, the Student Conservation Corps, and We the People of Detroit (https://wethepeopleofdetroit.com/ ) Art has blossomed here: Manna Clay Space studio with wheels and kiln, and a host of social justice media groups: the 3 Lyons Creative (https://www.facebook.com/threelyonscreative/ ), notorious documentarian Kate Levy (https://vimeo.com/katelevy ), and Anawim Productions (http://www.anawimproductions.com/ ), shooting a feature film about Bishop Tom Gumbleton in our own sanctuary.
A ten year list can go on and on.
During this decade Word and World (connecting the seminary, the sanctuary, the streets, and the soil) has continued to flourish in fits and starts, including several remarkable events here in Detroit. I’ve continued to teach in Chicago (Urban Nonviolence, and Principalities), but also here variously as adjunct and always find it lifegiving. As I write we are completing a ten week course at St Peter’s on the Powers-that-be which draws 20 people each Monday evening. My heart is warmed.
That class is a biblical and concrete way into the darkness of our present moment, and also its light. Emergency management, the corporate fascism made notorious in the Flint water disaster, which works its death even more aggressively here, has made this the worst of times. I attempted to name that in the opening paragraph. Nevertheless, resurrection – as freedom, imagination, risk, and movement – is alive all the moreso, making it the best of times.
With friends I co-founded Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management which meets at the church. That website is worth a look. St Peter’s has become home for the water hotline and a water station which at any given time stores perhaps 1500 gallons of water mostly in the sanctuary, grouped around the baptismal fount – a theological statement about water as sign of grace and the sacred commons. Our members make water drops to homes without. For many we have become synonymous with the Detroit water struggle.
Resistance flourishes. The sanctuary is commonly space for non-violence trainings. We’ve hosted action plannings with Black Lives Matter and The Raize Up! Through the decade, but especially the past 4 years I have participated, often with congregants, in direct actions: expressway Motown Slowdowns, banner drops from the school center building, bridges, and the church, tagging variously, disruptions of appearances by the governor, the bankruptcy judge, and the mayor, a walk (organized by a St Peter’s member) from Detroit to Flint, arrests in City Council and the Water Board, hauled out of Bankruptcy Court for speaking up when EM Kevyn Orr was on the stand, and above all twice blocking the water shut-of trucks of the private contractor, Homrich Demolition.
The prosecution of the Homrich 9 has been intriguing and bizarre. The tale is too long to tell, but eventually last November, Marian Kramer and I were tried before a jury in 36 th District Court. I defended myself and was able to question witnesses from among the remarkable Women Warriors of this movement: Marian herself, Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, Civil Rights attorney Allice Jennings and a number of her shut-off victim plaintiffs in the Lyda Federal suit, and above all Monica Lewis-Patrick speaker of passion, organizer, mapper of the exclusionary assault on black and poor neighborhoods. Then as I was making my closing statement and while the jury was being instructed, Corporation Counsel for the city of Detroit went behind our backs to a Circuit Court Judge to obtain a stay pending a motion for mistrial. In consequence the jury is still out, indefinitely, and we’ve been fighting legally ever since to get this action back before them. Under Emergency Management, with every elected official replaced, a jury was the last vestige of democracy in the city.
The story of the trial is the last chapter of a book I’ve written about Detroit, Where the Waters Go Round, to be published end of the year by Wipf and Stock. I’ve actually been writing it a long time. Of late I’d done Catholic Worker articles on Emergency Management, gentrification, the dismantling of public education, Belle Isle, Charity Hicks and the water struggle…Thinking I should compile them into a pamphlet, I suddenly realized I’d been writing about Detroit for a quarter century and it was in fact a book – one about a place-based vocation of urban ministry and prophetic allyship. It is a punctuation mark for these ten years.
Think. Ten vestries suffering the burden of bricks and mortar, for the sake of being fully focused on service and life together. Bob Chapman and now Cindy Tobias have carried the Warden’s weight. These days, in addition, we have a ministry team meeting weekly for pastoral, political, theological discernment. I’m joined by a couple of radical disciples, water warriors in their own right – a blessing. I remain convinced that movement and community run in part on gratitudes. Being concrete about them is a spiritual practice I try to keep. But if I keep naming names it will go on forever and I’d still be in danger of missing key ones. Yet I do say thank you for these ten years to you who know I’d name your gifts. You have carried me and I know it. Bless you: thanks and love.