In search of humanity amid the ruins of Detroit 

I got tears in my eyes while watching the film The United States of Detroit last week.

The movie covered the usual vista of ruins in the city. But that's not what moved me to tears. If that stuff made me cry then tears would be an everyday occurrence for me.

The moment that moved me in the film was a scene at the Church of the Messiah on the east side. A group of young basketball players who meet at the church gym are gathered to hear Pastor Barry Randolph speak, who explains to them the church's financial situation and the possibility of ending the basketball program. The young men don't visibly react. They retreat into the stoic mode of the streetwise wherein nothing can touch them emotionally. Their faces show no vulnerability, showing nothing to a cast of adults who are trying to sell them on a dream.

As the scene unfolds Randolph's voiceover finds the vulnerability in me. He discusses the fact that these young men have been disappointed so many times in their lives and, despite the fact that the church faced a possible closure, he didn't want to deliver another disappointment to the young men.

That's when it got to me. It was a combination of feeling some of that disappointment along with knowing how hard Randolph is working to keep the church and its place in the community functional. Tears ran down my face as much for the pastor as for the ballers.

"It was extremely emotional," Randolph told me the next day when I spoke with him. "Even though we had a lot of financial trouble, that bothered (me) the most. A lot of our young people have been let down by adults, people coming out of our lives. We convinced them that greater things were coming."

The United States of Detroit is not a tear-jerking kind of movie, but it is an eye-opener that focuses on three forces for positive change in looking at the areas of urban gardening, arts, and real estate development along the Grand River Creative Corridor project and the Church of the Messiah.

During a post-viewing discussion moderated by former co-hosts of CNN's "American Morning," director and co-writer Tylor Norwood revealed that his team was planning on doing a movie that profiled three cities. Once they came to Detroit they dropped the idea of going anywhere else pretty quickly. That's how compelling they found the Motor City.

All of the stories the movie focuses on are pretty compelling. The cameras follow Derek Weaver and DJ Valdez who create murals in the Grand River corridor; Kadiri Sennefer Ra of D-Town Farm along with Oya Amakisi of the Greening of Detroit focus on the agriculture side of things; and Pastor Randolph, who seems to face adversity at all times. There are a lot of aerial shots showing open fields stretching in every direction in the city. While the film acknowledges the development of areas such as downtown, Midtown and Corktown, the subject matter here takes viewers into neighborhoods and personalizes it.

For instance, rather than go on about the number of abandoned houses in the city, we get a close-up of Valdez visiting the home where he grew up, exploring the now-empty rooms, talking about the crayon pictures he drew on the walls and searching for a spot where he scratched his name onto the porch. People once had their lives in there.

"The neighborhood is fine," says Valdez. "There's just no one left to take care of it."

Ra spends a lot of his time at D-Town working the compost pile — where materials are hastened through decomposition in order to nurture the growth of vegetables.

"Composting is the work of transformation," says Ra as he works, creating a metaphor for what is going on all across the city.

While on the panel, Randolph alluded to his own transformation, a "burning bush" moment that led him to take on the mission of the Church of the Messiah.

In 1998, "God literally spoke to me," Randolph told me. "It was on October 20, and (he) said great things would happen at Messiah and I would give him the praise and credit."

It certainly helps to have God on your side when you look at what Randolph is up against. Membership was low and the church owed money. When this was being filmed a couple of years ago Randolph had taken a job at a Harbortown market in order to pay the bills at the church. In one sequence the pastor speaks about sitting with a grieving mother whose son had been shot. During the counseling he is watching the clock because he has to go to work in an hour, but the grieving mother needed more than an hour of his time. It's a dilemma — he needs to minister to church members but there will not be a church if he doesn't go to work so the bills can be paid. In the few years since then, things have changed a little. For one thing, Randolph no longer needs to work a job outside the church.

"The church was going to close, drowning in debt," he says. "Now we are debt-free. The membership grew even more. There was an increase in tithes and offerings, not a whole lot but at least I don't feel like we can't pay the bills."

So while the wolves are still nipping at your heels, they no longer have their teeth in your flesh.

The undercurrent of all the efforts considered here is that the system as currently comprised is not working for a lot of Detroiters. What we see are people who have taken it into their own hands to do what is necessary, even when the city gets in the way. Weaver and Valdez both have narratives describing how the city gets in the way of mural painting and graffiti art in places where it's a distinct improvement over what was there.

The post-film discussion was more political, with some from the audience and those onstage offering analysis as to why things are the way they are. All of that is relevant and needs to be addressed. But The United States of Detroit is more about the heart of Detroit — about the people who make the city worth fighting for.

I don't remember which panelist said this, but whoever did said it for us all:

"The work is joining the people in the community. Detroit is a place that can help you become more human if you chose that."

I'm on the human side.

Trailer - The United States of Detroit from Tylor Norwood on Vimeo.

More by Larry Gabriel

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