At Freedom House Detroit, a temporary residence for asylum seekers from the most violent or oppressive parts of the world, I was curious about the inhabitants’ transition.
“How do you like Detroit so far?” I asked a Nigerian refugee, one who grew up in a country plagued by bloody ethnic conflict, AIDS epidemics, water shortages, sanitation crises, and terror organizations like Boko Haram.
“Man, Detroit is a damn warzone.”
Detroit, factory-forged from sweat, steel, and the American entrepreneurial spirit to become the one-time pride of our nation, is now being called a warzone from a man escaping Boko Haram.
The onslaught of crime, corruption, economic depression, and abandonment in the postindustrial era clearly took its toll on the American paragon. Each passing Michigan winter, conditions degraded for Detroit until that Motown rhythm was blunted to a complete halt. The city is now littered with abandoned buildings and blight.
But if our group of young professionals learned anything from the weekend volunteer trip, it’s that the spirit of Detroit, the spirit of big dreams and bigger community, hasn’t broken.
The 25 of us young professionals from Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC gathered this right off the bat from our first morning with Ben Falik and his team from Repair the World. Within minutes of meeting the passionate, ambitious troop of staffers, it was clear that Falik and his crew could be living extravagantly in Manhattan, employed at any given corporate acronym with lavish expense accounts. Instead, the Repair the World crew is taking disadvantaged inner city Detroit youth to museums. RTW paired us with rambunctious grade school boys and girls to guide through the Michigan Science Center as they witnessed the wonders of engineering and air pressure via 4D movie theaters and trashcan wind cannons. At the proceeding barbecue and ultimate Frisbee game, the thoroughly caffeinated, curly haired Falik detailed all of the other work the organization does with healthcare, education, and nutrition within the struggling city.
That night, we attended services at the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, the last surviving synagogue inside Detroit, resilient to the exodus of Jews. The small congregation with no rabbi embraced our group with open arms, excited to share their beautiful 80-year old shul with young travelers to welcome in the Sabbath together.
The following morning, we had a breakfast meeting with Jon Koller who has been organizing volunteers to renovate and revitalize a once abandoned 100-year old housing complex. We then drove to the B’nai David Cemetery, a graveyard entirely enveloped in the weeds of long neglect. Our trip Rabbi, the tirelessly passionate Aaron Miller, told us that, in Judaism, there is no greater deed than charity for the dead because the deceased can never repay. With that in mind, we terraformed the veritable jungle throughout the day to salvage the integrity of our buried Jewish brethren. Trees were trimmed, grass was cut, and dozens upon dozens of garbage bins full of shrubbery surrounding the tombstones were removed.
We spent Saturday night at the aforementioned Freedom house, playing volleyball and sharing stories with the asylum seekers stuck in limbo, their true homes an entire world away. We prepared a massive dinner together with fresh, local ingredients procured from Detroit’s bustling Eastern Market. Before leaving, we were serenaded with the Detroit Freedom House song written by a former resident, repeating “G-d bless America” throughout the refrain.
We split up on our final day. Some toured the city by bike with Falik, some were blindsided by the stunning collections at the Detroit Institute of Art, and myself and a few others joined John George of Motor City Blight Busters in a tour of the almost 700 properties his organization has cleaned up. Almost all of us slopped up some Slow’s BBQ.
The volunteer weekend of the young professionals of 2239 is a drop in the bucket in terms of what Detroit needs. But that drop meant so much to Ben Falik, John George, Jon Koller, Freedom House, Downtown Synagogue, and all the people of Motor City that we met.
We somberly left Detroit back to fight its own battle, but Detroit will never leave us. That sense of community, volunteerism, and service will inspire us forever.
And one thing is for sure: that Motown rhythm is picking back up.