Faith in a Fallen Empire
Image: Photo by Gary Gnidovic

There is a section of Woodward Avenue—the spinal street of Detroit that runs 27 miles up to Pontiac, Michigan—that looks like a patch of quilt stitched in from Europe. Rows of neo-Gothic churches glisten in the dappled October sun, their limestone stairs and multicolored glass panes reflecting the prosperity of former times. There's Metropolitan United Methodist, built in 1926 in ochre granite imported from Massachusetts. There's the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, finished in 1930 to seat the archdiocese of Detroit, its wrought-iron gates preserving the church's gleam over the past century. St. John's (formerly North Woodward Congregational) boasts an unusual Gothic red-and-white brick design, as well as the honor of being the first black church on Woodward Avenue. Together these and other churches earned this stretch of Woodward the name Piety Hill. It's a neighborhood that once pulsed with spiritual vibrancy and stability in a city rocked by economic and social upheaval.

"See that church?" says Piety Hill resident Lisa Johanon. She points to a Gothic beauty whose blood-red doors promise life inside. "For $125,000, it's yours."

Like many churches on this street, Woodward Avenue Presbyterian (later Abyssinia) watched its upper-middle-class members, both black and white, leave the city of Detroit starting in the 1950s. After a series of mergers, expensive repairs, and a pastor's death in 2005, the church got locked in court battles. Its leaky roof ate away its wooden floors, and vandals scrapped its pipe organ in 2009. While it served as the set of a recent Tyler Perry movie, it is foreclosed and in ruins.

Johanon knows Abyssinia and the other churches well. Her nonprofit emerged from a partnership between seven of them 18 years ago. Central Detroit Christian (CDC) Community Development Group was launched to serve the poor in the Boston-Edison Historic District, the onetime neighborhood of Henry Ford. But all the founding pastors have left; two of the churches have closed. "We've just faced such random, massive abandonment that it's unreal," says Johanon.

Living in Piety Hill for 25 years, Johanon and her husband have faced massive personal loss as well. In 1989, they paid $29,000 for a 100-year-old home charmed with all the original wood-work and a built-in fireplace. They watched its value climb (it reached $122,000 by 2006) but, like countless other U.S. homeowners, watched it plummet as swiftly as it grew. Fellow Detroit development groups have dwindled from 36 in 2007 to 7 in 2012. About 103 vacant homes, many of them gutted and turned into drug or prostitution hubs, pock the eight blocks around the CDC's offices.

"We came here because it was one of the most devastated areas," says Johanon, who stayed even when her former employer, Youth for Christ, ended its Detroit ministry in the early 1990s. "We worked for 14 years only to have the economy fall out in 2008. Now we're in worse shape than we were 18 years ago. If that doesn't give you cause for pause, I don't know what does …. Yet you press on."

Many Christians whom CT interviewed for this story explained their commitment to Detroit using an analogy from church history. (This story focuses on Christians in central Detroit; our online reporting will cover the work of Christians in Detroit's suburbs.) When the plague ravaged Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, inciting an exodus of citizens, many Christians rushed in to care for the sick and dying, joining the many who were already there, refusing to leave. As church father Dionysius wrote in A.D. 260, "Most of the Christians in our city showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves … drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pain." (Rodney Stark famously argues that such outlandish compassion helped spur Christianity's meteoric rise throughout the empire.)

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Faith in a Fallen Empire