Sermon on the Social and
Spiritual Transformation of Detroit In 2013
by Rabbi Dorit Edut
Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012
Unitarian Universalist Church, Detroit
Detroit will undergo a transformation – especially in the social and spiritual realm – and 2013 will be the year that his happens. Today we are not going to focus on another “change” in Detroit’s social and spiritual fabric – but really a “transformation – making things radically different, taking a different course, creating different positions here than are in existence now and perhaps have ever been here before. It is a new year that we are facing, and we are looking forward to a new landscape in our great city. What can it look like and what will it take to get there?
Transformation is something that occurs on many levels – psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical. Also there seems to be an element of the other-worldly, of something that happens to us or others as a result of Divine action, of our being either in our out of alignment with the Universe.
Transformation , though radical in its result, is usually a process that occurs over time. Think of some of the great leaders of our modern world like Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. – their own transformation came about gradually, their awareness grew with each life experience, and, like the Prophets of the Bible, it came to the point that they could not keep this to themselves – instead they each led a major transformation of the societies in which they lived. They each saw what was missing in their societies, some balancing of the scales of justice, some uncovering of truth, some new paths to peace. They became so keenly aware of this that it caused them great psychological, emotional and spiritual distress. They knew that they had to do something about this, even in the face of great opposition – and so they spoke out and acted upon this. We today are still experiencing the impact of their actions, something that they themselves could probably not imagine. We get to see, in historical hindsight that they were not acting just for themselves or for the people of their day, but actually causing radical shifts in the course of their societies, bringing ideas and social changes into our world that are still inspiring us. And I would venture to say that there was the element of the Divine here, that each of these great leaders were actually messengers of God.
But they are the ones that we know about because of our history books. And yet, there are countless others whose names we don’t know who have done things to change the course of lives, to stand up for justice, to bring enemies together as friends. The good news is that each of us, yes – YOU and ME – has this Divine spark within us, this ability to contribute to the betterment of our world in some powerful way, for the Bible tells us that we were each created in the image of God – b’Tzelem Elohim. The Jewish mystical teachers of Kabbalah explain that when they world was created there was a kind of Big Bang which led to the dispersion of Divine energy in the form of embers or sparks all over the world, most being hidden within the souls of humans. It is only when these are all uncovered, released within our world and ultimately reunited with the One Source that the Messianic time will arrive. So it is up to each of us to search for and find our Divine spark, let ourselves be energized by this through our thoughts, words, and actions – and encourage others to do the same. Just think what would be possible if these Divine sparks were to be ignited here! What a fire that would light up in our city – and not burn it down!!
So what is to be transformed in our great city of Detroit? Let’s take a look. Some have said we have a Dickens situation on our hands – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ – on one hand, one where crime runs rampant, where we have the highest statistics for murders in this country, where abandoned houses fill our neighborhoods and where our city government is paralyzed by political infighting and economic doom ; and, on the other hand, one where new businesses are springing up daily, where community gardens and urban farms are flourishing, where young professionals are moving in by the droves to neighborhoods bordering the downtown, and where sports, entertainment, and restaurant venues are packed solid all year long with urban and suburban attendees. How can these two diametrically opposed phenomena exist in the same geographic area? I think we can say that they may be able to co-exist for now, but not for much longer. One of them will weaken and ultimately be extinguished – AND WE GET TO SAY WHICH ONE THAT WILL BE! The good news is that we get to promote one or the other via our actions, our participation, our support . That is why this is a spiritual and a social conversation!! We will determine whether Detroit will win the World Series of Enlightened and Transformed Urban Centers or will become, like the Biblical Sodom, a place of desolation where human life cannot be sustained for centuries to come.
Yes, at the heart of this there is much that must be spiritually and socially transformed. Having grown up here and personally witnessed the riots of 1967, I know that there exists on both sides of 8 Mile Road even today conversations of mistrust, of fear of the “other”, of cynicism that anything will ever change. These conversations may have their basis in racial prejudices but these reflect the beliefs of a different, earlier era, not of the technically-interconnected, globally-functioning, and media-equalized world we and our young generations live in. It is time to put the past in the past, to drive into the ‘no-man’s-zone’ and see that you can not only survive but also enjoy yourself, thrive, and meet people who also want to live together in peace and prosperity. The first glimpse of a social transformation in 2013 will be a borderless Detroit, one where ALL people feel comfortable to shop, dine, work, play, go to school, be with friends ANYONE ANYWHERE in the Metro Detroit area – because there will be no racial profiling and no concerns about race, culture, religion, gender, or sexual identification. Detroit will no longer have the reputation of being one of the most segregated urban and suburban areas in this country. One of the best ways to make this happen is for people of all ages to participate in a one-day program called Bridging 8 Mile that is sponsored by the Association for Youth Empowerment.
All the talk of the suburbs wanting to take over Detroit – a racially-based conversation that is prevalent even among some of our City Council members – is based on some underlying fear that African Americans will be displaced and lose any power that was gained since Detroit first had an African-American mayor. It is time for those who espouse such ideas to look at the population of the city and suburbs – there are plenty of African-Americans who have left the city and have become powerful forces in the suburbs, such as the powerful mayor of Southfield, Brenda Lawrence. Meanwhile living within the city limits now – and some have been here for many decades – are Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Albanians, Russians, Indians, Greeks, and even a few Jews, among others groups. Detroit is a cosmopolitan city and that is one of its strengths; today, with the huge loss of population and tax base over the past three decades, it is time to put out the welcome mat to all who want to live here and help revitalize this metropolis. But perhaps our government leaders cannot handle this task – or certainly not all by themselves.
Over a year ago, my Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network began hosting interfaith services every two months at different churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues in Detroit and close by. The purpose was two-fold: to pray together for uplifting of all the citizens of our city, especially its youth, and to get to know each other better, especially during the social and educational hour prior to the service. We have discovered that these joint prayer services inspire all of us as we express our hopes and seek Divine help through words , song, dance, and speeches. The different languages used, the different religious sites where we prayed, and the different rituals we observed helped us to honor each other’s uniqueness while realizing that there is an underlying commonality of faith in God which guides us all. Just picture if you will what it is like as a Jewish person to sit in the pews of a large Catholic church while hearing the voice of a young boy chanting the verses of the Koran about peace among all peoples or to have the entire congregation singing together the praise to One God in the words of the Hindu-based Harei Krishna. This is not only an exhilarating experience but one filled with great energy that we can take into our future.
Working to improve our schools, creating safe, fun, interesting and accessible afterschool programs, and offering job and lifeskills training to our teens – these are some ways that we can translate this spiritual and social transformation into concrete terms. Certainly the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Detroit Parent Network, the Michigan League of Arts, Fort Street Presbyterian Church and Central United Methodist, and ACCESS are doing some of this work already. Without the help from these faith-based and civic organizations, many more residents would be in desperate straits. A kind of shadow government has already been created and it is time for the elected officials and the media to recognize this. What I am suggesting for the next phase of this transformation would be to have all these groups work together, not to duplicate each other’s programs, but to bring the resources, the manpower, and the devotion to strengthen the major, effective programs already underway.
We must bring transformation to the issue of violence, both in our local and our national culture. After the massacre in Newton, Connecticut, and after the latest statistics of the over 300 murders in Detroit this past year, we cannot wait another moment. Here, too, we have at the root a spiritual and social problem. Violent acts, especially with guns, are acts of desperation – for those who no longer believe that anger, resentment, shame, or mistrust can be resolved peacefully. They have lost faith in their fellow human beings and in themselves, and consequently they have no spiritual center, they certainly have no faith in God . Whether caused by mental illness or not, the person who holds such views is both a tragic and dangerous person. Yet, there is much that could be done to alter these views before they develop fully or before the person acts on them. Here, too, it will take a socially responsible society, communities of people who watch out for others, offer help or direct them to the appropriate helpers, model non-violent conflict resolution themselves, notify authorities of their concerns, do not sell weapons of any kind to such people or give them easy access to any weapons, and stop the spread of violent games, movies, TV shows to our youth. So let this begin here – in Detroit – let us transform our image – our very being – from one of daily violence to daily acts of peace, love, and deep caring, especially for our youth!
2013 opens up a 365-day period of time for each of us to be part of this social and spiritual transformation of Detroit, which can, of course, impact the transformation of our American society and of our world. When each of us will look back at this time and place next year what do we want to see? t We each can help to turn the tide in the affairs of our city in the direction of peace, prosperity, and cooperation. Working together with other faith-based and civic groups, we can bring the energy and power of our congregations to these goal-oriented programs to ensure their effectiveness. Most importantly, it will be in our everyday interactions with individuals in our lives that we can make the biggest difference if we act to build trust, cooperation, and faith. May we remember the words of the Jewish Sage, Rabbi Eliezer, who wrote these words in the Ethics of the Fathers:
“Let the honor of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own; be not easily moved to anger; and repent one day before you die.”
May God bless each of you, and be with you throughout the coming year! Amen!