Lisa Nichols Hickman: Leading amidst devastation in Detroit

How do you go forward in a city filled with death? By practicing the spiritual discipline of hope.

In Detroit, death takes many forms:  the sixth highest homicide rate nationwide (one a day), the loss of financial support for firefighters (who now buy their own toilet paper), the asphyxiation of the auto industry, and the loss of whole city blocks to foreclosure and neglect.  Now-abandoned lots were once filled with homes, factories and playgrounds. The city is working to streamline city services by deciding which areas are fit for living and which will be left for the wild. “Pray for Detroit” is the new ‘good-bye’ at the end of every closing sentence.

The great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has long argued that death is where Christian hope flourishes. In a recent address, “A Theology of Life, A Life for Theology,” Moltmann argued that “Christian hope does not promise successful days to the rich and the strong, but resurrection and life to those who must exist in the shadows of death.”

In a recent mission trip to Detroit, our church’s work group met three faithful leaders working toward resurrection in the midst of death’s shadows. They see hope as a spiritual discipline. And the hope embodied in their leadership holds out promise for those barely existing amidst devastation anywhere.

At Hands-On Mission, Mary works tirelessly to connect work groups like ours to local non-profits in the city. Each day she encounters someone whose situation appears hopeless, whether it’s unemployment, lack of housing, of education or of health care.  I asked Mary, “How do you maintain hope?”  Her answer emphasized personal responsibility: “I don’t ask what we can do differently. I ask what can I do differently today? I realized long ago that looking toward the community for help sometimes let me off the hook personally.  Now I know that I have to be part of the answer for hope.”

Peaches and Greens is a local produce market just around the corner from a community garden. One day while working, I asked Josh, a repeat summer volunteer and engineering student, how he practices hope.  “It gets too confusing to look for hope in the midst of each day.  Everything is so complicated and bleak.  A few months after the summer, I’ll take some time to look back.  From that perspective, I can see hope in the places we made a difference.  In the midst of it though, it’s just too hard.” 

For Lisa, hope is most visible in people whose lives have actually changed.  Lisa is a lawyer turned community activist who runs the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation.  Lisa provided hope in the people whom she employed for the summer. For example, she bought a produce truck to deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to unreached corners of the city. She also personally demonstrated hope by purchasing a run-down home in a hopeless neighborhood and creating a life with her family there.  Lisa said, “I keep a little black book in my pocket everyday.  There I take note of people whose lives are changed because of our presence in this community.  When I get discouraged, I leaf through the pages of the book and see the names of people who now have hope.”

St. Augustine said, “Hope has two daughters: anger and courage.” Mary, Lisa and Josh show us a great deal about hope, anger and courage, all three. All people of faith can practice these three different aspects of the discipline of hope: personal responsibility, perspective over time, and keeping track of people whose lives have been changed. As they close their conversations in Detroit, I will close this one: “Pray for Detroit.” Leadership there is much less about success and much more about resurrection.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.