‘My City’ Is Gone

I still don’t want to believe it…and yet I know it’s true. As I have scanned through the headlines these past few weeks, I couldn’t help but feel a complicated knot of grief, nostalgia, shame, anger and remorse roil its way through my head and heart.

Detroit Institute of Arts

In case you missed it, the once-proud City of Detroit is struggling to avoid declaring itself bankrupt, a looming municipal failure that would be unprecedented in terms of scale and scope. Other cities have previously gone bankrupt, of course, but not to the tune of $17 billion. Multiple news items have left me with a seriously unsettled feeling as my thoughts alternate between the truths of Scripture, childhood memories and the four-part gospel…all of it set to the distant echo of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders singing angrily in the background, lamenting her own losses.

The Packard Automotive Plant

Columbia, Mo., has been my adopted hometown for the past 20+ years, and much of whatever is now good in my life happened here, including 15 years of sobriety, the birth of two children and a remarriage that is a daily source of joy and peace. Yes, I am deeply grateful for everything God has done in my life through the very specific contexts of my employment at the University of Missouri and my newfound allegiance to Christ, ever-so-patiently nurtured by the preaching and teaching at The Crossing. All that being true, my iPhone nevertheless has an app that keeps me regularly connected to The Detroit Free Press, the paper I loved to read nearly every day as a much-younger man.

The slow-motion destruction of Detroit is very obviously a deeply complex and entangled affair, one that needs to be addressed by people far more intelligent than most of us. About all the rest of us can do these days is sit on the sidelines and – assuming we still care – pray for God’s hand of restoration on that troubled region. Having acknowledged prayer as our single best refuge, I’d nevertheless like to offer up two quick peeks into the decline of a once-thriving metropolis:

  1. When I was a child, our parents bought a brand new – and really ugly – light brown station wagon. I remember loving how the back luggage compartment could be converted into a backward-facing bench seat with safety belts. Not knowing any better, I thought this was really cool! This was back in the day when car doors were really quite thick and heavy. It was also back in the day when the communities in that area of the country used raw salt on snow-covered roads. Within just a few years – certainly less than five – the thick doors on our vehicle visibly gave way to rust and corrosion, aided no doubt by the liberal application of road salt. Even though I was quite young at the time, I very clearly remember my mother and father having a dismayed conversation about planned obsolescence, my first-ever comprehension of the idea that anyone would ever deliberately make something that would wear out before its time. The bottom line was that my father – a professional engineer – was quite clear on the point that car doors could in fact be made to better withstand the elements, but that the car companies were “better served” by using cheap metals and thereby assuring the need for a replacement vehicle shortly after the new one had been paid off.
  2. After college, I took a temp job working as a mailroom clerk in the General Motors Hydramatic plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., mostly as a means whereby I could live closer to “the party life” in nearby Ann Arbor. Part of my daily gig was to move throughout the entire plant dropping off packets of mail and picking them up. I only had this job for about six months, but in that time I was being exposed just about every single day to epic levels of waste, corruption and (it must be said) plain old laziness. General Motors has had its fair share of problems these past few years, and it’s not really fair to cite large-scale mismanagement at a single company as the cause for region-wide devastation; I suspect that I would have been exposed to something similar had I been temping for Ford, Chrysler or any other automaker.

Nowadays, the primary “lens” through which I view the systematic destruction of the region in and around Detroit has been largely borrowed from Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. His milestone book – Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin – served to open my eyes to the various ways in which evil slowly worms its way into absolutely everything, robbing humanity of the many benefits that have been freely given to us by a loving, Creator God, benefits which have been taken for granted, corrupted and twisted for purposes entirely apart from God’s stated plan and purpose.

At a more personal level, Plantinga’s book has been very useful in helping me identify how even the “small” transgressions that I took part in while employed as an outsourced employee in the mid-1980s contributed to the overall decline of the entire system. In other words, I now clearly see that I was part of the problem. It’s something of an understatement to say that I was “not a redemptive presence” at GM and justified myself by viewing my various acts of selfishness as “no big deal” in comparison to the massive amount of waste and fraud going on out on the plant floor. At the time, I probably thought that no one employee with a selfish heart and hedonistic mindset was going to single-handedly take down General Motors, and certainly that would be true. No, something as large-scale as the decline of the auto industry relies on thousands upon thousands of people with a similar disposition, working – if at all – for their own selfish ends. The fact that it takes so many of “us” to destroy an industry and an entire region of my home state only serves to help us distance ourselves from the carnage, thereby denying the reality of our personal responsibility.

Of course, the City of Detroit has never been a utopia, and no one is clearer on that point than the people who have lived there for many years. But as a kid who grew up with a love of cars and looked forward to elementary school tours of automobile manufacturing facilities, the hard truth is that the many blessings which the auto industry provided – jobs, upward mobility, community, recreation, urban development – have been squandered by our own shortsightedness, greed, selfishness and (most notably) hubris:

“Americans will always want to drive big, powerful cars. We have nothing to fear from the Japanese and their pathetic little wind-up toys.”

As a kid growing up in a northern suburb of Detroit in the early 1970s – with a father who made his living working for a supplier to the auto industry – I can very clearly recall hearing words to that effect being spoken by more than one guest in our home. My father, to his credit, never made these sorts of statements, nor would he nod his head as a means of being agreeable with his guests. Instead, he would just get strangely quiet. Both of my parents, it should be noted, began buying Honda cars in the early 1980s, a longer-lasting product they stuck with until their deaths.

  • Deuteronomy 8:11-20: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
  • Matthew 25:21 (ESV): “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.'”

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