Abundant Life in a Suffering Sea

Nicholas Hood III

Even in the worst of times, people still want to live! I can testify to this as a pastor in Detroit, economically one of the worst-affected areas in America: local unemployment is hovering officially at 16 percent but is probably much higher. The rate of home foreclosures remains among the highest in the nation. Home values have declined by 35 percent since 2005. 

Unfortunately, there’s more: Adult illiteracy is estimated at around 47 percent. Only 27 percent of local high school students graduate on time. The approximaely 800,000 population is down by more than 50 percent from a peak of 1.9 million in 1950. The homicide rate hovers at 400 a year. With 50,000- 60,000 vacant lots owned by the city, Detroit has a different look and feel from other major cities in America.

The decline of the auto industry that gave Detroit its Motown nickname has been tough on the modern church as well. An alarming number of local churches have closed. With so many people experiencing layoffs, downsizing, or “rightsizing,” clergy and congregations are forced to make hard choices. Last Thanksgiving, several churches had to reduce the number of turkeys they normally donate to the poor, according to newspaper reports. Some churches are behind on utility and mortgage payments.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Nevertheless, I am convinced the people who reside in the face of such local and national difficulties still want to live. Our congregation, for example, remains strong: Plymouth United Church of Christ, predominantly African American, has a great social and economic mix of income levels ranging from upper-middle to lower income. The church has an aggressive mission and outreach program that en- gages in local, national, and international missions.

Almost all our missions are directly connected to the interests of church members. For example, the support we give to missionary work in Africa is tied to tribal and national interests of local church members who are from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. Locally we provide an out-of-town overnight 

The demands of pastoral care in an eco- nomic crisis extend beyond the church. I have become an unpaid, unofficial job counselor. 

camping experience for inner city youth, as well as Christmas toys and new free computers. Our church is the sponsor of the Plymouth Educational Center, the first church-based charter school in Michigan and the first charter school in Michigan to build a new building from the ground up.

Still, when I’m asked what it’s like to pastor in Detroit at a time like this, I smile and think: Not for the faint of heart … Our church feels the pressures. We are getting more requests for benevolences from people in the neighborhood who are barely scraping by. We are getting more pleas for funerals for non-members, requests made by loved ones who can no longer afford burial services.

Because of the challenges to the local economy, I spend much more time counseling individuals and couples than I ever expected. Over the years the focus of the counseling has shifted, and the intensity has magnified to levels I never imagined before. It used to be that my counseling was centered on marriage, divorce, and crisis intervention. Now, much more of my time is spent helping individuals grapple with a number of residual issues connected to the economy. We are facing a related new phenomenon: women increasingly are making more money than 

We have lost enough persons who have relocated to Las Vegas to start a new church there. 

the husband or live-in companion. I have a number of couples in the church membership where the husband has been laid off and the wife is still working. In a small but significant number, some of my younger couples are in situations where the wife’s income is three or four times greater than her husband’s.

Stresses erupt in tragic ways. Much of the domestic abuse I have been asked to mediate is tied to these difficulties of job loss. The most horrific example of economy-related domestic abuse that I have had to help my congregation deal with was the ax murder of a young mother by her estranged husband on Christmas morning 2002. The husband had been let go from his job, and I really think he did not know how to tell his wife that he could not provide her with the Christmas she expected. So, while their infant lay next to her in bed, the husband snuck in and tried to decapitate her. Her death was shocking, and the pastoral aftermath was gut-wrenching. She was a church trustee and the husband was a deacon. Needless to say, the tragedy touched many in our congregation.

Survivor’s Guilt

The demands of pastoral care in an economic crisis extend beyond the church. I have become an un- paid, unofficial job counselor. As a pastor, I end up counseling persons on both sides of the economic coin. On one hand I spend a lot of time speaking with persons who have lost a job or been downsized in their work. Conversely, I was called on recently to speak with automotive workers who were conscripted by their management superiors to participate in the firing of co-workers during a period of massive cutbacks. This was something these workers never bargained for – sacking a co-worker. Then there are the workers who are coping with survivor’s guilt, after having watched their terminated colleagues week after week being marched down the hall by security and led out the door.

Another ominous scenario is playing out pastorally in Detroit. The city is experiencing a brain

drain. Many of our most talented youth go on to college with little realistic hope of returning to Detroit for work. Over the last three years, my church has experienced a steady erosion of educated, high- skilled young adult professionals who leave for the Sunbelt and cities with more economic opportunity. Three years ago eleven young adults from my church moved in search of better jobs in the South and West. Two years ago the number had slowed to only a few persons. I have not calculated the numbers for 2009, but I have a feeling we lost at least ten young adults who moved out of state. I don’t know how much more of this trend the city, let alone the church, can endure.

The long-range implications are scary. Part of what has made Plymouth UCC-Detroit so dynamic is the social economic mix. But the under-educated and poor are not as transportable as those with higher skill sets. We are losing engineers, lawyers, and doctors to other regions of the country. Some might think I am overreacting, but as a pastor I am called to vision, and what I see trending toward the long term is frightening. Some of my UCC colleagues in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., joke that Plymouth UCC in Detroit is an excellent feeder location for them to receive new members. We have lost enough persons who have relocated to Las Vegas to start a new church there.

The economic challenge we are facing in Detroit is reflected these days in my sermon titles: “Don’t Quit,” “Move Your Mountain,” “Do the Math!” “Hope and Hypocrisy,” “A New You for a New Year,” “Start Your Life Over Again,” and “What’s Next?” Words of hope have an effect. Attendance is up. Bible study is up. Participation at church board meetings, group meetings, and choir rehearsals is up. Our efforts to feed and house the homeless continue to be strong. Despite everything, financial giving is up. Increasingly I find myself challenging worshipers to release themselves to the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. The church has never been more relevant in helping people to keep their heads and hearts in the right place than right now.

What I’ve discovered is that even in the worst of times, people still want to live. My response pastorally to a membership that suffers under the weight of the local economy is to attempt to provide high- value, low-cost programming on every level. For example, last fall twenty-seven members and friends of our church took a twelve-day trip to Egypt that included airfare, a three-day cruise on the Nile River, and a sleeper car overnight train ride from Cairo to Aswan, all for $2,300. We were able to keep the cost affordable because we chose not to add any mark-up to the base price. Many of the persons who made that trip were facing great personal uncertainty. They had been forced into early retirement, experienced a reduction in pay, or were fearful they might lose a job. Yet, as unsettling as their personal prospects might be, people still want to live.

Sacred Counterintuition

The theological question I often wrestle with personally is on a gut level: How can I in good conscience encourage the church to increase its missions and social outreach ministries when so many of our members are facing economic pressure that often suffocates hope? The pastoral temptation in a bad economy is to start cutting back on various minis- tries and programs of the church. Ironically, though, as we have discovered time and again, those programs prosper, because they add meaning and relevancy to the life of a congregation. In an amazing and most counterintuitive way, the Lord continues 

Words of hope have an effect. Attendance is up. bible study is up. Our efforts to feed and house the homeless continue to be strong. Despite every- thing, financial giving is up. 

to open the windows of heaven with showers of blessings upon the church. It is at such moments that I hear the words of Jesus: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6: 37-38)

The great challenge for the church in times like these is to make John 10:10 come alive: “I come that you might have life more abundantly.” It’s one thing to preach about the goodness of Jesus. But when a person is struggling for economic survival, the church is called upon to help those who are choking financially to have full, meaningful, abundant life not just in eternity, but right now on earth. As a pastor, my days are often draining, but never dull and never without a deep sense that I am helping people to make it one more day. 

The Rev. Nicholas Hood III ’76 M.Div. has been pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit since 1984, when he succeeded his father. Born in New Orleans, Hood has long been active in Detroit’s civic, political, and educational life. He was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1993 and won re-election to a second four-year term. He does an occasional political commentary on Detroit FM radio station WDET. 

Jobless Rates: Unequal Doses of Pain

The Great Recession has turned out to be a Great Depression for the nation’s low-income workers.

A recent report challenges the misperception that the recession has inflicted pain more or less evenly across the American economic landscape.

by the end of 2009, the nation’s lowest-income citizens were experiencing 31 percent unemployment – a jobless rate higher than that of the 1930s Great Depression – while the wealthiest worked in conditions approaching full employment.

“What has been missing from the public debate over the labor market crisis is an honest and detailed analysis of which American workers have been most adversely affected by the deep deterioration in labor markets,” says the report, produced by the Center for Labor market Studies at Northeastern university in boston.

Research shows that disproportionate job losses have been borne by males, young people under thirty (especially teens), workers with less education, blue-collar workers and African American men.

“A true labor market depression faced those <at the bottom> of the income distribution, a deep labor market recession prevailed among those in the middle of the distribution, and close to a full- employment environment prevailed at the top,” the report says.

“There was no labor market recession for America’s affluent.”

The richest group, with annual household incomes of $150,000 or more, had a jobless rate
of 3.2 percent for the final quarter of 2009. The next group, with incomes between $100,000 and $149,000, had 4 percent unemployment.

At the opposite end, the group with annual income of less than $12,499 was hit with 30.8 percent joblessness. The next group up, with income of $12,500-$20,000, had a 19 percent unemployment rate.

The report concludes by quoting a labor secretary who in the 1960s was asked how workers were do- ing “on average.” He replied: “When you have your head in the freezer and your feet in the oven, on average you are doing okay.”

The report adds: “Similar remarks apply to the state of American labor markets today. Who will tell the people? Does anybody care?”