Brethren Disaster Ministries completes its work in Detroit

Church of the Brethren Newsline
February 1, 2017

A Brethren Disaster Ministries volunteer at work in Detroit. Photo courtesy of BDM.

By Cliff Kindy

FEMA stated that the six-inch rain event of August 2014 in Detroit, Mich., was the major disaster of that year for FEMA. But our US government disaster program did not allocate funds for that disaster, which had its most negative impact on African-American families.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) did choose to provide funding and volunteers for the Northwest Detroit Flood Recovery Project. When volunteers dwindled off, Brethren Disaster Ministries stepped into the breach, completing more than 55 homes during their stint. Mennonite Disaster Service was carrying similar responsibilities in East Detroit. Even with these strong disaster programs in gear, thousands of families were left without assistance.

The families that Brethren Disaster Ministries served in Detroit were almost all African-American. As part of the Brethren Disaster Ministries orientation for Detroit volunteers Steve Keim explained that during World War II, African-Americans from southern states were brought in to replace white workers in the automotive industry who were sent off to war. At war’s end those soldiers took back their jobs in the factories and the African-American workers seeped into the streams of neglect that nurture US structural racism.

Although stories of random violence and gang activity fill our news channels those were not the experiences of volunteers working in Detroit. For example, the grandfather in one home was a physicist who had studied at Harvard. Older women would leave the white Brethren volunteer teams alone in their homes as they went shopping, even though these were strangers they did not know. The homes were secured by barred windows and double lock security doors at a time when white attacks on black people across the country were making headlines. A young high school senior in another home hung around the disaster volunteers, asking questions, and soon was pitching in to help hang drywall, re-set the basement banister, and install the security hardware for the exterior doors. Had we been at that site another two days, perhaps we would have enlisted another regular volunteer for other Brethren Disaster Ministries sites!

Sure there were difficult stories. Homes had been more than two years without a furnace. The city won’t turn on water without assurance the pipes won’t freeze and burst. BDM put secure doors on a home that had been burgled immediately after a new furnace and water heater had been installed.

Why is Detroit–a state-run city–choosing not to invest in check valves for flooded homes? Why not separate the storm sewer system from the waste water system? Why not invest in schools and job opportunities for the families who live in these well-built homes? Why it is likely that investment funds will flow in after the gentrification–the “whiting”–of Detroit gets under way?

Natural disasters strike people from all walks of life. Always, in numbers out of proportion to their populations, poor and minority communities are most devastated in a disaster. This again happened in Detroit. Across the country it is economic racism that allocates the low-lying lands to those who can only afford to live on vulnerable sites. It is political racism that locates oil pipelines and toxic waste dumps in poor or indigenous communities. It is religious racism that soothes church members into accept continuing racial injustice in the richest society the world has ever seen.

What can Brethren Disaster Ministries and the Church of the Brethren do in the face of this overwhelming and growing apartheid? We can continue to go to the Detroits of our nation. God becomes human to us in these settings. We can uncover our own personal racism and elect to ally ourselves with God’s efforts to transform us. We can choose Jesus’ downward mobility to walk more regularly with and as the poor and oppressed.

Environmentally our world is entering into a time when displaced populations and critical disasters will overwhelm our capacity as church-based agencies to respond, or even make a difference. Undoing racism so we can tackle such insurmountable tasks together will open new spaces of possibility for us. Being open to God’s grace-filled transformation into justice allows us to participate with God’s in-breaking miracle of heaven on earth.

Even so, come, lowly Jesus!

— Cliff Kindy is a Church of the Brethren member and a farmer in northern Indiana who volunteers with Brethren Disaster Ministries. Over the decades he also has participated in Christian Peacemaker Teams work in various countries including Israel and Palestine and Iraq.

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