Monday, September 19, 2016

gentrification with a capital G

Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased them out of the Temple, stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loan sharks, spilling coins left and right. He told the dove merchants, “Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall! - John 2:15-16, The Message

We have lived in Pingree Park on Detroit's eastside for exactly one week.  Our street is in a neighborhood, so we've heard from neighbors, was once predominantly Italian-American, but for the last 50-60 years has been primarily African-American.  There are a few other families and couples with skin the same color as ours, but it is definitely a neighborhood of mostly brown-skinned people.  

In these seven days, we have experienced significant hospitality from individuals of all the skin tones here.  Some of them are Christian, some of them are not Christian, all of them have a significant stake in the ongoing story of Detroit.  Before I unpacked my tools, a neighbor across the street lent me his hammer and some screwdrivers; a mother of four learned I tried to eat mostly gluten-free and baked us a peach cobbler coffee-cake; we were allowed to be judges in a pogo-stick competition, twice; the mailman has cracked some jokes to test us, I think (especially when he watched us witness a neighborhood fight breakout while our moving pod was being unpacked); the movers who helped us couldn't deliver my piano, so they personally made sure it was cared for and brought it back a few days later.  Did I mention that two of them grew up in this neighborhood?  Several neighbors have invited us onto their porch where we've talked history and racism and hope and Jesus.  Sometimes we've talked about the smoker out of which they sell ribs on the sidewalk on certain days.  Older residents have told us they will watch out for our girls and might even yell at them if they start to cross the street without us (we do get cars going 90 down our street from time to time as a cut through between Mack and Gratiot).  Moms have offered to watch our youngest while Darcie (the woman who agreed to marry me and still finds that to be a good idea) and I go off on job prospects.  7 days.   As I'm writing this, I feel like I'm forgetting something.....

Oh, right, I haven't said that the house we are living in for the better part of this year has been arranged by members of a church that is focused on intentional community empowerment. They have a deep commitment to multi-cultural and multi-classed shared living in a very local sense.  That's the best way I can describe it.  They have a vision, and have graciously allowed us to step into their vision for now.

Another way to say this: we are standing on sacred ground.  There is love and lament here.  I just heard distant gunshots right as I typed that.  I just learned of neighbors taking care of mothers and fathers in their childhood homes because years of inadequate health care has caused all kinds of complications.  Neighbors are interested in knowing one another and reaching out.  This street has a holy history.  I am humbled to be welcomed, at least in this first week.  

When we first felt the tug to move Eastward to Detroit, we were very inspired by a street in between New Center and the Boston-Edison neighborhoods, about 10 minutes from here, where some friends we consider family relocated 4 years ago.  They moved from Los Angeles, and have been sending dispatch all these years about the hope and gritty healing of Detroit.   In our imaginations we thought we would live on that street with them.  That street also feels holy, so much that I had a dream where I was expected to remove my shoes when I walked down their sidewalks.  

But God had a different starting point in mind.  Not to say we didn't try.

Enter "Dusty."  I'll call him that because that was the first word he said to me as he reached his pink-skinned hand out to shake mine.  He was referring to the plaster caked into his skin as he is a "very busy guy."  Dusty's wife had been a reference from our friends on the street of our original plan when we realized that we were not yet in a position to buy.

Dusty was eager to show off his work in the apartment down the street from our Los Angelean friends, along with another property around the corner.  Dusty was putting in all kinds of new-fangled upgrades.  Dusty was a long-winded salesperson, mostly emphasizing the pride of his work.  Dusty is from Nashville.  He still actually lives in Nashville, but he kept slipping in that he was telling Detroit that his "address" was one of his Detroit properties because it made it appear that he was an actual resident of Michigan and that helped him qualify for certain tax-breaks and benefits.  Dusty kept emphasizing how "nice" this apartment was for family "like us."  Dusty was not friendly to the brown-skinned neighbors who lived directly next door.  Dusty actually called my friend Billy a "buffoon," once.  

Dusty owns 40 properties.  Dusty is hoodwinking the city for his own benefit.  Dusty is rude to people who don't look like him.  Dusty is flipping properties and has plans to sell them for roughly 3 times what he paid.  

I actually walked away from him mid-sentence (partially because he was never going to stop talking, partially because he was causing my blood to boil. I've only written a fraction of all the many statements he was firing at us.)

I thought of the verse I opened with.  I wanted to turn over his tables.  I wanted to drive him out of the city, a place I very much feel God at work, feel God's Spirit present.  He was taking advantage of the bankruptcy of a city and seeking to amass a fortune to take back to his ranch in Nashville.  Where he has 20 horses, by the way.

We couldn't rent from this guy.  

I'm still not sure I know what we're doing, but it was clear that I did not want a dime of our money to go into Dusty's fortune.  I want it to be circulated within the city of Detroit, by the people of Detroit.  I know that Dusty will produce property tax revenue and that will, in turn, help the city.  But the core question comes down to this: who will it help?  Who is seen as the valuable population of Detroit?  Is it just for people like me and my family?  In Dusty's math, yes.  But shouldn't Detroit's upgrade, if that's what is truly happening, be first for the thousands of families who have weathered, some by choice and some without a choice, the decades of Detroit's downgrade?  The electricians and skilled manufacturers who have struggled to find work within the city limits for awhile.  I stood with protestors a few weeks ago, of European, African, and South-American descent, who were asking that the city developers have some balance in regards to hiring local workers instead of just bringing in outside (mostly suburban) labor.  More on that effort here at  

Dusty doesn't care what the long-term residents of Detroit think about him because his sole mission is to make money off the wave of white people moving in.  As one of those white persons moving in, well actually as four of them, this is complicated for us.  So complicated, that I should wrestle daily with that tension and welcome that wrestling.  I will.  But Dusty will not, at least not in his current state of mind, and that to me is one of the most dangerous sides of Whiteousness.  Gentrification that focuses on profit for one people group over another.  

My favorite album of all time, Under the Pink, was almost titled "god with a capital G."  I can't find it, but I remember Tori Amos explaining on MTV News, Spin, or Rolling Stone that in her life, she had experienced all of these abusively greedy white pastors who hadn't come to terms with their own god-complexes.  I may have added the "white" piece, as Tori was clearly going after the dominating tendencies of patriarchal power, but then again, I know many of the same people she writes about.  Not to say there aren't black pastors who have preyed upon their congregations, as power can do all kinds of things to every single person.  But in my life, I have seen white power get away with all kinds of things...

It was uncanny to me, then, that the song "God" from Under the Pink should be played on the radio later that day, 22 years after it was released.  I couldn't help but imagine Dusty as the "god" character in this song, making it rain, making decisions about who gets blessings and who gets punishment.  And the "her" in the song is the city of Detroit, or more pointedly, the people of Detroit.  See how it hits you.

god sometimes you just don’t come through
god sometimes you just don’t come through
do you need a woman to look after you
god sometimes you just don’t come through

you make pretty daisies, pretty daisies love
I’ve gotta find find find what you’re doing about things, here
a few witches burning gets a little toasty, here
I gotta find find find why you always go when the wind blows

god sometimes you just don’t come through
god sometimes you just don’t come through, babe
do you need a woman to look after you
god sometimes you just don’t come through

well, tell me you’re crazy maybe then I’ll understand
(come down and tell me what you mean, now)
you got your 9 iron in the back seat just in case
heard you’ve gone south well, babe, you love your new 4 wheel
(hey, now, what do you know, what do you know)
I gotta find why you always go when the wind blows

“Give not thy strength unto women nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings”

will you even tell her if you decide to make the sky fall?
will you even tell her if you decide to make the sky?

Under my pink skin I'm also pink, just like every single one of my neighbors.  Under our pink, we all have bones and a heart.  And we are all precious to our Creator, to our Savior, and to the Spirit that binds each and everyone one us in a sacred community.  Taking advantage of others is something that turns my pink into red, and I need the hospitality of this neighborhood to help me chill it out.

peace by peace by peace,

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Table Setters Official Launch

This was a big week. We are moving into Pingree Park on Detroit's East side tomorrow morning. We are grieving with our friends and DOOR Family in LaGrange, Atlanta. And, Marvin Wadlow Jr. and launched The Table Setters, officially. (so, in lieu of an actual post, I'm going to share our missional language along with the launch video.)

Please share and spread the word, and hopefully we can come work with your school, church, or business soon!

Diversity training must move beyond Black History Month towards a culturally integrated life. We set table workshops in churches, schools and businesses, and then we develop ongoing programs of relational accountability for the long haul.

The Table Setters is a faith-based organization that produces improved relationships across humanly created racial, socio-economic, political, and religious lines. We combine launch events in churches, schools, and civic institutions with customized plans for ongoing cultural accountability. Diversity training days are never enough. Ongoing relationships that nurture connections and share brokenness, hopes and dreams, can be mutually healing and productive. We believe that racial alliances, forged through respect, trust, and accountability are close to the heart of Christ, as referenced in Romans 14 and Matthew 18, especially in the context of a meal! We will listen to the needs of your particular community and develop a format for both the initial launch workshop as well as a schedule of repeated table settings to nurture diverse relationships for the long haul.

Founded through the deep friendship of Marvin Wadlow Jr., an African-American Baby Boomer, and Matthew John Schmitt, a European-American Generation X-er, the Table Setters exist to remember that we are all invited to God's Table through Christ, with none of us over or under-welcomed. Both founders lament that though Jesus shares stories and parables through setting a variety of tables across cultures and classes, most of our country, including Christians, have a hard time stepping outside their zip codes. The Table Setters believe that reality is greater understood when we fully appreciate differences across the divisions of humankind, and we aim to start a movement of courageous and ongoing Table Setting: individuals, businesses, and congregations who are willing to continually meet with "the others.” We are called to mutually learn, question, and share experiences in vulnerable storytelling that ultimately moves us towards making better decisions together.

Visit our Facebook Website today to arrange life changing workshops centered in vulnerable conversations regarding racial, social, economic, political, and religious devisions. Workshops can be customized to be rooted in Scripture and Sacred Texts, and we create accountability plans with hosting entities towards ongoing relationship nurturing and conflict resolution.

Peace by peace,

 +Matthew John Schmitt

Friday, September 2, 2016


Recently, I've been getting some good, probing questions on Facebook through my personal pages, friends' feeds, and our organizational page at The Table Setters. One of the questions yesterday was : why are blacks encouraged to have pride but whites are seen as hateful if they are proud?

So first off, I think Wikipedia is helpful here. Language has always had different connotations in different contexts, and culture and society location are certainly contexts. (And remember, the Eskimo tribe has multiple words to describe the one word English has for "snow.")   Pride is an inwardly directed emotion that carries two antithetical meanings. With a negative connotation pride refers to a foolishly and irrationally corrupt sense of one's personal value, status or accomplishments, used synonymously with hubris. With a positive connotation, pride refers to a humble and content sense of attachment toward one's own or another's choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, and a fulfilled feeling of belonging.

Growing up White (with pinkish-orange skin) is a different context than growing up Black (with brown skin).  I believe that too many white people try to claim this is not so, some desperately want to believe we live in a color-blind world, some desperately believe we live in a world where #AllLivesMatter is the reality, but it's just not.  From God's point of view, yes.  Jesus died for all of God's children.  But we constantly fail to live into the original design, and in a fallen world, all lives do not matter equally.  We know this.  It's whether or not we admit it, that's the question.  

Jane Elliott has done masterful work in exploring this.  When white people are asked if they'd like to be treated the way black people are treated in our society, even with all the unfair complaints white people level at poor black folks about welfare and entitlement, nobody claims they'd rather be treated like a black person in the USA.  Why?  Because we all know that our cultural norms revolve around Whiteness.  I hear it every day, in some form, from other well-meaning white people.  "Oh, they are just a regular, normal family."  "Oh, this is a nice neighborhood for people like you."  Ask yourself, who do you imagine is normal, regular, nice?

So, when talking about pride, and the apparent "double standard," why blacks are encouraged and whites are discouraged, I think we are talking about two different emotions.  It's like this:

Imagine there are two brothers in a family.  One is an amazing athlete and the other is not.  The athlete wins all kinds of trophies, people come over to be around him because they think he's so awesome.  Girls have crushes on him, boys have crushes on him.  He is written up in the local newspaper often.  One night, his brother, who is not talented athletically, is heard crying in his room.  Their father goes in and asks him why he's crying.  This son says, "because I'm nothing, because I'll never be as good as him."  The father embraces him and says, "nonsense, you are good at a great many things.  You should be proud of the talents you have, be grateful for the gifts God has given you.  Do not see them as less than your brother's talents, just because he gets so much attention for them now."

Nobody tells the athletic brother he should be proud because he doesn't need that in the culture of his high school.  In fact, if he walked around saying, "I'm so awesome, I'm so proud of who I am!  I can do everything.  I never drop the ball.  I do all the right things.  I never make a mistake...." we would see him as arrogant, suffering from pride, or hubris.  Probably.  

On the other hand, if his brother took a deep breath and said, "you know what, my dad is right," then decided to put, let's say, his art skills to use, and created a really beautiful and complicated self-portrait, we might expect him to be proud of his work.  We might hope that he is proud of his work.  That's a different context.  Of course, if that brother started getting attention and accolades, he would also be at risk of falling into the same arrogance we could imagine for his brother.  Except that in this country, athleticism is still valued much higher than most forms of art (with the exception of movies)......

Black people, (specifically to answer this question) and all our citizens who are not able to "pass" as white are taught, both in overt and subtle ways, to be ashamed of themselves every single day.  There have maybe been some improvements, but when students are given punishments for wearing their hair in an Afro, you cannot deny this statement.  (Side note: there is great cost and time to alter very curly hair, and very harsh chemicals involved in doing so.  So, imagine you're a kid who can't afford to get that done as often as other kids, and now the school is fining you for it.)

Some of you tell me this is a media invented guilt trip.  I promise you, I am not writing this out of guilt, and I hardly watch CNN, FOX or MSNBC (we don't have cable).  I do feel guilty when I say something mean to someone in a way of trying to hurt them.  I am not feeling guilt as I write this. I'm feeling hope.  Hope that you, if you are white and this is something you've never considered, that you might start noticing this issue.  Watch TV commercials, and for me, that meant noticing TV commercials during football games from the couch of a black family in New Orleans that invited me over for the party.  It's suddenly really apparent when you're sitting in a room full of brown-skinned people that the commercials are talking to me, and only me, selling me a product for my hair, skin, for my ways of life.  Now, that has changed some since 2000, but turn on the local news in those homes, and sit down.  Who are the "villains", who are the "heroes?"  Who comes to your mind, and this could be a question for all people of all races.  White ideals aren't just something white people aspire to.  Whiteousness can infect all of us, equally.  The problem is, when I let Whiteousness dominate me, I can feel "normal" if I choose to.  When my brown-skinned friends let Whiteousness into their thinking, how do you imagine they might feel when they look at their skin that isn't as pinkish-orange as mine?

These are the kinds of discussions we are having at the Table Setters.  We hope to visit you soon!