On a rainy evening in March, the Rev. Faith Fowler took her dog for a walk in Midtown. Fowler has spent much of her adult life in the Cass neighborhood caring for the homeless, lifting the poor, and encouraging the forgotten — since long before it became the epicenter of Detroit’s renaissance. She is a woman who lives up to her first name. But in that moment, she was struggling.
“We had a particularly difficult night with a person who was just tested for coronavirus and returned to one of our buildings,” says the senior pastor of Cass Community United Methodist Church and executive director of Cass Community Social Services, an organization she started nearly 20 years ago. “There isn’t enough protective gear for people who are trying to keep others safe, including my staff.”
As she stood disheartened on the glistening, empty street, she saw the neon sign on the side of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit on Woodward. The sign said, “Everything is going to be alright.”
But will it? When it comes to epidemics, Detroit has a lot of experience. Fear tells us that thousands will die, like the nearly 16,000 who perished due to influenza or pneumonia in Wayne County alone during the 1918 flu pandemic. Fear tells us that violence will ravage our city like it did during the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Fear is screaming that we will lose it all, like we did in the epidemic of foreclosures in 2008.
But when Fowler saw that sign beaming in the misty darkness, she was reassured that the only thing greater than fear is love.
“Alone with my dog, the sign soothed my soul,” Fowler says. When she posted a picture of it on Facebook, people responded in droves, connecting both with her anxiety and with the powerful image of hope.
The truth is, it is not human nature to separate, fight, hoard, and maim when faced with an existential crisis. It is in our nature to turn to love. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the National Institutes of Health published a 2008 report addressing several myths about disasters. One prevalent myth was that disasters trigger “mass disruption, disorder and social breakdown.”
“While there were well-documented instances of brutal hijacking, rioting, and looting in New Orleans after the deep flooding caused by the hurricane, there were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie among the affected population,” the report said. “Natural and man-made disasters are followed by increases in altruistic behavior and social solidarity.”
The research showed that random acts of kindness abounded so widely that they weren’t random — they were the norm. Stories surfaced of people of all races and backgrounds holding hands to pray; sharing their meager resources; taking in strangers like family; and risking their lives for others regardless of politics, race, gender identity, social class, and even species. The NIH report added that the same “cooperative, prosocial, and altruistic individual and community response” was present after the “Asian tsunami of December 2004, and the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London, and may have been reflected in the transient 40% to 60% drop in the homicide rate in New York City after September 11, 2001.”
Detroit has been much maligned over the years by a gritty image. But when people visit the city, they are often surprised by the abundance of camaraderie, love, and support. People know their neighbors. Block clubs fill the vacuum of government. Neighbors mow empty lots and maintain playgrounds. Congregations assume the role of business incubators, community developers, educators, and social safety nets. Folks maintain free gardens so that children can eat. Detroiters partake regularly in each other’s food, culture, and music.
Over the years, the Motor City has consistently landed on lists of the most charitable regions in the United States. Just last year, Fidelity did a survey of its charitable giving accounts. The metro area was in the top 10 metro areas for donations to health-related charities and religious institutions.
People worry that this pandemic will halt Detroit’s long-awaited renaissance. It may indeed thwart our brick-and-mortar revitalization, but it also may do something that trendy redevelopments have not been able to accomplish: Knit us together as one metropolitan community.
For us to prevail over the coronavirus, there can be no “us” and “them.” The virus doesn’t know the difference between city and suburbs, Midtown and neighborhoods, race and creed. It will not fester among the poor without infecting the rich. It will not leap past the doors marked with privilege.
“Shy of a miracle, thousands of people are going to get sick, our hospitals will be overwhelmed, too many will die, and our economy will require an extended period to recover,” Fowler says. “But we have to stay connected to one another.”
And connect we will, as never before. We will default to our greater natures and show the world what it really means to be a Detroiter.