Friday, April 27, 2012

Teaching Power in Detroit

The conversation starts something like this – Me: I think you would be great to lead this project.  Response:  Oh, Pastor, I just couldn’t possibly do that. 

Sometimes the above response is merely an act of humility.  Yet it may also be a natural response to deny one’s own gifts, and especially the skills and abilities others see in us.  But in Detroit, conversations like this take on special importance.  We are a city that has been abandoned by the powers that be, where the safety of our block is mostly up to us, and the beautification of our neighborhood happens only on our own watch.  When we deny our own abilities, we also deny our own power.

The Bible talks about power.  In Acts chapter one, Jesus is about to depart the world and leaves the work to the few but dedicated followers who remain.  Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit will come upon them and they will “receive power from on high” (New Revised Standard Version).  In this case Jesus is telling them that they will survive, come together, be sent out, and so forth.  It is known among Christians as the beginning of the Church.  Jesus could have said a lot of things will come upon you: confidence, faith, fearlessness, hope.  Yet he said, “power.”  It is an important word.

Power is the ability to get things done.  The basic foundation of community organizing teaches that organized people and organized money, in short, power, is the most effective way to accomplish our goals.  Unfortunately we have taught ourselves that power is a negative thing.  Really, we let others teach us such nonsense so that they can keep power for themselves.  The culture of mainline Protestantism teaches that we are to be humble, which easily translates into giving up our power.  Such teaching is dangerous, especially to people of color, women, people of low income, the lesbian, gay and transgender communities, and anyone who lives under a system of oppression. 

Teaching people to have less power is safer, easier and more expected, but it is also oppressive and destructive.  Teaching less power forms the basis of all forms of oppressive systems, including racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism and more.  Here is what they hope we believe: In order for you to have power, others must have less.  For African Americans to have access to higher education, it must mean they are asking people of European descent to stop going to college.  To allow lesbian or gay people to have access to marriage or health benefits must mean we are asking heterosexuals to redefine their own marriages.  Neither example is true.

Corporations, government entities, development corporations and more teach us in Michigan and Detroit that we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.  Power, however, is not a finite resource, and we can have it.   In fact, we do.  Detroit will turn around, and does every day, when we understand the power we have to transform the way we function.  The rules placed upon us are only rules if we choose to follow them.  Every day we must remind ourselves that this is our community and we have the power to change it.  We are the powers that be.   We remind ourselves every day because each day structures and interests are telling us we are not.