In the Name of the Father
On a warm afternoon in September, I drove with Mrs. Fauntroy and Howard to Hamtramck to find the old church. It’s near Detroit’s outskirts, where blight has turned to rot, and two-story, single-family homes occupy the space between gutted frames and grassy lots. Hamtramck’s main street was lively that day. One woman in a burqa, another in a sari, pushed strollers along a tilted sidewalk. Mrs. Fauntroy, who hadn’t been back in 20 years, recognized the hat shop, but Krajenke Buick, the dealership whose television jingles she wouldn’t forget, had been abandoned. “And Clock has closed!” she said. Clock, Howard explained, once served the best Sunday burger.
We pulled onto a side street and parked beside a white clapboard house. “Now that, I believe, is where the church stood,” Howard said. He pointed to a parking lot behind the PNC Bank. White lines had faded, and tall grass flopped over the pavement. We idled there for a minute before pulling back onto the street. “Now that was very interesting,” said Howard. “Yes, very interesting.”
We drove north toward Seven Mile. I could look straight across four gravel blocks, flat and square, through the broken windows of a high-rise to the sky on the other side. Like in a desert, it seemed the wind could cross the whole expanse in one breath. Each hollowed building paid homage to what was—and to what could be. In fact, new life sprouted in the most unlikely places—a farm on a vacant block, an art collective in an old garage, a start-up in a vast warehouse.
I asked Howard why he stayed in Detroit. Like the urban homesteaders, did he see promise in the empty space? Or, like many of his congregants, could he not imagine another home? “My father made it very clear,” he told me. “If you preach in the city, you must live in the city.” Detroit, he knows, is a landmark industrial failure, but there’s still something about it he loves. As for whether or not the city will come back, he’s painfully honest: it will never be what it once was.
“I think it will be a different city,” says Howard. His main concern is Detroit’s illiteracy rate, now over 50 percent. “How can a city recover when its workforce can’t read?” In 2008, Howard sent a letter to First Baptist, in which he wrote, “The inability of so many of our citizens to read and write has contributed to 32 percent of the population being stricken by poverty. My sharing these issues with you is not to frighten or upset you, but rather to ‘keep it real.’ We must make sure our ministry is relevant to the needs of the people for the times in which we now live.” That same year, a member of First Baptist, Doris Moore, suggested to Howard they set up a GED training and testing center at the church. Howard agreed and got the center approved, making First Baptist the third GED site in the city. This past June, the program graduated its first class of 30 students, and Howard gave the keynote address.
“Before you needed your back to work. Today you need your brain,” Moore told me when I met her in the classroom one morning. The room was small and its walls bare except for one, large poster that read, “Employment = Motivation x Confidence^2.” Sixteen students bent over folding tables, chins nearly pressed to their papers as they multiplied fractions. One man stared silently at a problem on the chalkboard, erased his answer, and started again. All but five of the students were men, and all, it seemed, were younger than 30. One had recently spent his senior year of high school in jail and needed to pass the test to get a job. “Something in heating and cooling,” he said. “I’m good with my hands.” Another had worked the same job for 15 years before her employer noticed she lacked a high school diploma; she had 30 days to earn her GED, or otherwise, she would be fired.
The man at the board finished his problem and wiped the chalk from his hands. Moore nodded her head. “Keep the faith,” she said. “Keep the faith.”