This post was written by Pastor Chris Hooten.
It is common for people to describe Detroit as a blank canvas. Half of it’s buildings are vacant, abandoned, and deteriorating. It is attractive to frame the abundant possibilities as a canvas waiting to be filled. Certainly it is this positive vision Pastor Jacob has in mind when he talks about ministry at Courage Church. We as a church don’t have many established programs demanding loyalty or sacred cows that cannot be touched. We are invited as members to create something beautiful. If we have ideas for ministry there is a place for us to paint with all our creativity.
There is another side of the blank canvas metaphor that is darker and more problematic. Detroit is already full of color and beauty. To say that Detroit is a blank canvas is to whitewash the character of the residents of the city. It sets up the New Detroit, the young, hip, and white as the saviors of the city. That narrative can be even more tempting when we are talking about Christians earnestly hoping to bring the light of the gospel to Detroit.
So how do we embrace our opportunity to minister in the Detroit context without being paternalistic, colonial, gentrifying, or minimizing the experiences of our black and brown neighbors? The key comes in the concept of poiēma. What may appear to be a blank canvas is in fact God’s handiwork and God’s artistic expression.
As I look around Detroit, I see the imago dei, the image of God in the faces around me. God is already at work in the city before we get there. Scripture is full of references of how God is with the poor and suffering. In their book Geography of Grace, Rocke and Van Dyke posit that like water, grace flows downhill and pools in the low and depressed places. If we want to encounter God that is where we should look, and around Detroit there are many such places. Far from being blank spaces, these are places richly painted with the grace of God, inviting us to join in God’s poiēma.
We are invited to be collaborators with God in God’s own artistic endeavors. In the neighborhoods, among abandoned buildings and vibrant places where families have struggled and held it down for years, we find the presence of God working grace in beautiful brush strokes. Joining with God and our neighbors to make something beautiful starts at a different perspective than imposing our vision on a blank canvas alone. Collaborative, spontaneous, and beautiful, the interactions work grace in us as much as those around us.
Artist Lilla Watson encapsulates this well when she says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”