Detroit Journalism Cooperative partner WDET is examining the concerns of Detroiters over the next few months in a series we call the Detroit Agenda. It’s a series that brings forward the voices of the residents as they experience daily life in the city that’s currently going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.
While lawyers, the emergency manager and the city’s elected leaders work out the long-term deficit elimination plan and the financial restructuring, one of the biggest concerns facing city residents is crime. But beyond the statistics and the headlines, there’s the aftermath of crime. As WDET’s J. Carlisle Larsen reports many Detroiters look to the religious community for solace.
“The oldest theological question is: Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s the question in the oldest book of the Bible, it is the theme that runs through all of scripture and for the most part through all of our life,”
That’s from Kevin Turman who has been the Senior Pastor of Second Baptist Church in downtown Detroit for more than 25 years. During his tenure at the church, many of his members have been the victims of crime. He says in some cases criminals have waited for congregants to go to church before robbing their homes. Turman says his church has also seen brutal violent crime. One incident he describes involved the murder of a teenage girl.
“When she went to the friend’s house the two of them went to another home. And in the midst of their being at that home, apparently elsewhere in the home drugs were being both bought and sold and someone thinking money was inside came in robbed the home. Shots were fired the girl ran and she was subsequently—as she was running—shot and killed. Well the people who were in her Sunday school class, the people who were in the choir with her, the people who saw her around the church…felt that this was as tragic a circumstance as had been visited upon them.”
Turman says he mourned the loss of the girl along with the congregation in order to begin the community’s healing process. He says one of the church’s roles is to help parishioners to avoid becoming cynical when crime happens.
“It’s very easy to become suspicious of others, hateful, and it is the role of the minister and the role of ministry to help people understand that there has always been evil in the world and that doesn’t make the world a bad place. It makes it a place where the struggle to be good and loving and kind is indeed a struggle. But it’s a struggle we need to continue to engage in.”
On the far west side of Detroit another church has had to tackle the issue of violent crime. Spencer Ellis is the Senior Pastor and Founder of Citadel of Praise in the Brightmoor neighborhood. He says his church had a member who was a single mother of two. She was raped and murdered. Ellis says providing counseling to church members in the aftermath of violent crime is difficult. He says members may not feel emotional relief for a long time.
“I wish I could give the ‘Take two pills and call me in the morning’ type, or I wish I could just give you the steps—‘Here’s the steps, and tomorrow is going to be okay’—and when you can’t provide that—I mean because the counseling we provide here is spiritual and we have to depend on a God that we don’t see but that we believe in to help us get through it. And it’s a faith walk.”
But spiritual guidance isn’t the only comfort that churches can provide. Terri Laws, religion professor at University of Detroit-Mercy, says in times of crises, churches historically have stepped in to provide material help to mourning families.
“There are families in those communities who were not anticipating a young man—or a young woman—to be murdered, for example. And that they don’t have the funds to have—they literally do not have the funds—to hold a service at a funeral home. Someone then—a pastor in a community then—chooses to open their doors, use their light, their heat, their church choir, in order to provide a home going service for that young person.”
Ellis echoes this sentiment. When the single mother from his church was killed, Citadel of Praise paid for the funeral. Laws says funerals and sermons can provide a collective catharsis for parishioners.
“So, in that immediate moment when compassion is certainly needed for the family there are always other people in the congregation who are very aware that it could be their son, or it could be their daughter and they’re identifying with the horror of losing a child, or with the horror of losing a child particularly to violence.”
Turman says at Second Baptist Church he works to find the balance between the tragedy and hope. He says when he preaches, he chooses to focus on the positive, even when it is difficult.
“I don’t preach about violence. I don’t preach about death. I don’t preach about hate. I preach about love. I preach about peace. I preach about hope. And I acknowledge though that it’s hard to find hope in some of these situations.”
Turman says he doesn’t have all of the answers to why bad things happen to good people. But he says faith helps.
–J. Carlisle Larsen, WDET, a member of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative