Mexican Town is a small community in southwest Detroit. It’s an ethnic enclave like many others in urban areas: a collection of homes and businesses owned and operated primarily by folks who share a particular ethnic heritage. Mexican Town is, obviously, Latino. It is at once a little Mexican village and a modern Detroit neighborhood. Even though my dad worked nearby for 30 years, at the Clark Street Cadillac plant, I never ventured there until I was in my early 20s – and then only to dine at one of its authentic restaurants. Yesterday I arrived there as a photographer, and left as a pilgrim.
We (myself and outreach coordinator Giovanni) ended up in Mexican Town at the request of Fr. Ken, PIME’s regional superior here in the U.S. He’ll be visiting Milan for a conference in August, and he asked us to prepare a presentation about PIME’s work here in the States. While PIME Missionaries are first and foremost foreign missionaries, they also work here in the city. Fr. Noel has worked at Holy Redeemer. Fr. Ken was recently appointed pastor of St. Hedwig and St. Francis d’Assisi, assisted by Fr. Ravi. Both churches are parishes here in the heart of the southwest corner of Detroit. Once large Catholic communities of mostly Polish heritage, they are now mostly attended by the Hispanic Catholics who live in the neighborhood. Masses are said in English and Spanish. Much has changed in the over 100 years since St. Hedwig’s was founded. What remains are beautiful buildings with ornate altars, serene statues, and glossy pews of polished hardwood. What remains is faith, accompanied by challenges.
Fr. Ken told us that in years past, there were so many attendees at Sunday mass that a second church was required in the basement, so that two masses could be said at one time to accommodate the faithful. He told as that the rectory could house 15 priests; the convent, 40 nuns. We felt a little melancholy as we were given a tour of the Church’s interior. It could seat 1400 people, but Father explained that now about 100 people attended Mass on any given Sunday. We were also affected by the beauty of the architecture, artwork and decor. In a time when Churches are called “worship spaces” that often resemble auditoriums, this was a treat for our spirits. We understood the goal of those who had sacrificed to build the churches so many years ago. They wanted to draw believers into a relationship with God that recalled their own smallness and God’s greatness; one that provoked a sense of awe and the sacred.
The community has indeed changed, but these are still sacred spaces. And those who worship here are still a blessing to their neighbors, still a sign that God is working among his people. The challenges that Polish immigrants faced a century ago were of one kind; the challenges here in Southwest Detroit today are different. There is poverty and decay. There is also hope.
We drove through the city, stopping to photograph homes and businesses that reflect these challenges. We ate at one of the restaurants I frequented over 20 years ago. A good sign, no? The food is still as delicious as I remember it, the lunch crowd just as bustling. Alongside busy restaurants and stores there were warehouses and homes begging for demolition. Some were destroyed by fire, only their charred shells remaining, others were withered by neglect.
I know nothing of politics and laws of economics. I don’t really know why so much of our city so closely resembles the underdeveloped nations our missionaries serve. I do know that, as I photographed the beauty and the desolation I saw, I felt very much as I did as I took pictures on the streets of a small, poor town in Brazil last fall.
The churches and the homes and the businesses – on the outskirts of a large American city or in the middle of the Amazon jungle – have much in common. They are populated with people in need. And in my own neighborhood, my suburban city that is not rich and not poor, my neighborhood that seems so simple yet is so filled with abundance – there too, people are needy.
We all need the reminder that we are loved. We need each other. We need Jesus.
From the glorious interior of the old brick churches that stand strong, to the broken houses that once were homes, to my own backyard, where my children play in safety, Jesus in needed. Oh, how we need Him. We need mission, and missionaries, to bring Him.
I left Mexican Town refreshed. I was reminded that there is work to be done, and that participation in that work is an extraordinary grace – a blessing that endures whether buildings stand or fall.