The Skyscraper and the Steeple

churchThis is my favorite landmark driving south on I-75 into Detroit. Due to a trick of perspective, the historic St. Josaphat church seems to rise over the concrete and glass of the city. It appears for a moment perfectly super-imposed on the image of the Renaissance Center (General Motors building) and seems to dwarf it. It is more than a view, it is an instant poetic narrative. You see that glass tower? Don’t forget what was here before.

I was saddened to read that the steeple was damaged in a recent windstorm and the congregation does not have the funds to repair it. It would be heartbreaking to see it come down.

I thought I would share a little excerpt here from the novel Angel. One of the issues in Rev. Paul Tobit’s congregation is whether or not to raise funds for expensive repairs to the crumbling steeple. Paul wants the congregation to make the repairs and he butts heads with a business-minded president of the church board over the issue. The tide tuns in the minister’s favor after he gives a sermon. Here is that text:

This afternoon we will be voting on whether or not to approve a budget to repair the old steeple. Fixing that old thing will cost a lot of money. And there are those who will say it is money that could be better spent on something more tangible and practical than beauty. It’s a reasonable argument.

How do you measure the value of beauty? What is it? What does it do? What is it worth? Maybe nothing.

Or maybe, just maybe, beauty pleases the senses because it reminds us of a divine order and holds a mirror to the face of God…

Fixing the steeple will not change the nature of our services, or my sermons, or our community outreach. We don’t even see it while we’re sitting here in the Sanctuary. And that is really the key. Our steeple is not really for us. It is a gift of beauty that we give to the larger community. It is not only for our members, or for the people who come through the doors, but for the people who never will.

A steeple points the way to heaven. It is a universal symbol that reminds everyone who passes that there is a spiritual dimension to life—that there is something greater than ourselves, and it ties us together across time and across generations.

To the people who are afraid, who have been alienated from God, who have somehow learned the lesson that Christians are a different kind of people and that Christianity is not for them— let our steeple be a beacon. Let it send them a message.

Our message is not “come to our church.” Our message is this: No one lives without a soul. Everyone deserves to feel God’s love. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, if you think you have made mistakes, if your wife kicked you out, if you’re sick, if you’re troubled, if you’re black or white; rich or poor… God loves you. You are valuable. Your life has meaning. God created you because he needs you.

That is our message. That is our gift, our steeple is a gift of beauty to the larger community.

How Did They Place a Value on the Art?

Above is a feature from the Rachel Maddow Show on an art performance in support of the Detroit Institute of Art’s fight to retain control of its art collection.  (I had wanted to embed the original Detroit News feature, unfortunately embedding non-youtube videos here is beyond my technical capability.   Follow the link.)

I have been following the stories about the DIA with interest, because were it not for the museum, I would not be alive. If this sounds like overly dramatic hyperbole, I assure you it is not.  My parents met at the DIA.  I could show you the very spot, overlooking the courtyard.  I have stood there many times as my father recounted the tale to my brother and I of how my mother, a college student who was taking an art appreciation course, approached the intellectual factory worker and asked him how to get down to the cafeteria.  He could have pointed, and she could probably have found it without his help, but he led the way and bought her lunch. The rest, as they say, is history.

When Christie’s auction house came to appraise the DIA’s collection, how did they value the art?

Did they value it the way my father did as a poor kid growing up in the inner city?  Living with an abusive step father and a mother who worked two jobs to make ends meet, he found his escape in books and art.

“I was blessed as a child with a mean bastard of a step father who was illiterate, who slapped me around every time he caught me reading,” my father once wrote. “He convinced me that somewhere in those black marks on sallow pages was a power so great that it scared the bejesus out of that ignorant bastard. Somewhere in one of those books was the answer to what it all means.”

The Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Institute of Arts provided his escape. Among the books and art works he found inspiration, the material to imagine a different life.

At the age of 14 he broke free from his home and went “bumming around the country.”  After a stint in the marines, armed with A GED and the GI Bill, my father worked his way through college at one of Detroit’s auto factories. This was where he was in his life on the fateful day that he met my mother.

When the folks from Christie’s came to appraise the DIA’s collection, how did they place a value on the art?

When I was 16, my father wrote a letter to me. “Artists tend to see the way life is, and fertile minds envision the way life could be, and deal with a certain sadness over the disparity between the two. Yet the up side of the so-called gift is that you have the rare ability to see the universal, to share it with others. A deep satisfaction can come of expressing insight; a great hollowness can come from keeping it in, failing to utilize your gift. For, in fact, it isn’t a gift, but a given. If you are an artist then you have no choice but to express yourself. To go into some practical field will not be satisfactory in the long run. You would be far better off to accept your gift, and its limitations, early in life and to concentrate on perfecting it.”

This was not something my father learned from his school or his home environment. He didn’t learn it in the military or on the factory floor. He learned how to be an artist through exposure to art. It all started with the power of the imagination. That is what he discovered in the corridors of these great Detroit institutions, the public library, the art museum.

He went on earn an MFA in creative writing and to write 15 books. He finished his career as the primary speech writer for Edsel Ford. My brother and I grew up in a stable, supportive home where our dreams were valued and encouraged.

My father never did stop dreaming.

“My higher purpose is my writing,” he wrote in January 2004, “and at 61, I’m only beginning to acquire the knowledge and skills I’ll need to approach my goal. And, probably, actually hopefully, I’ll die on the road… somewhere between here and the destination that has sustained me. Think it was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who wrote, ‘Your reach should exceed your grasp, or what’s a heaven for.’ Amen.”

My father died on May 1, 2004.

“I was born in Detroit,” my father once wrote, “but that’s not what makes me, or any of us, Detroiters. We are Detroiters because this is where roots are. This is where our great grandparents, or parents, or even our own generation, came to make a better life. We came by wagon, ship and shanks mare, and even by stealth in the underground railroad. We came to pursue dreams as diverse as the people ourselves. Detroit is home. This city’s fortunes, and misfortunes, ultimately have visited all of us. What we are now, and may yet become, is intricately linked with this place. Any person without this sense of belonging is disadvantaged. For a person without a community and heritage is like a tree without roots.”

My father’s ashes rest at the base of a tree outside the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When the folks from Christie’s came to Detroit, how did they place a value on the art?