Grosse Pointe Church and Detroit Community Center Build Partnership to Mend Eastside Rift

For about a year now congregants at a Grosse Pointe church and members of an eastside Detroit neighborhood have been working in tandem to change attitudes and the lives of people in both communities. WDET’s Rob St. Mary reports.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

On a Sunday morning earlier this year, members of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church and residents from the nearby Ravendale neighborhood in Detroit worship together… and learn about an effort to bridge both communities. Interim Minster Mitra Rahnema opened the service with a welcome to all.

“Whatever the faiths you have known or the flags of our heritage, you are welcome here. Whoever you are and whomever you love, you are welcome here.”

The groundwork for this effort was laid about six months before the January service. Church congregants and leaders for the Ravendale Community Center on Detroit’s east side began meeting informally. The founder of the community center, Toni McIlwain, had been a guest speaker at the church several times, telling her story of overcoming crushing poverty as a single mother to build the center which has been in operation over 20 years. Church member Jean Ritok says members of the group christened the effort “Partnership for Change” and weekly meetings have followed ever since.

“We talk about if you really knew me what happened to me today. You know how did your spend your day… and some people from Ravendale once told about being stopped while out for coffee in the late evening. Just out for coffee because they couldn’t sleep. Went out for coffee and the police stopped them. That would not happen in Grosse Pointe for me going out for coffee in the middle of the night. Would not happen.”

Les Lance is with the Ravendale community. One of the first efforts to bring people together across the “Mack and Alter divide” was a chili supper last fall. Lance says Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church congregants and Ravendale residents found common cause over dinner.

“You know only being five or six miles apart from one another is so different and so drastic where we can actually come together now and say we can say, you know what, we’re not so much different than one another, we have a better understanding of one another… it’s as simple as sharing a bowl of chili.”

It can be said that any true partnership seeks to mesh the best of both parties. That’s what the members of “Partnership for Change” are working towards, trying to find what each side needs and then provide it. On the Ravendale side, that includes food, jobs and a helping hand out of poverty. To those ends, the church has been providing financial and material support to the center. Meanwhile, partnership members say the needs in Grosse Pointe are different, more abstract, what some partnership members call “spiritual”.

Ernest Thomas is a retired City of Detroit employee and part of the Ravendale side of the partnership. He says the first question he asked was what Grosse Pointe needs or wants from Ravendale. He says he’s still trying to figure it out.

“We know what the Ravendale peoples needs are… so, we can define that to some degree but as far as the Unitarian community… what do they need from us or the Ravendale community? Other than diversity, there’s no answer that I could give.”

Jean Ritok is with the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. She says before Ravendale can offer anything to her community both sides need to give a gift to each other first, the ability for all to speak freely and honestly.

“We want people to have a relationship with people in Ravendale so that they can speak across the taboos of what you can and cannot say… so, yeah… that’s a start… that’s a good start.”

Back at the service in January, the Reverend Mitra Rahnema said as someone who moved to the area from California, she could see the divisions in the community, and hoped the “Partnership for Change” effort will do more than uplift. She said she hopes for justice.

“Today is the day to make a just world for tomorrow. What a just world looks like has yet to be sculpted… so, I am empowering these two communities, if I could, to start sculpting. There is no other day but today.”

Meanwhile, bridge builders like Ernest Thomas say people on both sides hope their efforts inspire others beyond the eastside.

“I believe that what we are doing needs to be something that can spread out… farther than Grosse Pointe… farther than Ravendale... if that type of an attitude of that great economic divide can come together… then I believe we can affect some change.”

Ritok said that process is on-going and remains a challenge.

“If we could bridge those boundries and have people see each other new eyes, with new levels of respect and appreciation and with new ability to be in touch with each other and express what is available to be offered and what is needed… that we think all kind of innovation would happen and new, both economic, social and artistic activities would spring up at a faster rate than they are today.”

As the service closed at the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church… the Reverend Mitra Rahnema offered one last blessing for both communities.

“As we leave, let us take one more step to build a land worthy of our children were all are welcome… let us go now and activate the holy. Amen.”

(Music: “Like a mighty stream”)

As the members of the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church and the Ravendale Community Center walked out of the service together the choir sang of justice flowing “like a mighty stream”, a stream that those trying to build bridges hope will flow between both communities, bringing new understanding and opportunities, while washing away the walls that divide the eastside, physically and psychologically.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

To hear a sermon by the Rev. Mitra Rahnema about the "Partnership for Change":

For more information on the Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church:

For more information on the Ravendale Community Center: