Jodi Theut reflects on the importance of patience, and living now for future generations.
On a cold, rainy Thursday evening in March, several hundred curious residents packed into the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) to hear a presentation by the newish Director of Urban Planning for the city. We were hanging on his every word as projects were outlined for this next season of the city’s history. He started out by highlighting much of the good work that has gone on in the downtown and midtown areas of Detroit—“the heart of the City,” and explained now energies were finally shifting to the neighborhoods—“the soul of the city.” The Director called this next season “The Big Payback” for residents in the neighborhoods who have stuck it out through good times, bad times, and very very bad times.
One project getting a lot of attention is a recently announced plan to connect the neighborhoods to Detroit’s thriving riverfront. The proposed plans prioritize everyone having access to amenities, limits the amount of private development, and seeks to form greenways from the neighborhoods down to the banks of the Detroit River. This vision facilitates a new commons linking the heart and the soul of the city.
I quickly started imagining myself enjoying the flourishing landscape being described—hopping on one of those greenways in the North End neighborhood to cruise on down to the River’s edge. Of course, my imagination was big enough to imagine my neighbors enjoying it too, but really my first thought was how amazing it was going to be for me.
And then the Director mentioned something about a 40-year timeline.
Math has never been my forte, but when I added my age to those forty years, it wasn’t long until my mind’s eye realized the only thing I might be hopping on in forty years is a motorized scooter.
So, like, I might not really benefit from, enjoy or even see the dreams for my place realized? Not only did it force me to come face-to-face with my race towards midlife, but it also made me pause to ponder how so much of our neighborhood love, the big and small dreams of our todays, are not just about now, but also for—and maybe mostly for—the next generation.
And I don’t even have kids!
Wandering out of MOCAD, I found myself humming a chorus from Handel’s Joshua oratorio sung just after the Israelites are led across the Jordan River on dry ground. “Our children’s children shall rehearse Thy deeds in never-dying verse…” My friend and fellow-alto Katharine who sat next to me that year in the Fort Street Chorale was expecting her first child, and so the line seemed to hold even more meaning (plus Ed, our fearless conductor, was quite particular about our annunciation), so this chorus has always stuck with me. Our children’s children shall rehearse Thy deeds in never-dying verse…our children’s children, our children’s children…
If you look up the scripture that inspired Handel’s libretto, the verses describe how Joshua erected a monument using the twelve stones that they had taken from the Jordan, saying:
“In the future, your children will ask, “What do these stories mean?” Then you can tell them this is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground. He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord, your God forever.”
What are the stories being written in our places today that will speak of God’s goodness tomorrow? These verses from Joshua now come to mind as I engage with the life of my neighborhood and the city. It makes me long to hear the stories of Old Detroiters and the ways God has shown up in big and little ways. It also invites me to look at the New Detroit projects with more of an eye for how today’s work is contributing to a future Detroit. How do my stories, my neighbors’ stories, and the story of Detroit point to God’s redeeming love?
In The New Parish book, we’re reminded, “The literal shape of our communities is open to change if you have the vision and insight to shape them. While it may take decades to change the zoning, install new parks and gardens, and build housing for the twenty-first century, the opportunity is there if you take it. At the same time, there are thousands of smaller changes that can make a huge impact. Sometimes these acts can end up inspiring the bigger projects as well.”
It will take some time for the greenways to cross from the North End to the Riverfront, but what if between now and then my neighbors and I nurture gardens, design playgrounds, listen well, and build the fabric of care between here and there bearing in mind a call from Wendell Berry to “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest” for our children’s children, to the glory of the Lord.