That’s the question many are asking about the decision to have the 221st General Assembly in a city ravaged by crime, poverty and brokenness, from its people to its economy.
Thomas Hay, director of General Assembly Meeting Service from the Presbyterian Church (USA), understands why that question is raised and believes there is a purpose for Detroit to host the 2014 GA meeting in the Motor City June 14-21, 2014.
“Based on what you read in the papers or see on television networks, it’s a legitimate question,” Hay told the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) during its Sept. 25-27 meeting in Louisville, Ky. “Why would anyone go to that city? Isn’t it dangerous? How can anybody go there safely? But I think in God’s wisdom six years ago, He decided we shall go to Detroit.”
Once a megacenter for manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry, and known for the sweet sounds of music from numerous Motown artists, Detroit has fallen on hard times. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July, seeking protection from creditors and unions who are renegotiating an estimated $18.5 billion in debt and other liabilities.
Detroit’s woes have come as a result of a dwindling population and substantial loss in tax revenues along with decades of financial mismanagement. Many of the companies that once were there have long since left, and the city has one of the highest crime rates in the country. City services have been hampered greatly, and 10,000 derelict buildings/homes have been demolished or stand vacant.
Following the announcement of the bankruptcy filing in July, Hay gave a vote of confidence to Detroit as the host city for the 2014 General Assembly, saying, “I believe that when the assembly chose Detroit in 2008, the Spirit was guiding us toward a unique opportunity to witness and to be witnessed to. By our presence in Detroit we stand with people who are creatively working to bring forth a new city in a difficult time and can learn from their energy and imagination. By our presence in Detroit we refuse to give up on a people and a city that refuses to give up on itself.”
Hay has not wavered in his stance, outlining his reasons for thinking there is much to gain by having the General Assembly in the struggling city, which he gave a vote of confidence as a viable host for the 221st GA next summer.
“There’s no question Detroit is a city with huge problems,” Hay said, noting that a third of its residents live below the poverty level, and one in four do not graduate from high school. “They do have troubles, but it is a city experiencing a new reality.”
The bankruptcy, Hay explained, means much and means little.
“It means much because there is little money freed up for basic services,” he said. “It means little because people involved are not with the city, so there will be no effect on the GA.”
The General Assembly will take place at the Cobo Center, which is not owned by the city.
Hay said the downtown area of Detroit is safe, with most of its crime and other problems occurring in the fringe regions of the city.
“The crime rate in Detroit is very high, but in downtown it is very low,” he said. “Corporations are committed to being in business downtown, and the place we will be living and meeting daily will be safe.”
Those attending the General Assembly may learn something from Detroit and its residents.
“Detroit has much to teach us,” Hay said. “The city can teach us what it means to be an institution with an established pattern in this day and age, looking at the challenges of who we will be in the future. We have an opportunity to stand with (Detroit’s residents) and learn to be an institution of the future.”
More than anything else, Hay pointed out that the PCUSA’s presence in Detroit for the 221st General Assembly is an opportunity to reach out, economically and missionally.
“We can have a huge potential economic impact just by being there,” Hay said. “We stand with people in love to serve. We are witnesses to Jesus Christ’s justice. We can show the world this is a place worth loving. We can witness to the rest of the nation that this is a city of people, not fear. It’s a place like where Jesus would go because it is a place where people hurt and need Him.”
Hay added that Detroit is the place Presbyterians are called to be next summer.
“God wanted us to be in Detroit because of what we will learn and what we will say,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to be part of a special gathering.”
As Hay concluded his remarks previewing the host city for the 2014 General Assembly, PMA board member Marianne Rhebergen said, “It moves my heart to hear you speak about our potential witness by being there.”