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The Slow Work of God: Jesuit Volunteer stewarding land in Detroit

We’re called to honor the inherent worth of every person. The inherent worth of the vacant lot around the corner may be a further stretch. But the sentiment extends there too. In the Springwells neighborhood of Southwest Detroit, Urban Neighborhood Initiatives is stewarding and honoring the worth of 20 acres of land. This community of only 1.3 square miles has residents, schools, and businesses taking ownership of revitalizing and then maintaining shared neighborhood space. Since the program requires volunteers, I joined the land stewardship team as the organization’s Volunteer Coordinator during my time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Detroit.

I will first and foremost admit I never had an affinity for the outdoors. You would’ve been hard pressed to find me with dirt under my nails or able to distinguish straight gas from mixed. But leading volunteers requires an authentic enthusiasm and understanding. So, armed with nothing more than a pair of gardening gloves, I dove into learning as much as I could in order to lead as well as I could.


Tending to the land

The land stewardship team functions primarily on donations and volunteers in order to operate. The work is hard and the payoff is often far down the road. Fighting through overgrowth on the land and blight can make complete, sustainable transformation a process spanning years. In order to maintain the land in pristine ways, it requires human intervention. Like a relationship, it needs persistent tending. If your neighborhood contains cheerful plots of mowed green grass, you are benefiting from the labor others are able to provide.

It is difficult to remain gracious for pristine community land, until it is replaced with trash, broken glass, and overgrowth. The vacancy left by mass fleeing to the suburbs means more work for less people to undertake. More than that, it instills a subversive weight of abandonment. And a condemnation of the space as lacking enough worth to maintain.


Spirituality of space

Still, it is clear that among residents who do stay, that they care deeply for their neighborhood. Urban Neighborhood Initiatives seeks to maintain the beauty of parks where families play and attend community events. Or the streets where kids walk to school, and the allure of local businesses. In general, creating more welcoming entrances that reflect the values of the neighborhood. 

A resident’s home is broken into one day. After the lot next door to her home is cleared, her tears act as a testament to the presence of God at work in this community. The care made by her community signifies that her space is both occupied and loved. Or witnessing the slow work of God when a young mother and her rambunctious boys take a break from playing in the park by hopping in with volunteers to help weed. After finding the strength to leave an abusive relationship, she says she’s excited to be back in the neighborhood. She finds kinship in conversation with the volunteers and gives me her phone number for next time. In those moments, the result is joyfully obvious.

Land stewardship is part of the slow work

I can’t always articulate to volunteers how their 4-hour service event of digging, raking, or sifting might jigsaw into the master plan. When I return home covered in dirt or sore from trying to match an adult man dig-for-dig, I too remind myself that this is the case. But the spirituality of transformation, of honoring the inherent dignity of the backdrop of this community, and of having faith in the slow work—feels overwhelmingly like a labor of love. So, we submit to God’s timeline as we forge on caring for the earth like we care for one another.

By Anna Herrmann

Anna Herrmann is from St. Louis, Missouri. She just graduated from the University of Dayton in Dayton, OH with a degree in music and communication. She loves making music and she’s always on the hunt for good books and new coffeeshops. This year she is serving as a Volunteer Coordinator for Urban Neighborhood Initiatives in Detroit, MI.