Life, Death, and Rebirth in the City
by Christopher Fici
Detroit, where I was born and reared, straddles a bittersweet line between two worlds. It is a place where the American Dream has already died four or five different times. It is a spent shell from its days as the “arsenal of democracy.” As I visited my family during a recent holiday trip, the starkness of this reality took on a deeper clarity. Walking and driving through the city, I came upon the supremely haunting vision of the burnt-out yet still elegant remains of the old Michigan Central Station. Pete and Frank’s, a grocery store my mom and her mom had scoured for bargains for nearly 50 years, is now empty and on the auction block.
Car City Records, where I had amassed the eclectic and electric record collection of my college days, finallysuccumbed to the pressures of the Michigan economy. Even the backstop fence over the baseball diamond right near my parents’ house, where my brother and I had fouled off countless pitches, was torn straight to the ground.
It’s really enough to cause you to hang your head like a sad dog. Yet soaring above it all is the still beating sacred heart of this city, visualized in the Gothic spires of St. Anne’s Catholic Church and Fort Street Presbyterian Church or St. John’s Episcopal Church on Woodward Street in downtown Detroit, an area once known as “Piety Hill,” which now overlooks such modern-day cathedrals as Comerica Park and Ford Field, where our beloved Tigers and Lions play ball.
The heart certainly beats, and many sincere-hearted and steel-cut souls, the pride of this city which refuses to bleed out, still call together for the mercy of God. But the heart stutters. The Catholic Church where I spent many a Sunday as a child, Our Lady Queen of Peace in Harper Woods, now finds itself on the verge of closing and selling its property. Inside this beautiful sanctuary, I was startled to find that the church itself was practically cut in half, the back section of pews now converted into a perfunctory socializing area simply because there are no longer enough parishioners to fill the seats.
The high school next to the church, which both my parents and many of my uncles and aunts had attended, is left vacant and ghostly. The convent, once filled with nuns and friars, is boarded up and left to the termites. It is very sad to see this, a dream and vision of pious hopes and community slowly slipping into invisibility.
All of us from this seemingly God-forsaken city walk a bittersweet line. This is our home, the haven of our youth and growth, our deaths and rebirths and everything that defines us. It is our pride and sometimes enen our joy. So much has been lost; so much remains; and in a cynical moment it seems that much more remains to be thrown down the memory hole also. Still the heart beats, slowly but surely, with the defiant dignity shared by anyone who has grown up in Detroit. My heart beats with that same spirit, the spirit passed down to me from the beating heart of my own grandfather.
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In Monroe, Michigan, an hour south of Detroit, stands the Immaculate Heart of Mary Convent and Community. According to IHM's website, the IHM community “began in the frontier settlement of Monroe, Michigan, in 1845. Two visionary personalities, Father Louis Gillet and Sister Theresa Maxis, responding to the need to educate young immigrants, established the IHM community.”
Since last year, when my grandmother passed away, my grandfather, now approaching 90 years of life in this world, has lived in this community. His sister, a nun for many decades, also lives here, and a special dispensation of mercy was given to allow him to spend his time here now. As one of the few gentleman among a whole row of feisty and lovely nuns from all walks of life, he is quite popular, a target of frequent and obvious flirtation and affection.
For all of us in the family, it is a relief and a blessing that God has rewarded his piety and sincerity with such a comfortable and caring station at this point in his life. I have come to see him in a much different light now, five years since I began my own training in monastic and priestly life.
A funny story sets the stage: When I decided to pursue the spiritual path, my mom was not sure how to explain it to my grandparents. Why? Let’s just say I am not becoming a Catholic priest. Instead I am pursuing the path of bhakti-yoga, a monotheistic and devotional path of the Hindu tradition.
How to explain this, my mother wondered, so as not to disturb the minds and expectations of my grandparents. She tried telling them innocent white lies including that I was potentially moving to California to pursue my film degree. Eventually, for one reason or another, she couldn’t find it in her heart to deceive. When my grandfather finally heard my choice of vocation, he was very happy and pleased, much to my mom’srelief and surprise. To him, it didn’t matter whether my devotion was to Jesus or to Krishna. In fact, he could only see the common thread running towards God.
For him, having one of his grandchildren approach the life of a priest was a welcome surprise. My grandfather comes from a certain “golden age” of Christian and Catholic life in Detroit, whose whispers still ring in the ears of the faithful to this day. He comes from a time when it was perfectly normal, even expected, for a member of the family to approach the priestly vocation. He comes from a time when contemporary saints such as the Venerable Father Solanus Casey and Reinhold Niebhur influenced scores of people across the city with their ministry and charity. He comes from a time when Thomas Merton was the “renaissance man” to admire. He comes from a time when he could regularly go on local radio to say the Catholic Rosary over the air.
My decision is keeping a certain spark alive in his own heart, a spark still smoldering in the rubble of this once great and pious city. To keep this spark going in him is a task of great humility and of not letting the immensity of this vocation, its responsibilities, and its demands become sources of pride or discouragement.
It is also a task that requires a fully open mind and heart. For all the grace of God that trickled down to me as a child from the way my grandfather reared his own kids, I realize now that the best part of grace was a realization that God’s family is large, diverse, and inclusive. As I sat with my grandfather this past Christmas and he tried to speak through the tears in his own eyes of his own realizations about the string of faith we all share, from Sufi to Catholic to Hindu and beyond, I understood that my own spiritual calling, and particularly my calling to interfaith work, were in a sense the best offering of love I could make in the most humble and honest way to him, to my whole family, and to everyone I know and have yet still to know.
A lot of what is communicated between us is unspoken, in a language of respect and pride in the heart which sometimes words can’t quite grasp. All I know is that without his blessings, I have no chance to pursue a life devoted to the cultivation of love of God, for myself and for others.
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Burning, beating, the heart of the person who tries to soar towards God must be firmly set in the gratitude of those who have laid the path before him, who guide him with blessings, knowledge, and love. My heart beats in the same way as the heart of my grandfather. Our hearts are united in the compulsion that draws us like a magnet despite our meager resistance into the loving arms of God.
A version of this article was first published February 7, 2012, on the Faith House Manhattan Blog.