“Now the Lord is that spirit: and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” – 2 Corinthians 3:17

David Harris

These words sit behind the cast bronze statue of the Spirit of Detroit; when it was first installed the statue was the largest of its kind since the Renaissance. It sits in the heart of Detroit, with a bronze sphere in its left hand and small cast of a family in its right. It sits in between cut shots of automobiles and abandoned homes in commercials. It sits adorned in an oversized Red Wings jersey year after year during playoff season in Hockeytown. It sits on stamps and in pictures, as the crest for Detroit’s minor league soccer team.

North of the town sits a football field. Years ago it was an indoor field, domed by a grand, white inflatable roof. It has since been converted, unintentionally and unceremoniously, into an outdoor one. What once was the Pontiac Silverdome, home to the Detroit Lions, the Detroit Pistons and concerts of all the most famous bands, sits with its roof collapsed and the turf, with end zones still emblazoned with “Lions,” flooded. The 80,000 seats still sat there until they were auctioned off this past June, along with much of the memorabilia that was left behind. In the Silverdome’s largest event, Pope John Paul II once gave mass to over 93,000 in attendance.

The striking dome that once held a holy event of the Catholic faith rests in the most unholy of conditions. In the quarter century since then, much of Detroit has followed the same pattern of decay and neglect. Pope John Paul II last visited in 1987. From 1991 to 2010 Detroit civilian unemployment nearly doubled. Between 1990 and 2010, the city lost somewhere around 300,000 residents. But what it did not lose was its hope and its faith.

The Silverdome is just one example of the how the area has changed since John Paul II made his visit. So when students from Cristo Rey High School in southwest Detroit helped start a campaign to ask the current Catholic pope, Pope Francis, to visit the city, the reality of the strife of Detroit was clear to them and to the many students who wrote letters to the pontiff.

“I know what you may hear about Detroit may not be all that pleasant, but there is good here. I promise,” writes one student. Another elementary school student writes more bluntly, “You can also come to tell everybody in Detroit that they shouldn’t make more crimes.” But underneath it all is hope: “If you can inspire worldwide, you can inspire Detroit also.”

On the east side of Detroit sits a grand Polish Cathedral-styled church. It has been over two decades since the nave in St. Albertus has heard an Our Father — its doors closed in 1990. But on Aug. 10 some 2,500 people have come for mass, and the halls echoed with “amens” and “peace be with you’s” as the crowd filled every seat, every space in aisles and even out the doorway. It started with just a small idea. At the first event, 150 people showed up to St. Hyacinth. Two months and two mass mobs later, 900 visitors from all over the metro area showed up to St. Joseph’s. And the numbers kept growing up to the St. Albertus mass. What began as a small movement to explore the historical churches of the city had become so much more.

The Detroit Mass Mob was uniquely, for lack of a better adjective, Detroit: the grassroots efforts that started the movement; the unwillingness to let go of the culture behind the cathedrals; the embracing of the troubled past and the vision to make something out of it; and the resurgence of faith in a city where sometimes faith is all that is left.

So, too, are the efforts to bring the Pope to Detroit. Yet there’s a determination behind it — a “we’re still here” attitude that persists. “There are good people, too,” wrote another student in her letter to the Pope. “People who actually care about Detroit and the people in it.” Because when it seems that Detroit truly has nothing else, the Spirit of Detroit reminds us that there will always remain hope.

Pope Francis is scheduled to make his first visit to the United States in September of 2015. Philadelphia is on the list of cities he will visit. Detroit is not. But then again, Detroit wasn’t on the list for the last papal visit either. It’ll take determination in another uniquely Detroit way to pull it off. The movement to bring Pope Francis to Detroit seems small and wishful, but after all, it only takes faith as small as a mustard seed to move mountains.

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