When the Rev. Cornelius Roberson and his wife, Marisa, decided to launch the newest Fuller Center for Housing covenant partner in blight-plagued Detroit, they knew the key to big success was to think small!
Well, small in area anyway. Their focus is on the Belmont neighborhood of Detroit, an inner-city residential area covering less than two-tenths of a square mile. That specific focus sprang from studying John M. Perkins, a Christian leader, civil rights activist and author of several books (including “Follow Me to Freedom: Leading as an Ordinary Radical,” which he co-wrote with theologian Shane Claiborne, president of Simple Homes Fuller Center in Philadelphia.
“Years ago, I was in a study group, and we talked about how (Perkins) changed the culture of a town in Mississippi with the same concept of developing self-awareness in the community — from the church to the community and back to the church,” Roberson said. “It never left that community.”
The Robersons lead a church plant called the Heart and Soul Community Church in the Belmont neighborhood and have canvassed blocks of the community asking residents about their problems, hopes and concerns. Many people have told him they fear that they would have to leave the community in order to have a decent life.
Such a view that one must leave to succeed particularly stings Roberson, who grew up in the area and also longed to leave as a teenager. He would indeed leave to play basketball for Union College in Kentucky and served a stint in the military. He even strayed from God during that period of his life before narrowly escaping a landslide. That seminal event led him back to God and ultimately led him back to the Belmont neighborhood.
“I never wanted to come back to Detroit,” he said. “Thirteen years later, God said, ‘Everything you’ve learned, you learned for a reason, and now I’m going to put you right back where you don’t want to be at.’”
Fuller Center Director of U.S. Field Operations Kirk Lyman-Barner said the Heart and Soul/Belmont Fuller Center’s sharp focus on a single neighborhood is critical in such a large urban area.
“It would be hard to service the entire Metro Detroit area because there is so much need,” Lyman-Barner said. “Cornelius told me about how John Perkins’ success in Mississippi had convinced him to try to make a difference in one square mile.
“This neighborhood approach is what we want,” he continued. “We have seen amazing success in neighborhoods of cities such as Shreveport, Louisville, Indianapolis and now in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia where (Simple Homes Fuller Center president) Shane Claiborne began with a simple question: What would it look like if Jesus moved into our neighborhood?”
Getting residents invested in the community
As community leaders, the Robersons want to use the church as the beginning and the end to addressing problems in the neighborhood. And, like other areas of Detroit, poverty housing is among its most critical problems. Roberson said that was not the case before the 1967 rioting that killed 43 and injured more than 1,100 people. He said that led to flight out of the city. The slowdown of the auto industry in Michigan over the past couple of decades only exacerbated economic woes.
Ultimately, what was lost was the atmosphere of people owning houses and having a personal investment in the community. That’s something he hopes to see return through house ownership and even such simple things as gardens people care for.
“When my father moved to the city of Detroit from Alabama, they bought and owned the property,” Roberson said. “They planted flowers, grew gardens and supported each other in the community. But what happened after a while is people started to rent. If you’re renting, you don’t have the same investment as somebody who paid mortgages off and is entrenched in the community.”
The idea to bring in The Fuller Center to focus on the church’s housing outreach came from a conversation over the Fourth of July weekend when the Robersons visited with friends in Waukegan, Illinois — Yvette and Ronnel Ewing, who lead the Fuller Center of Lake County.
“I said, ‘Yvette, we want to do some housing in a blighted area of Detroit,’” Roberson recalled. “She said, ‘Well, we know The Fuller Center.’ She told us about it and what a great place it is. She was talking about the tremendous opportunity to reach a community through The Fuller Center. If this is what you’re trying to do, she said, The Fuller Center is the right one for you.”
Like the Robersons, the Ewings are stressing a holistic approach to improving their community with the key component of decent housing being served through The Fuller Center.
“We’ve been trying to inspire our community to come back together not like we used to be but what we can be — as a community, as a partnership, as a family,” Roberson said. “We don’t always get along in family, but when they need us, we’re there for each other.”
Lyman-Barner believes working in a specific community will make it easier for the Robersons to shine a spotlight on the difference The Fuller Center can make and inspire others to follow their example.
“I believe neighborhood initiatives are the future of our housing ministry in urban areas,” he said. “So, the next time someone is wondering if anything good can happen in Detroit, we will be able to tell them to come see the Belmont neighborhood.”