Neighbors We May Rarely See

By Jennifer Kottler 11-05-2009

I don't know about you, but I rarely, if ever travel the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. I've heard it's a rough neighborhood -- people get robbed, beaten and left for dead. But yesterday -- somewhat out of necessity, and somewhat out of ignorance -- I took the road less traveled. At least the road seldom traveled by middle class, professional folks who fly into the Detroit Metro Airport and need to get into downtown Detroit.

For those of you who may have never visited Detroit before, DTW (the Detroit Metro Airport) is about 40 miles or so outside of Detroit. It's a big airport -- a hub for Northwest -- and so I've traveled through it in the past, but never to it. So as I began to make my travel plans I needed to decide how to get from the airport into the city center. My preference is always public transportation unless there is an overriding reason to do something else. In this case, it seemed as though this would work out well -- low cost and convenient.

So that's how I found myself on that road. When I boarded the bus at the airport, I told the driver that I was going downtown to the Renaissance Center, and her only response was that it would take me an hour and a half. I said, "Thank you," and continued boarding the bus. She looked surprised.

Later I understood why. Everyone who boarded the bus (in this, the "motor city") clearly had no other way to travel. Most probably didn't own or have access to a car. All were low income, or appeared to be -- the man who works the afternoon shift at the main postal plant in the city who obviously rides the same bus every day, the father with a young daughter who got off saying that they would get something to eat at White Castle, the older woman who used the bus to bring her groceries home. They were black, white, Latino; young and old; men and women. And if they appeared less than well-heeled, their communities were faring even worse. We passed miles and miles of homes well past their prime, businesses with boarded up windows, burned out buildings, fast food restaurants, dollar stores and pay day lenders. The roads were pitted and desperately in need of repair.

I never felt unsafe or threatened. Maybe because this town and these folks looked so much like the folks in my home town -- in the Beaver Valley in western Pennsylvania -- during my high schools years after the steel mills closed. We had 25% unemployment back then. It may be that in some of these communities they have rates approaching that (in the City of Detroit, the unemployment rate is 30%). One out of every three people is out of a job, employable, and actively looking for work. The unemployment rate doesn't count all of those who have used up all their unemployment benefits and given up looking. My guess is that upwards of half of all working-age, employable adults are out of work. That's staggering to me. But not unfamiliar.

When Jesus tells the story of the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was trying to make a point about who our neighbors are. These are the ones who've been left by the side of the road; beaten, battered and left for dead. The ones those of us who care about changing the world often think of first -- those in need of living-wage jobs, safe and stable housing, good school for their children, and the opportunity to live out the American dream. We want the world to change for these folks. But too often, we never even see them.

The irony is that I was on my way to go to a conference full of people who work for nonprofit charitable organizations and philanthropies who care about these folks. And to my knowledge, I was the only person who took the bus to get there. I had to believe that the conference and the conversations I had there would have been different if others had seen the neighbors I saw. I kept asking myself as I rode along and witnessed a moment in their lives, "What would justice look like for this person

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