By Fiona Lubold – 11th Grade, North Hills Senior High School
30,000 high school students from every U.S. state arrived in Detroit on July 15 for the National Youth Gathering sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. About 300 of these students came from Pittsburgh, and I was one of them. I traveled with my youth group from Berkeley Hills Lutheran Church for three days of community service and outreach in the city.
Despite what many people hear in the news, Detroit is a beautiful city with many diverse ethnic influences, especially Greek and Mexican. Its neighborhoods, which were full of old and new buildings, restaurants, and businesses, reminded many of us of Pittsburgh.
Known historically for being a leader in car manufacturing and the music industry, the city of Detroit now faces many socioeconomic concerns.
In the last few decades, the suburbanization and structural changes of the city caused the population of Detroit to drop from almost 2 million people in 1950 to about 700,000 in 2010. The resulting job loss and poverty made Detroit’s economy comparable to Pittsburgh’s economy around 30 years ago. Families are being torn apart as people leave to find work, and vacant neighborhoods are literally falling apart.
One of the major issues we learned about at the conference was lack of access to clean, safe water for many impoverished people in the city. If they cannot pay their water bill, the water gets shut off, regardless of who will be affected, including children and the elderly.
For three days, participants traveled into the neighborhoods wearing bright orange t-shirts and ready to serve. Block after block, we encountered abandoned homes and collapsed buildings that no one was able to properly maintain. On many blocks of the city, only three or four actual homeowners remain. A few properties had become poorly maintained rental properties, but more than 70% of the houses were left vacant.
We came to help bring hope and new life in these neighborhoods. We worked alongside neighbors to clean up vacant lots, board up abandoned homes, plant trees, and prepare community gardens. We painted boards with bright and colorful murals – trees, birds, flowers, smiles and words of peace, joy, and hope – that will be used to board up homes. This way, the abandoned buildings won’t look sad or dismal.
Over 1 million diapers were collected through donations from participants and their families, friends, and church members, and these diapers were delivered to families in need in the Detroit area.
I interviewed some of the students from Pittsburgh about their experiences in Detroit. Some of the students commented that they saw more diversity in Detroit than in Pittsburgh, and many of the students were pleasantly surprised how nice and helpful people were as we walked through the streets. One student remarked that both Detroit and Pittsburgh take a great amount of pride in their city.
In Detroit, we learned to serve a community in need. We went to help and to serve but we brought home more than we gave – a new appreciation for a beautiful city, its culture and its people.
Coming home inspired to do more. Our group is planning to “Walk for Water” in September to raise funds for clean, safe water around the world. Additionally, we will work with our church to cook meals for the Men’s Shelter on the North Side, and we are continuing to explore new ways to serve in Pittsburgh.
Next summer we will go on another mission trip to a different community (possibly a Reservation in Montana or to Toronto, Canada). Some of my group members are heading off to college in the fall, but they will look for opportunities to serve there. Wherever we go, we will use what we learned in Detroit to learn about people in other places and to serve people in need.
Fiona Lubold will be a junior at North Hills Senior High School in the fall. She enjoys music, arts, acting, cooking, baking, reading, and writing. She hopes to gain more experience in media and journalism with Pittsburgh Youth Media.