A bank-robbing preacher leads a flock of addicts and hookers straight out of Detroit's gutters
Published: January 26, 2011
They stagger in one by one — each with a story, each with a life of problems.
First comes the prostitute. Then comes a drinker. Every swing of the door brings another desperate person from the street outside.
People with addictions, with diseases, people living on the street. And people who suffer from none of those things but who are just drawn to this strange place.
Some talk to each other; one or two are talking to themselves, or the air, or whatever demons they hear in their heads.
It's Sunday morning. It's time for church.
At Peacemakers International on Chene Street, a little storefront ministry not far south of I-94, the congregation doesn't just help people who are addicts or poor or homeless. Those people are the congregation.
They come here because this place has taken in dozens of people fighting years of addiction and, somehow, they say, it has helped them get off drugs. People like Tony Cusmano, 52, who gradually stole a quarter-million dollars from his family business to feed a cocaine habit before ending up behind bars. Like Shirley Robinson, 53, who gave up a career and a house for a coke habit, which became a crack habit that left her selling herself on this street for a few years. Like Coy Welch, 39, a longtime drinker who was found living under a bridge a couple months ago and was invited to come here.
And from this ragged crowd, the preacher emerges.
At first it's hard to distinguish him from his flock. Steve Upshur is 62, and wears jeans and cowboy boots and a leather Harley jacket. His hair is long. So is his scraggly mustache. He's a biker and looks like a biker.
He used to be an addict, so desperate he once puked up his methadone at a clinic and then got down on the ground to lap up the drug-soaked vomit. He's been a dealer. He's been jailed. He even got caught up in a bank robbery once.
His flock relates to him because he's been where they are, because he's done as much wrong in his life as they have in theirs, but more importantly because he's someone who found a way out of that hell. He's walked the walk. And because of that, he's earned their trust, earned his post as father of the wayward.
"When you get into crack and prostitution, anything goes," Upshur says. "A lot of these people will stuff people in trunks, kill people. I've had people confess murders in here. I've heard it all."
More people arrive. A homeless man. A woman one misstep away from being there. An old lady with a scowling face, muttering to herself.
The services begin right on time. But there's no prayer to start things off. No reading of the Bible. No sermon.
Instead, a high-tempo, old-time gospel song — "I Believe" by John P. Kee — blares from the stereo. And as the beat kicks in, everyone in the pews who had been sitting quietly suddenly gets up and starts clapping along. A few even dance.
Then the pastor says a few short words, but right away another song bursts out of the stereo, and the congregation is behaving like it's some kind of dance party. People who were living on the street or still are, people selling themselves there, people crippled by drug and drinking problems, are all dancing together, looking like they haven't had this kind of fun in years. It's an astonishing sight.
And just when it seems this can't possibly be the actual service, it turns out that's this is indeed how it goes at Peacemakers. Down here on Chene, going to Sunday service is almost like going to a party where, for a couple hours, the weight of everyone's troubled past falls away.
"It's just upbeat, you know?" Upshur says. "This isn't a dead place where everybody's sitting there. That ain't the way a church is supposed to be."
Chene Street is a disaster. The rows of burned-out storefronts between the empty blocks are reminders of how bustling it once was. But after the riot, after the freeway and an auto plant split the neighborhood in half, after everyone packed up and moved away, almost everything just died off.
Pouring into the void left behind were outcasts and cast-asides — junkies and drunks, hookers and drug dealers, the mentally ill and the physically disabled. Like a few other areas of the city, it became a refuge of the underclass, a home for everyone with nowhere else to go, where they can wander freely without being chased away by store owners, or told to move along by the cops.
"It's like the devil's playground," says John Simon, a minister here. "I mean, you got sexual acts in the middle of the day, shooting dope, smoking dope. Everything you can imagine is going on down here."
This is the world in which Peacemakers established itself in 1994. In many ways it's a typical inner-city, grass-roots church. The services are nondenominational and loose. And like any Christian ministry, the place seeks to create believers and followers in Jesus, though they give food and clothing to anyone who comes here, whether they profess a belief in God or not.
But something's happening here that draws the people who work or live on the streets outside. Just about every member swears that sometime after they came here, there was a moment when everything changed for them, when their addictions simply vanished. Whether what took place for them was spiritual or psychological, whether the catalyst was from inside or out, the simple program offered here, they say, helped alter their lives. It's not a 12-step program, more a strict combination of work, prayer and study that uses religious belief to shield against the temptation for an addict to return to their old life.
Maybe Peacemakers gives a template to people who've never had a code of behavior to guide them. Maybe some people just need a strict system of rules to follow. Either way, its members insist that this place works.
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