A bank-robbing preacher leads a flock of addicts and hookers straight out of Detroit's gutters
Published: January 26, 2011
A whole system has evolved to support them, a virtual safety net in a neighborhood that never really had one. The church operates halfway houses for ex-cons and ex-prostitutes, set up gardens for flowers and vegetables, and keeps a chicken coop for eggs. It all goes to the neighborhood. And every day they give out food and clothes.
This place is often the last resort for neighborhood people whose choices or circumstances left them living on the lowest rungs. The program offered here is powerful and appealing because it's so simple.
"The main thing is a sincere desire to find God and get your life together, and a willingness to stick to the rules," says Jeremiah Upshur, the pastor's 32-year-old son.
Those rules require members to be sober, to pray together and to participate in helping the poor by feeding, clothing and working to get them off the streets. But a stated belief in Jesus is not enough to stay here. They have to demonstrate those convictions with the people of Chene Street.
"It's a hard ministry. The hardest thing that I've ever done in my entire life is to be a Christian," Simon says of the work involved. "But it's the most fulfilling."
After Peacemakers opened, the street people out front saw their old friends suddenly sober, talking about this crazy church that's feeding and clothing them and helping them get clean, even if sometimes it doesn't last, and they began showing up out of curiosity. Soon, its reputation took on a life of its own, and strange things started happening.
"We would have fires in this giant fire pit back there, and people would be coming in, throwing their syringes in, throwing their crack pipes in, just giving it all up," Simon says. "It was mind-blowing."
The pastor got here the long, hard way. He was a juvenile delinquent who became a teenage heroin addict. Petty crimes grew into bigger ones until he found himself nodding off at the wheel of a bank robbery getaway car one afternoon in the early '70s in Detroit's suburbs, just as the cops swarmed in. He barely escaped lengthy prison time for it.
He fled Detroit but kept his lifestyle. While in an Oklahoma jail in the early '70s for some minor offense, an inmate told him these born-again Christians had a place nearby, and they could be easily suckered into giving you food and shelter. "So I'm thinking, 'Well, go get me a sandwich; I'll go hustle them for a sandwich,'" Upshur says.
But he was drawn in by their approach. "These people are talking to Jesus like he's their buddy, and I grew up you'd have to probably be a priest or a nun to be talking firsthand to the main man," says Upshur, who was raised Catholic. "I'm thinking this is deep. All of a sudden — boom! — this spiritual world opens up. I'm like, 'You gotta be kidding me.'"
He was so inspired, he came back to Detroit at 25 years old, determined to stay clean, and started holding informal prayer meetings at a house next to his parents' home to talk about spirituality or God or whatever anyone wanted. At the first gathering, his audience was a bunch of teenagers who came less to hear another born-again and more to see the crazy bank robber. A week later, he had 35 kids there. Soon after, adults started showing up too.
The group kept growing and went from a house to an old, unused church in Detroit, and eventually to a church in St. Clair Shores with three pastors and a large middle-class congregation. Upshur preached out there for 16 years.
But he felt the pull of skid row. "That's always where my heart was, 'cause I come out of that," he says. "I grew up in the inner city, I've been homeless many of the years of my life, been in and out of jail all my life, a very rough life. Those were my main people that I grew up with. So when I got, quote, 'saved,' I knew I'd be back working with people that come out of my environment."
A woman in the suburban church offered him a small old building on Chene that she owned, and he began his ministry in one of the city's most miserable, drug-addled neighborhoods. "We take people who everybody else has given up on," Bob Kaczmarek says. He's a board member of the church, 64, a Catholic, a well-dressed attorney. He attends services elsewhere, but was so impressed by Peacemakers and its ragged flock he became involved.
"This is it," he says. "For some of the people who are in the in-house programs, this is their last chance. And if they don't make it here, then you find out they're found dead somewhere."
There have to be at least 100 stuffed animals inside the bedrooms at the Mercy House.
Several women stay here right now, at the Peacemakers' halfway house for those trying to escape a life of prostitution and drugs, or battered women trying to escape a violent man. Blocks away, there's a halfway house for men out of prison, off the streets, just off drugs.
What's striking about the women's house are the delicate, feminine, almost child-like touches. Though the women here have led hard lives, there's pink and softness everywhere — on the stuffed animals, in the decorations on the walls, on the clothes inside the closets. It's as if the women here are trying to reclaim an innocence they lost years ago. Denise Benn walks into her bedroom, bounces onto her bed and grabs a blue stuffed dog. "I got this puppy I took care of right before I came in here, and it made me feel young again, 'cause I could take care of something," the 43-year-old says, hugging it.
Benn's history is written on her face. Her story is like one many of the women here tell. Her life collapsed at 12, she says, when she was gang raped by six men on the way to school. Soon after, she started doing drugs to bury the trauma, hanging out with the dropouts and the druggies because they were nicer to her than anyone else.
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