MOSES leads the way in Detroit

Churchgoers believe that building a mass transit system could save the Motor City. But how will they get to that promised land?

A group of churchgoers in Detroit say they are fighting to save the soul of their city, and they won't be easily swayed from their mission. So far they have helped get drug dealers off the streets, and they persuaded the city to reopen a long-closed city swimming pool.

Now these believers are engaged in their biggest fight yet – trying to bring the first regional mass transit system to the Motor City. But they aren't relying on just prayers to get the job done. They're relying on MOSES.

Humble beginnings

MOSES stands for Metropolitan Organizing Strategies Enabling Strength. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that teaches lay and clerical leaders how to organize people and/or raise money in order to influence public policy, says Bill O'Brien, executive director of the organization, which includes more than 70 congregations and synagogues.

"The effects of empowering people can be seen readily," says Mr. O'Brien. People who used to whine about crack houses, the lack of youth services, and racism are now becoming influential community organizers determined toheal these ills.

He cites how one woman arranged a meeting of 100 people with the county sheriff to ask him to investigate crack houses in their neighborhood. Lay leaders in a predominantly Hispanic Roman Catholic parish near downtown Detroit recruited 150 people to stay after Mass on a Sunday before the city election in order to get the mayoral candidates to promise to improve their neighborhood.

There have been larger victories as well.

In 1996, MOSES-trained organizers gathered 3,000 people for a meeting with then-US Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, who was in charge of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a nationally funded program to prevent the distribution of drugs and to treat people with drug addictions. Detroit had initially been overlooked as a beneficiary of the program. But as a result of the meeting, Detroit received $10 million in funding.

Congregation-centered organizing began in 1987 when a group of 14 interfaith churches came together to work toward reopening a city swimming pool. The pool, built in the 1930s, had been condemned because of boiler problems. The group's research showed that the state would provide a $750,000 grant if the city contributed $250,000.

Until then, the city had balked at the cost of reopening the pool. Once citizens pushed the issue, the city came up with its share of the money. The pool has been open ever since.

This original organizing group – a precursor to MOSES – acted more like a social work agency, except that members were all churchgoers. Their main concern was to find ways to stabilize communities.

The group realized that many neighborhood problems stemmed from concentrated poverty that had political, economic, and social implications involving the whole city. So they turned to the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago, which trains community leaders to build stable and effective institutionally based organizations.

MOSES was founded in 1998, when several groups trained by the Gamaliel Foundation combined to form one citywide organization.

MOSES helps participants learn to take responsibility and stand up for a civil society, says O'Brien. Transience in our society makes relationships more difficult. But MOSES "equips leaders with the skills and social experiences that maximize their impact on the public arena" and help them grow in "self-confidence and political skills and wisdom," he says.

O'Brien considers this approach to be empowering and well within the group's mission of building relationships and community.

But should building a mass transit system be part of their mission, too?

MOSES members say yes. Detroit is the only major US city that does not have a mass transit system, and this affects every aspect of community life.

To achieve this goal, MOSES has collected $300,000 from various foundations, individual contributors, and its growing membership to extend its organizing network statewide. The group collects and interprets data on land use and trains congregational leaders in both the city and its suburbs.

"MOSES is not just about 'those black people' in Detroit," says O'Brien, who is conscious of the area's many racial stigmas.

He believes that what is good for poor minorities is good for middle-class whites as well. But little of what is happening in Detroit is good for either group.

The Motor City, which witnessed one of the highest levels of manufacturing and wealth during the first half of the last century, is now stuck in traffic congestion and an urban sprawl that have negatively affected the whole area.

Over the past 50 years, the majority of white residents has moved to the suburbs. Many jobs – and 69 percent of the office space – have moved out of the city as well. A third of Detroit's residents do not own cars and can't find reliable transportation to the suburbs to take advantage of jobs and shopping. And because tax revenue has left Detroit, the quality of Motor City schools has declined, too.

But how does this affect people in the suburbs?

The Rev. Stephen Jones is pastor of First Baptist Church in Birmingham, a Detroit suburb that is home to high-income executives of the automobile companies. For him, urban sprawl means more time spent commuting and more- polluted skies. He cites statistics that in 1999 Americans spent 40 hours a year stopped in traffic.

"That's an entire work week, and it is a bad stewardship of time," he says.

It is also a poor use of money, he adds, since it costs $7,000-$8,000 annually to operate and maintain a car, and many families need more than one car to carry on their everyday business.

More work to be done

MOSES members clearly have their work cut out for them. City and suburban residents, split along racial and economic lines, have long viewed issues as "their problem, not ours." But already there has been great progress as people are beginning to see that by working together, everybody wins.

"People are able to build community when they understand that their destinies are intertwined," says O'Brien.

So far, MOSES has helped organize community church groups in Kalamazoo and Saginaw and has received inquiries from the Grand Rapids/Muskegon/Holland area about starting similar groups there. They have also held thousands of informal one-on-one meetings with suburban homeowners.

Still, the prospect of mass transit for the Detroit area is often regarded as outright heresy. After all, Michigan has a "roads first" policy. State law stipulates that only 10 percent of the revenue collected from motor fuel taxes – $1.8 billion last year – may be spent on public transit.

Currently, however, only 8 percent is being used for this purpose. And because Detroit does not have a mass transit system, the city has been losing $100 million each year in federal monies that are appropriated through the 3-cent tax on each gallon of gasoline.

The group's most recent effort to influence the transportation debate came last month, when 5,000 members converged at the Greater Grace Temple to meet with gubernatorial and congressional candidates. MOSES members want them to support the building and operation of a new mass transit system and to bring home federal transportation monies to help fund it.

They also want the state to restore the full 10 percent of state gas tax revenue to the public transportation budget, and they ask that 90 percent of Michigan's infrastructure budget be devoted to fixing existing projects, limiting new projects to 10 percent.

But while MOSES members remain hopeful, they know their battle is far from over. Mr. Jones says that convincing people of the economic advantages of mass transit isn't enough.

It's true, he says, that the state would save money. According to his calculations, mass transit would cost about $2,000 a year per family, including taxes and use, as opposed to $80 million per mile to build new freeways.

But change, he says, will be dependent on those who are "stirred by their conscience" to fight against what MOSES sees as the moral injustices of urban sprawl.

"God calls us to use our time in creative and redemptive ways, to go out and make a difference," he says. "We could use that time to tutor kids in trouble, spend time with our families and spouses. Traffic congestion is a stupid use of time."

MOSES's O'Brien would probably agree with those sentiments because he wants Detroiters to rebuild the strong communities they had before greater mobility, sprawl, and poor race relations separated them.

"The secret of success is bringing others in the same room," he says. "How big is the room? Larger than we thought because it has the cities, suburbs, and farms in it. Now the question is how big of a community can we create?"

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