Reflections on the Motor City | KJ Mack

Thoughts from KJ Mack on our College Ministry’s trip to Detroit over Spring Break:



This was my destination for spring break. If that statement sounds like an oxymoron, that is probably because it is. Warm weather was nonexistent, there were no tropical beaches, and I was not staying in a luxury resort with scenic backdrops. Quite the opposite, actually. I became acquainted (somewhat) with a new type of cold, the closest thing to a beach I saw were the ice sheets flowing over the Great Lakes, and a children’s Sunday school room became my bedroom for a week. Nevertheless, my time in Detroit was without a doubt one of the best weeks I have ever had.

The motor city was where God decided to send our college ministry for spring break this year. Undoubtedly, God’s provision was evident every step of the way. He worked in and through each of us and stirred our hearts for His gospel in some incredible ways. Since coming back to Columbia, I cannot help but reflect upon the city and the people who captured a piece of my heart. Once again, God decided to shatter my expectations in the best way possible, and he used the city and people of Detroit to do it.

A Renewal of Perspective

Going into the week, I had a pretty vague idea of what to expect in Detroit. My conceptualization of the city was mainly a product of news coverage, cultural references, and snippets of history class.

However, it did not take long for that fragmented schema to be wrecked completely. My juvenile understanding of Detroit was quickly shattered and replaced with a sobering picture of reality. This was a picture that could only be acquired by seeing Detroit with my own two eyes. We walked the streets, we engaged the communities, we stood upon the ground trod by history, and we shared in the life of some of the people who call the city home.

In renewing my picture of Detroit, God also renewed my perspective…

It is one thing to know facts about poverty, but it is another thing to see the way it cripples individuals and communities firsthand.

It is one thing to read about racial discrimination, but it is another thing to stand five feet away from a wall built (legally) with the sole purpose of dividing communities among racial lines.

It is one thing to listen to discourse about economic inequality, it is another thing to travel less than a mile and observe the opposite extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum.

It is one thing to hear about the decline of a once vibrant city, it is another thing to gaze upon the dilapidated architecture, the empty factories, and the abandoned homes and businesses that characterize so many peoples’ daily experience.

It is one thing to be told about the need for the gospel in a city, it is another thing to witness firsthand the spiritual desolation, the hurt, the pain, the frustration, and the desire for hope and purpose to be found in something among so many people.

As I came face to face with all of these realities over the week, I was challenged to rethink the way I see myself, my personal ministry to others, and my community. I am beyond thankful that God opened my eyes the way He did.

My time in Detroit left me feeling convicted about how much of my own fortunate circumstance I often take for granted. Instead of constantly having a spirit of thanksgiving and praising God for His mercy and provision in my life, I often lament and complain about aspects of my life that some people would do anything to experience.

Furthermore, I was saddened and my heart was broken by the suffering and injustice I saw people subjected to as a way of life. You could not help but feel the desperation born from a sense of hopelessness and isolation in some of the communities. Moreover, I constantly heard frustrating stories of how those with the capacity to help and make a meaningful difference often took on the role of oppressor – choosing greed, selfish gain, and division over compassion, selflessness, and unity. It was a grim reminder of the dark reality of sin in this world, its infiltration of the human heart, and it’s damaging effects on individuals, relationships, and communities.

But, I was also reminded that if this is the reality of a fallen world, then how much greater is the need for those who are called children of God to stand up in contrast as salt and light in the darkness (Matt. 5:13-16). For those who know Christ, we have within us a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3). There is no darkness that Christ, the light of the world, cannot overcome. There is no situation or person that He cannot redeem for His glory and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

The people of God cannot be silent or passive when it comes to the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus did not just see the crowds of the harassed and helpless, but He also had compassion for them — compassion that acted on their behalf. He proclaimed the beautiful gospel of His coming kingdom and He healed their diseases and their afflictions (Matt. 9:35-36). He went to where the people were, and He ministered to both their physical needs and their ultimate spiritual need. By His grace, Christ offers us a picture of what His kingdom is about and sets our hope upon the promises of a good, faithful, righteous, and just God who will set all things right at His glorious return.

There is need all around us, but so often our hearts are hard, our focus is inward, and our eyes are closed. I do not need to be in Detroit to be about my Father’s business as it concerns loving people and addressing the more than evident lack of shalom in the different facets of my everyday life.

My neighbors who God calls me to love are with me every day. The real question is am I looking for them? Am I opening my heart wide to them when God puts them in my path. Am I willing to go out of my way to meet them where they are? Am I showing them the same measure of love that Jesus has for me? At any time, I must be willing to lay aside my own interests and pride to be an effective minister of the gospel – one who does not run away from the needs of others but meets them with joy.

As Christians, we need to be about our Father’s business in the same way Jesus was (John 6:38). God reminded me of this by graciously allowing me to garner a glimpse of the real Detroit.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A City Where Calvary Love Finds A Way

I cannot even begin to overstate the impact that the people we were able to serve alongside in Detroit had on me. As real as the troubling reality of the spiritual climate and physical condition of the city was, so also was the extraordinary reality of the Calvary standard of love that was on display. I heard the testimonies and had the incredible opportunity to walk alongside those faithful to Christ’s call on their lives in the motor city.

Indeed, their lives shone bright in the darkness and my heart was lifted by them. They embodied what it means to be a vessel of grace, never withholding that which was freely given and always willing to forsake comfort and convenience to be obedient for the sake of the gospel. As I heard their stories and saw the passionate lives they lived for Christ, I was reminded that the gospel was not just thrown at us, it came to live with us.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)

What an amazing picture of the love God has for us! He loves us so much that He would leave His throne of majesty to come dwell in our midst. The ministers and people we worked with made a point of not just helping communities in need, but serving them. This service is motivated by nothing but the love of Christ. It is surrender and it is a way of life. It is loving freely and without limit.

As I reflected on this, I could not help but think of all the times I have valued my own comfort over obedience to the gospel. I thought of all the times I have shied away from stepping out in courageous faith in favor of convenience. It is a complete and utter tragedy when people miss out on seeing Jesus – the real Jesus –  in us because of our selfishness. However, this is not what I saw from my brothers and sisters in Christ who call Detroit home – and praise God this was the case.

I was in awe of their faithfulness and willingness to go to the seemingly remote places God had called them – places that the world abandons and overlooks without a second thought. They reflected Christ in a powerful way by their devotion to His cause and the people He cares about so much. Their lives were a beautiful reminder that in the places where the world forsakes the hurting, the broken, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the outcasts, the worthless, and the “lost causes”, the gospel will charge forward full-steam ahead. It is in those places where those who desire a better country, that is a heavenly one, will overturn the world by living lives in which Calvary love is the standard (Heb. 11:16).

I am so blessed to have met amazing friends, both old and new, during my time in the motor city. You know who you are and you were more of an encouragement to me than you know. I am thankful to have you as fellow laborers for the gospel and I am praying for the work God will continue to do in and through you in Detroit.

Never Far From Home

My final reflection from the trip touches on a truth that I do not think we as Christians can be reminded of enough – we were created to live in community and fellowship with one another. As the week progressed and my heart was increasingly filled with joy serving alongside my friends and those who belonged to other churches, I began to realize something extraordinary. As a college ministry, we were far away from our church family back in Columbia, but we were still closer than ever to the household of God as we came to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Detroit.

There were so many moments during the trip where all I could do was stop, reflect, and praise God for the wonderful blessing of fellowship, camaraderie, and hospitality that characterized our interactions with one another…

We slept in Warren Woods Baptist Church and woke up on Sunday morning to warm hospitality and greetings from the church congregation as if we had been members there for years.

We were treated to AMAZING home-cooked meals from the members of Refuge Church and Auntie Na’s community who welcomed us into their doors with open arms and served us without hesitation.

We rode along the highways of Detroit in our passenger van, from destination to destination, singing to God (sometimes off-key) at the top of our lungs in unison.

We laughed together, we cried together, we studied God’s Word together, we played basketball late into the night, we served together, we got annoyed with one another, we listened to one another, we encouraged one another, we heard each other’s stories, we ate together, we prayed together, we worshiped together, we talked for hours, we compiled a running list of inside jokes, and we shared our hearts and love for God with one another.

We did all of these things together as a family of believers and my heart was exceedingly full. It was and is and will continue to be Christ who is at the center of it all. He called each of us and he brought us all together – each from different backgrounds, each having different gifts and personalities, each having different hobbies and interests, each with different strengths and weaknesses – and by His grace, He knits us together in beautiful harmony (Col. 2:2).

It is because of this reality that I never felt far from home while in Detroit. This may sound strange to the outside observer but as I stood in an old German Lutheran church in the inner city of Detroit this was my sentiment. I was laughing to the point of tears, eating great food, and doing life together with a community of amazing believers. Some were close friends from my ministry who I have known for years and others were from Refuge Church whom I had just met that day. Nevertheless, it felt like home all the same. I remember standing there thanking God for every person in that room and acknowledging that there was no other place I wanted to be in that moment. It was evident that the Spirit of God was dwelling richly among us as we lived life in communion with Him and one another.

If you have experienced the blessing of true Christian community then I am sure this sounds familiar. If not, then I urge you to seek it out and to fight to make it a reality. I hold this moment close to my heart because it has been through genuine Christian community that God has worked tremendously in my life; and it is also through genuine Christian community that God is using me to impact others for the sake of His gospel. I cannot overemphasize the importance of consistent fellowship and community in the life of any believer.

In Detroit, we truly did life together in a special way and the beauty is that it does not end there. It was in the motor city that I once again experienced the fullness of life and the joy that comes when my affections are loosed from the way of life that is antithetical to God’s life and isolated from the body of Christ. When Christ and His Church take hold of our affections we soar to heights we never thought imaginable. Indeed, the things of this world suddenly become strangely dim in comparison to the the glory of God and the life He has for us.

As I reflect on all these things, my heart continues to stir, my assumptions continue to be challenged, my spirit continues to be convicted. I am eager to apply what God taught me to my ministry here in Columbia, Blythewood, and wherever else He may lead me in the future.

There is so much more I could say but I think this will suffice. God is doing an awesome work in the motor city and I am thankful our ministry got to experience a taste of it.

Until next time, Detroit.

Rob Nicholes
Rob Nicholes