This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a feature about folks who have begun investing in Detroit. They’re bringing skills and business ambition, cooperating to create infrastructures that will meet their immediate needs. They’re employing Detroiters and, by virtue of their presence, providing some support for what’s left of Detroit’s former social structure.
So far as I can tell — Scott Wells and Patrick Murfin are going to have to check me on this — when Unitarians left New England in the 19th century to pioneer new lives in new places, many of them also innovated religiously, whereas Universalists tended to be more nostalgic. But I write here ONLY about Unitarians, because my knowledge of Universalist history is limited to its institutional leavings. Folks like Barbara Coeyman are daily confounding old stereotypes, so I dare not claim this applies to both denominational parents. My expertise, such as it is, covers only Unitarians.
Unitarian church plants — official attempts to replicate new England congregations and liturgy — succeeded in a few places, but only as the new cities matured. When Samuel Atkins Eliot, fresh out of seminary, arrived in Denver to plant the Unitarian flag, he spent most of his energy of water systems, schools, denominational start-ups in towns with even fewer assets than could be found in Denver. (Note: Politywonk spent her childhood in the foothills outside Denver, and the roads were still abuilding even then.) Eliot departed this situation and left a void: his style of religion had no place amongst the hardscrabble.
Half a century earlier, the same thing had happened in the Great Lakes region, but with more success. There the sort of Unitarians who ventured into nascent cities had less affection for old religious forms, but managed to organize new ones. For the entire seventy-five years of its existence, the Western Conference grated and festered as a thorn in the side of Boston’s cultural homogenizers. Issues that began in 1867 — class concerns about polity structures, the role of God (if any), individualism versus congregationalism — were carried forward most strongly out of Chicago, and not completely resolved until almost one hundred years later, when the last individual member of the American Unitarian Association went to their grave, and we became an “Association of Congregations.”
After leaving Arvada, Politywonk became a Unitarian Universalist in Cincinnati and still has family and friends in the Heartland. Politywonk now lives in Vermont, an area where Universalism developed more along Western Conference lines, due, again, to harsh winters, widespread homesteads, and an inability to float on top of financial bubbles. So Politywonk is well aware that calling for a relocation to Detroit means far more than cheaper real estate prices. To snap up Detroit real estate now — which might make more sense, given the “unexpected” deficit in our denominational budget — is to enter a realm finding on-the-ground answers to the issues our Boston-based denomination has spectacularly failed to conquer. How to connect with Free Range believers. How to balance public witness and pastoral presence. How to speak to a generation of young adults growing up with none of the optimistic abundance that made our religion so relevant to the post-World War II era. How to present established denominational theological heritage as a range of well-developed options rather than a single, piercing laser.
Detroit is the place where the 20th century has failed with its most jaw-dropping drama. And if there is one thing that unites UUs — from the most Christian of us at King’s Chapel to the most radically individualist lurkers on Facebook and CLF — it is that we object to what the 20th century tried to do. So why are we sticking on the East Coast, with bitchers and moaners stuck in 20th century polarities? Detroit has replaced Silicon Valley as the place where pioneers will create the real 21st century. Religion is about creating new worlds out of old chaos: let’s pull up our stakes and get busy.