When those in need are right next door

by | Jun 26, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Thursday night, inside a huge, decaying Detroit church, two worlds were nudging each other like kids sharing a bed.

On one side was a movie set. A TV film was being shot of my book “Have A Little Faith,” and massive cameras, cranes and monitors – not to mention more than 100 workers, from actors to set designers – were clamoring about the sanctuary, applying makeup, erecting lights.

On the other side, inside the gym, some three dozen homeless men were bedding down for the night.

It could not have been more surreal. I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries on Brainard houses the homeless three nights a week, Thursday being one of those nights. And on this Thursday, the unshaven men in raggedy clothes didn’t care if huge trucks and giant lights were jamming the streets around the church. This was their routine. And they needed a place to sleep.

So they entered through the side door, as always, and they stepped aside for production assistants or prop guys or costume designers. The movie people went to the right, the homeless went to the left.

“How ya doing?” they said to each other.

And each side went about its business.

Reality check

This went on for several hours. The movie was shooting a joyous scene from the book – a celebration service. Big-name actors took their place alongside actual congregants of the church (the film is, admirably, using many real-life people on-screen). An organ played. A drummer kept a beat. The director yelled, “Action!” and an “Amen” chorus broke out.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, the homeless men dragged vinyl mats and lightweight blankets and placed them in rows on the gym floor.

I found myself wandering between the two scenes. They were separated only by a narrow vestibule. At one point, the movie had to reset all the cameras, and the workers spilled outside and grabbed food and drink from the catering tents and vans.

I had some, too. And then, in the middle of a bite, I had one of those moments. I had to remind myself to swallow. I wandered into the catering area, amidst shelves stacked high with snack food, and grabbed big boxes of Nutter Butters, Chips Ahoy and Twinkies.

And I went to the gym.

You can pretty much figure out the rest, including the gratitude of the men offered a midnight snack. “I’ll take a Twinkie.” “You got any Ho Hos?” “Thank you, man.” “God bless you, man.”

Out in the street, the movie makers were chewing quickly. Inside, the homeless were eating, too. Twenty minutes later, the crew returned to the sanctuary and the weary men lay down and closed their eyes.

It got noisy on the right.

It got quiet on the left.

Bridge the gap

The movie folks have been extremely generous to the church, paying a large rental fee, doing repairs, employing many congregants who would not otherwise see such paychecks. And they are sharing the church’s inspiring story with the world.

But there is something to be learned from that surreal moment Thursday night. I know it. I felt it the moment I was eating and they were not.

In many ways, our city is just a big scale version of that scene. Our haves and have-nots live so close to each other. The two sides of 8 Mile. The Grosse Pointe-Detroit border. Many of us need not go far to share the bounty of our lives with people less fortunate. And yet we rarely do.

We stick to our side. They stick to theirs.

It needn’t be that way. It’s actually pretty easy to share food with hungry people. It’s pretty easy to share your skills, your time, your talent. The hardest part is crossing between worlds. We are afraid. We are unsure. We don’t have the time. Or we tell ourselves we don’t.

I know it’s rarely as easy as walking from one side of a church to the other. But we can reach out to others over our normal boundaries. In a place called I Am My Brothers Keeper, it was fitting to witness the power of those words.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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