Transcript of an Interview with Rev. Robert McCathern
Joy Tabernacle Church, Flint, Michigan, February 19, 2022
You're listening to Radio Free Flint. Thank you for joining us today. We have Robert McCathern, who is from Joy Tabernacle and Flint. Welcome pastor.
Glad to be here and to be with you.
I appreciate you coming and joining me. Some of the research I did calls your church a hip urban church. How do you feel about that description?
Well, that is pretty accurate. We've had the ability to draw a lot of young people. We've been able through our program to work with many young men that most people would be afraid of or wouldn't put into the traditional church rim. So we've been able to work.
When people see our congregation see our programming, they're usually surprised by the audience that we serve.
The building is 85 years old.
Please fill us in on the church's location and place.
The church was the Community Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterians, the people who lived in the Civic Park neighborhood, started the church. They stayed there till the families dwindled from that area to the change—the young people kind of left. So, a small congregation of elderly people, mostly 70 and 80, held on as long as they could.
Then, we got together, and they passed the torch for community development to us. This kind of describes the spirit we still have for that community is about the 85-year-old spirit that we stiCommunityor in the Civic Park neighborhood.
They did a lot of things; however, they did give some of the homes to residents in their area. So, there was a connection with the church (and the neighborhood). It was there before us. That helped build our relationship with the community. But many of them already had a relationship with the community, which was quite ironic.
These (people) were 70- and 80-years-old who were never bothered by the change in the neighborhood. When we got there, many of the windows in the church were not locked. This was when there was so much vandalism around the church. But nobody ever bothered the church because of the Community Presbyterian relationship with the neighborhood.
Going back even further, the neighborhood has quite a history. Its history dates to Charles Stewart Mott and the (beginning of) General Motors Corporation.
It does, it does. Those families are the families that were the first owners of the homes. There was a railroad that, believe it or not, where the medians are, there was a railroad that came through there. They built a planned neighborhood (subdivision), one of the first in the country. They built the whole neighborhood in less than three years. Don't quote me on the exact time (to build it). But it was one of the first major ventures of the country in building subdivisions. It was almost like a prefabricated situation.
Mott needed housing because there were people coming and flooding Flint. They were living in shanty towns outside of Buick. They needed housing for the people who were working in the factory. Your neighborhood became one of the first neighborhoods that were put together. It gave Flint to feel like a company town.
We just celebrated the centennial, the 100-year centennial of Civic Park. We have redeveloped a 5-year plan. The first 100 years (have passed), and we're defining the next 100 years in terms of developing the area.
We have what is known as Ubuntu Village, which encompasses African and philosophical principles. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, the neighborhood defined who we were and who we are.
So, we're trying to build a philosophical framework for the redevelopment of a neighborhood-based back on the principles of neighbor to neighbor. The Ubuntu word means I am because you are. So, we're trying to redevelop that. (It's) very similar to the Community Schools concept that used to be in Flint. (It's) very similar to that cohesiveness of the community we're trying to redevelop in Civic Park. We've been pretty successful in bringing people in.
Arthur A. Busch
It is looking at building a multicultural community, which is what it sounds like.
Absolutely. Not only cultural, but that draws in businesses (once) again. There is a corridor at Welch Street that we're looking at. It could be one of the strongest African American business sectors down Chevrolet Avenue in the Welch Street area.
There are a lot of abandoned, still usable businesses there. So, we've also been talking with people about reinvestment in that area. They've had a lot of demolitions to redefine Civic Park.
So, we're looking at how we could make a difference in that neighborhood as a model for all the neighborhoods to invest in. So, it's a pilot project through the Ruth Mott Foundation. We are a community hub, considered a Ruth Mott Foundation community hub.
You came from another city to come to Flint. Tell us about why you came to Flint and why you stayed.
I came to Flint. I had preached periodically here (Flint) as we talked about some of the elder voices, Rev Pointer and Rev Aldridge, and other preachers. I used to come as a boy with my pastor, who had a lot of friends here.
But over the years, I continued to come and preach in some of the congregations. Get off the interstate, go to the church, and get back on the interstate. I had never ridden around or known many people in Flint.
When I returned from vacation, one of the pastors asked me to preach. I did. He asked me if I could stay. I was taking a month off from work and doing consulting work in Racine, Wisconsin, then. So, I agreed. Then I found out that he had resigned from the church and had some problems. So, the church asked me if I would serve as interim (pastor).
So, the people I was working with... I was doing consultant work from Racine. But I was doing it from here (Flint). I decided to stay at the church. They asked me if I would become their pastor. I had not planned to pastor again and just continue to do social work. But I re-considered it, and nine months later, it didn't turn out to be what they stated it to be.
A group of people asked me if I would come (start a new church), and so we started at the YWCA. Our first baptisms were at the YWCA. A lot of transit people would come to our services. So, it started then defining our social perspective of knowing Flint. But then I had a learning curve. I had to learn Flint, learn the wounds of Flint, and learn all about Flint.
I learned a lot from young people's perspectives of how they saw Flint and how their lives had been traumatized. The effects and there are so many different effects of Ritalin. Being around many cities, I have never experienced nor knew a population to experience what the city of Flint had experienced.
Your church started meeting at the YWCA.
You were doing baptisms your first year in the swimming pool at the YWCA.
That is a long way from the river Jordan. You started with a core of people that you had left. You are a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. That is in Nashville, isn't it?
That is in Nashville. Yes.
You had pastored other churches before you came to Flint.
Yes, yes. My first church was 50 miles outside of Nashville. It was the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chestnut Mountain, Tennessee.
After you came to Flint, what was it that drew you to stay?
What drew me to stay in Flint was such a dire need. Particularly (a need) for help, as I said, humanitarian (help). I had never seen in my lifetime the infliction of the soul that I experienced here—people who had never seen people come home from work in their lives. Our young people had never seen that. Young people who had been on Ritalin then dropped off a Class C drug.
I started learning the dynamics of a city with a class system. General Motors workers were the richer, and those who never made it into General Motors were another class. So, it was very similar to patterns I experienced in Africa regarding class systems.
As I said, there was a learning curve, relearning everything I knew about social work and about Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. I had to relearn and redefine it to be able to do real and effective ministry.
Now you have traveled across the globe to places like Brazil and Africa to do work. Tell us about that.
Yeah, it was a rich experience. My first journey was to Nairobi, Kenya. It was a life-changing experience. I had never been to Africa, and it excited my DNA. I knew I was home. It was like when I was young, going down to south Tennessee. That is where my family roots are in Lebanon, TN, about 30-40 miles outside of Nashville. But it (Africa) was like going home for the first time. It was just, once again, another learning curve.
We work hard now to bring a lot that I learned in Africa, philosophically, communally, and tribal, back to Civic Park and the Flint area. It has turned out to be successful.
I think when we lost the cohesiveness to an integration. (This) during times when we lost concentration in the neighborhood. I believe that we're not effective as a community because we lost the power of the neighborhood. The neighborhood creates community. That combines all neighborhoods when you lose (a sense of) neighborhood. We have a problem getting people to community health because we skipped over the neighborhood community.
I'm probably changing the subject.
That is the subject right there. The neighborhood, what happened to them? You've just explained a part of it. What does it take to fix? Is this the question? Can it be fixed? And if it can be fixed, what does it take to fix the neighborhoods?
It can be fixed. Part of the fixing we're working on is in Ubuntu Village, which is once again philosophical. Ubuntu means I am because you are. That is that humanitarian connectedness we've lost as a community and as a neighborhood. We have community health, we have a community focus, but we lost that (sense of) neighborhood.
It takes a village; it takes a neighborhood to raise a child. We lost the village concept of raising children, being accountable, and being humanitarian.
There is something that Mark Odom once wrote. I think that's his name. It's what I quote a lot. It says, "He drew a circle to shut me out, heretic rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that took him in." That is Maslow's hierarchy of human needs.
I always tell people why they see graffiti on the walls because somewhere we missed them being able to self-actualize or see themselves accomplished in our social settings. So, they are creating their subculture. This is why you see the saggy pants and the white T-shirts. We excluded them from academics, football, coaches, and things they needed to make a neighborhood and a community. So, they created a subculture.
Because everyone has to have the theory of human needs and self-actualization, if I can't get it in your setting, I re-create my own. So that goes back to why we're rebuilding our neighborhoods to give people a sense of self-actualization in their setting.
Your neighborhood isn't exactly in the south part of Flint or the north end. It's the more west side. Those neighborhoods are probably gone forever. Some have passed on, aren't they? But they (people) are going to want to recreate that.
Exactly. That is part of why we're working with the Ubuntu Village. When Black people migrated to Flint, they lived in their areas because of segregation.
But there were strong families in those areas, which still resemble that today. They all know each other. They know their roots. They know their family roots. It was uprooted. It left a tremendous void in (Flint) regarding collective power, economic power, power of people, and collective power of Black America. I always say that the poor parents came here thinking it was a promised land. That has turned into a wasteland.
You asked me why I work here. It's because what was supposed to be a promised land for many African American families has become a wasteland for their descendants. They would turn in their graves if they knew what happened here. Coupled with the poisoning of the water, that's where my heart is for the people here.
As I said, human suffering here (Flint) is greater than I've seen anywhere. It is concentrated. Back in the day, they put the kids on Ritalin, many of them. That's a Class C drug. So, weed smoking is just self-medication. It's just a vicious cycle; it takes a humanitarian effort, heart, and commitment to bring back Flint. It can't just be from building buildings. It can't be just redeveloping homes. We've got to redevelop lives.
One thing that is hip about your project is that it's multiracial. The people you're trying to connect with are not just African American people. They're white people too. Your statement about what their grandparents could see that has happened (in Flint) applies equally to many southern migrants from Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri, as my family did. Then only to see the promised land turned into something that wasn't so promising,
So, this is a problem throughout the community.
That's why I qualified a humanitarian reference for it. You're absolutely right. It's a humanitarian injustice, with all the many factors that happened here. We have a strong relationship with the Central Nazarene Church and the community churches. Through the water crisis, we joined in many ways and many projects.
But I see, particularly in the last two years, that pulling back from mainstream society and recreating a system of actualization is the best way I can put it, even with Christian nationalism. And again, it's people who feel left out of a system.
You came to Flint. You saw the community in tremendous need, and that's your game. That's what you felt you could best contribute to the area. You started this little church. Eventually, you ended up in Civic Park.
Then you started programming. But beforCommunity the Civic Park, you ended up in a building. I believe it was on Hamilton Street.
And next door to New Paths, which is a rehab center. It was also where the county would take and put people instead of keeping them in jail. They (the county) could put them there. They (inmates) would get treatment for a lot of different problems. You ended up next door to that place.
It was definitely by the divine, I call it. You called it a chance. I call it divine orchestration because God told me to go out and engage my neighbors, and I walked out. And I said, there are no neighbors. He told me to look at Job Corp behind and New Paths, so I did.
I went and talked to the director there. I talked to a lady who was there as a consultant. She connected me with the director, who is still the director now. They allowed their clients to come out on Sundays. Sometimes we have 30 or 40 young people who would come along with them with their families.
So, I began to recognize his three and four generations are unchurched people in Flint. We start having meetings for them every Friday. We worked with them. Many of them are still a part of our ministry.
It started changing the dynamics that made us the hip-hop church. Many of them followed us. Many of their families followed us to our new location.
The new locations, oh my God, there were shootouts in the parking lot. It was so crime-ridden when we went there. But many of those young people were the ones that have now helped to rebuild the neighborhood. They own homes there. They're reinvesting in the neighborhood.
The young men to get work were living in their cars. They were living in all kinds of circumstances, trying to get employed. These kids had never seen anybody come home from work for a couple of generations. This was when Flint went into the scrapping. There were no jobs. So, it was that period when there were no jobs here.
Well, we raised generations with no work ethic. And so, we had to build a work ethic (by teaching) continuity in coming to work, how to come to work. We defined our programs based on what was needed in the community. We didn't come and bring programs to fix the community. We assessed what was needed.
The University of Michigan said they would walk with us for ten years in helping us. So, we have social work classes that meet independently before COVID. They would meet asCommunitylasses and with health interns. We have internsCommunity University of Michigan and from Wayne State University.
Through the Porch Flint Project, a Nazarene church program, we had 30,40, and 50 kids who would do their summer work. These were white kids from all over. It reconfigured and redefined the Civic Park neighborhood.
So, it is a different neighborhood. It does embrace all races now. We have white families moving back into the area and Black professional families moving back.
What makes our work show real and effective to young people is, they always say, real recognizes real. It's that soul approach. That is the missing frontier. You can't reach them by their head. They have too many skills and resistance to change. But you can reach them by the human spirit. That is universal. That's a humanitarian way. We seem to have become so academic and so programmatic that we forget we're working with human beings, humanity. That is the same anywhere you go.
You have worked with kids in other communities, including Little Rock, Arkansas, Racine, Wisconsin, and Flint. What is it about Flint that makes you think that we can take gangs and dismantle them?
Well, it's... He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic rebel a thing to flout. But love and I had the strategy and approach to win. We drew a circle. We put programs that brought them back into the mainstream circle.
The University of Michigan is a good example. Young people who had not finished school were invited to meetings at the university. So, one day, one young man who hadn't finished school was going to a meeting with me, and he had a briefcase. And I said, where are you going with your briefcase? He said I'm going to the university.
We've been working on reconnecting those young people. Some of them have gone back and got their degrees. Some of them have gone to the University of Michigan. The students were coming, and their familiarity with the neighborhood has inspired many young people to go back to school to make changes in their lives.
The human problem is not as complicated as we make it. When we realize basic values such as "do on the others as you have them to do," thou shall not kill is basic civility. We got to just get back to the basics.
You have a center operated by your church called the Urban Renaissance Center. And you have a bunch of partners in this project. Who are those partners? Why do they give you some hope of addressing some of these deep-seated problems in the community?
The partners are the Genesee County Land Bank. We partnered with them to get many of the demolitions in Civic Park. It is historical, so it's federally protected. You couldn't tear them down. We worked hard—one of the first in the nation to getCommunityroved. Many of the houses had lost their historical integrity. So that allowed them to be taken down.
We worked with, of course, the City of Flint. We've worked with Margaret Kato at Habitat for Humanity. We worked with a lot of people.
When we first got there, they kept staying, not yet. There are no plans for that area. But I kept seeing abandonment and retired people who had retired from General Motors, looking across the street at nothing but abandoned housing. I knew that was not fair. That was not right. That's not the way I had grown up. That's not American to me.
So, we started doing fabricated windows and doors and covering the houses. That's when the Wesleyan churches helped us do 1000 boarded-up houses. A lot of attention came back to Civic Park.
We did corridors. So, we would do the outsides of Hamilton and Chevrolet streets. And people would say, oh boy, look at the neighborhood. It's coming back. But what it is, most people can't see beyond abandonment.
So, we started fixing up, doing landscaping, boarding up and painting houses, painting doors, and taking care of the young people and the neighborhood. So, with that, we generated partners with so many others.
The University of Michigan wanted to work in the community. So, we had a meeting. As I said, they've been working and partnering with us. We did asset mapping to see the neighborhood's value beyond the blight. From there, we started working and teaching the neighborhood how to see the good in the neighborhood.
Arthur A. BuCommunityuch of Flint and its resuscitation is a matter of assets or lack of them versus how people perceive their city.
Flint is rich in assets. The Civic Park is rich, and there are parks and forests there. The way people perceive their city...
If they perceive their city as something that's abandoned and torn apart, is that a handicap to try to do what you're doing?
No, because when young people are included back in the process, they become protectors in the neighborhood. Vandalism and scrapping and all those things have gone down drastically.
It's because now, when you ride by, you see young people from the neighborhood working, cleaning the neighborhood. You see other people coming out to see people you never met before and giving water to these young people.
They used to terrorize the neighborhood. They put down hammers. I mean, they put down guns and picked up hammers. And that's possible in every neighborhood.
Be willing to work with people. I've been crying out. This can happen, and be willing to share our strategic approaches. Dan Kildee, the Congressman, has come back many times to the neighborhood where he grew up. He walked the streets with us. He met with a lot of the young people there. The mayor comes frequently and walks the streets with us.
It's doable. You don't have to know social work if we have an army of humanitarians. You just got to value people over property. I think that's what happened. We lost the value of people amid prosperity and amid General Motors. We lost the most valuable thing we had in the community, the neighborhood, the value of people, and our young people.
Most older people don't like young people anymore. I had never heard of it before. They're scared of them. We lost that connection, and a lot of that was lost. As you said, they uprooted neighborhoods. Whether we're talking about the African community or the Eastside of Flint, we lost the neighborhoods.
We lost the grandparents. I preach Sunday that what's missing is the elder voice. There is no elder voice for young people. There is no connection between them with the voice of wisdom anymore. They're on their own. Rap has become their teacher.
There is no connectedness to the family. We have young people who we meet who have never set out at a kitchen table to eat with the family in their life. Unheard of, but that is becoming the norm, not a rare situation.
Pastor. Some people think the answer is more police.
Well, you build the wall. They just learn how to get over it. They just learn how to over it. They strategically figure out how to get over it. That's why I talked about reaching the soul level. These kids have run from the police and fought with the police. Their minds are so strong that you will not break or penetrate their minds. They're built for survival.
But their hearts are still, and that's where "Beyond their Faces," the book I talked about, the boy inside, is still there. He hid because of traumatization. He hid because of all of what happened in Flint with deindustrialization. All the things that happened here have affected people.
But the human spirit is very resilient. When people talk about resiliency, I think you said 98% told you that Flint people are resilient. It's that spiritual part that's still there. That spirit of living can still be ignited or re-ignited and go forward. We use those values in the civic part, and it's working.
How is it affected by the water crisis? Personally, how is it affected you?
It has affected our church. There are many impairments of hearing. I instantly saw a difference in the children, their hyperactivity.
It has affected me, which is not public knowledge, but it is now. I have Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that can come from contaminated water. I just had a stem cell transplant in April. It has affected (me) if it's from the water, I don't know. You never know. But it can come from the chemicals in the water and can cause multiple Myeloma, which is not curable. It's only treatable. So that's how it affected me personally, but it's affected our church. I see the difference.
When Covid came, the government said the health department drank the water. The government drinks the water, so the hardest thing now is to get these people who were betrayed in the water crisis to trust the process of COVID.
Do you trust the government?
I trust God. It's so crazy now in this world that I don't trust the government. I have to trust that God will help me to come up with the best solution for people right now. They are caught in a government breaking down in front of our faces. A government that doesn't know from one day to the next what it will tell us. Those people come to me. That community comes to me for direction. Where do we go from here? What do we do?
I've never experienced in 50 years of ministry anything that my parishioners are going through. I would have never thought America would be where it is right now.
Do you trust the water today?
No, I still have problems wherever I go in the country drinking water. I still have trouble drinking watCommunitye trouble drinking bottled water because they say it can also affect you in the long term.
This is a humanitarian injustice beyond anything that I know.
And you're determined to fix some of it.
You have to, and we were created for good works. That's what everybody's got to turn around. There's a thing that says to brighten the corner where you are. They put us on Chevrolet and Dayton on the corner. And so, we're going to brighten the corner where we are. That's our self-actualization. Our contribution to working is to be a light in the darkness.
The Community Presbyterian Church, for 80-something years, was committed to that neighborhood. For the first 100 years, it is where it is. For the next 100 years, we have a front seat in helping to make a difference.
We acquired much of the Genesee County Landbank property to build an agricultural and self-sustaining neighborhood. We got 2.5 acres that we're working on. We have an agricultural house where we're working to bring agriculture and teach people how to preserve.
Most young people don't even know how to cook. They don't know. Kids eat all kinds of potato chips for breakfast. We need a lot of work in Flint.
There is a resiliency, as you said, that I've never found anywhere as I found in Flint. That is one aspect of resiliency. People are making it. People are determined to make it, but that's fast eroding with the next generation. It's because the neighborhood is, in most areas, totally gone.
So, these kids are coming up now with no governance, no rules, and no respect for civility. That's the next generation of 12, 13, and 14-year-old kids who are the kids that we got to reach. They will be a problem to handle if we don't do what we should do as a society; that's, raise our children instead of letting them raise themselves.
Pastor Robert McCarron. I appreciate all that you've done for Flint. I appreciate that you've taken your time to appear on Radio Free Flint to tell us about all the good things you have been working on and share your hopes and dreams for the future. You are what I would call a Great American. Thank you.