Midwest OYO Detroit
Midwest Region Teen SOYO Orthodox Outreach (OYO) Detroit, MI
Joshua D. Paletta – Youth Minister
The Basilica of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church
Unto the Least of These
The decision for this year’s Midwest Spring Delegates Meeting community service project started as an honorable gesture to gather all organizations, AOCWNA, St. John the Divine, and Teen SOYO into one project. The original idea was to come together at the Basilica of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Livonia, Michigan and assemble baskets of various supplies. These baskets consisted of food, toiletries, and baby supplies for needy families of the Detroit Metropolitan area. However, something just didn’t sit right in the heart of Christa Shalhoub, this year’s Spring Delegate Chairperson. She thought that though this unifying gesture was unique and positive, it was not challenging enough alone in light of the tradition of the Midwest community service projects of the past. And challenging it was about to become.
Christa contacted a local non-profit organization called Motor City Blight Busters that helped the city of Detroit transform battered buildings and houses into blessings for families of low income. Many times their gift had been just to simply tear the house down so as to remove the dangers of an abandoned property. We were then invited to help in a brand new project of this nature in the depths of the city of Detroit.
The directions to the location were clear, but yet so vague. There was no name on the building to look for, there was also no address given, just an approximate location and some clues on how to identify the right place.
As one o’clock neared, approximately 100 Midwest Teen SOYO members loaded up into 15 vehicles and headed down nearly 15 miles of the now infamous 8 Mile Road which took us to the heart of the city of Detroit. Just a couple miles from Comerica Park, Joe Louis Arena, and the Renaissance Center of Detroit, we exhausted the clues on our map and assumed we had found our location. As I lead the caravan of vehicles into an adjacent parking lot I gazed up at a massive 4 story structure that looked like it came straight out of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” or any World War II movie that displayed collapsing bomb-shelled buildings. This was supposed to be a clean-up and restoration project, but at first glance I couldn’t tell if the building was going up or coming down. It definitely had my vote, without question, to come down. I asked everyone to remain in their vehicles for the time being until I secured the coordinators that would lead us into the correct project. Sure enough this was the place, to all of our amazement.
As we entered the small front entrance of the building we were required to sign another release waiver for the dangers we were about to encounter, and then every person was issued a dust mask and a pair of work gloves. Teens and advisors, in teams of ten, were then taken into the structure through a taped up plastic doorway that lead down into a dungeon-like cavern they called the basement. And that’s where the work began. The site was so shocking that one small group of students refused to enter. “Why don’t you want to go in?” asked Fr. Anthony Yazge. “Did you even look at the building?” replied a teen in a sarcastic tone. “If my mother saw this place she would have a fit and not let me within 10 miles of it,” exclaimed another. Fr. Anthony then tried to console the concerned teens about the nature of the project, the safety measures that were taken, and that we as Christians never know the depths of service God may require of us. He added that much of the work of the Church is not the easiest or prettiest work, but takes much humility and sacrifice. He began to talk about how many have given up their lives and faced extreme sacrifice for serving God, but he then quickly realized that this was probably not the right situation to delve into the issue of Martyrdom. Nobody was required to enter, but a couple more of the remnant decided to brave the adventure.
For the next three hours these students dove into a life-changing experience. Many were sweeping and shoveling dirt and dust into large garbage cans, while others carried various forms of debris to a large dumpster out back. We looked liked ants at a picnic with lines of garbage going out and dusty faces going back in for more. We couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing or smelling but continued on in the project without much question. I later found out that we were the first team to begin work on this two-year restoration project to create housing for low-income seniors. We worked solely in the basement and on the first 2 levels removing large amounts of trash. One group of guys was determined to carry out an old refrigerator full of very old and rotted contents. They began to rethink the idea when they realized the difficulty of maneuvering it down two flights of stairs.
Out of curiosity I decided to explore the building in its entirety, including the burned-out 4th floor, that for the most part had no roof to speak of and not much at all of restorable structures. Again my mind shifted back to “Saving Private Ryan” as I glanced through a hole in the brick wall and saw our students working diligently by filling a dumpster the size of a tractor trailer and I thought, “I bet most of these young people will go back to their rooms tonight and thank God profusely for the many blessings they have and appreciate like never before the home that their parents have provided for them.” I even felt like kissing the ground of the church upon returning just for the gratitude of realizing what we have in light of what we experienced today.
We didn’t get to walk away that day seeing the fruit of a finished project. The filled dumpster was our only gauge of what we had physically accomplished. The building was still in great shambles. However, about 100 young lives walked away from a site they may never see again, but will also never again forget. Someday, lives will be blessed by that building. People will be able to live in modest, but affordable housing. On that day lives were changed in our group, faith was built, and young souls were stretched once again towards the heart of Jesus Christ.