Photo Friday: Migrating Missionaries

Mrs. William Lewis, wife of the mission pastor, stands outside the God's Love Mission in Detroit in this undated photo. (Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Detroit has been all over the news lately. Mostly that’s because the city has become the emblem of post-industrial decay: high crime rates, high foreclosure rates, high exurban migration rates. The city has become, in the words of some scholars, an “urban wilderness.”

Long before blight engulfed the city so fully, the Brethren in Christ Church launched a mission to Detroit. The God’s Love Mission, as the station came to be known, was started in by William Lewis and his wife in December 1936; soon after, it came under the jurisdiction of the denomination’s Home Mission Board. Like many urban missions in its day, the God’s Love Mission began in a storefront — but one that, as today’s Photo Friday installment shows, quickly became decorated with the material trappings of revivalistic Christianity.

In 1950, the God’s Love Mission was relocated to a newly built church on Myrtle Street. Less than ten years later, a mission report indicates that the “church on Myrtle Street . . . was sold to a Negro congregation” and the mission work was re-launched ten miles west of Detroit, in the suburb of Dearborn. This new church building, the same report proclaimed, was “erected in a new, growing community.”

It’s interesting to note this change. As other scholars of the Brethren in Christ Church have indicated, the denomination’s domestic urban missionaries never intentionally set out to minister to non-white populations. [1] Certainly, as the populations of American cities shifted following the suburban “white flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, Brethren in Christ urban missions incorporated blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups into their religious fellowships. But, as church scholars have pointed out, the evangelistic techniques adopted by the Brethren in Christ post-1950 were geared toward suburban, “middle class evangelism.” In “losing [its] genius for evangelizing” low-income, inner-city groups, the Brethren in Christ Church was forced to close “most of [its] inner city missions and struggle[s] now to foster a vision for the crying need of urban evangelism.” [2]

Thus, we can see the gradual migration and suburbanization of the God’s Love Mission as evidence of the Brethren in Christ Church’s overall evangelistic paradigm shift — a shift that the denomination shares with other groups strongly influenced by American evangelicalism.

References:

1. Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), p. 454.

2. Luke L. Keefer, Jr., “The Three Streams in Our Heritage: Separate or Parts of a Whole?”, Brethren in Christ History and Life 19, no. 1 (1996), p. 54.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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