Detroit priest looks back on the 1967 riots and how they changed him

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Fifty years later Detroit is looking back on its own history. The 1967 riots left the Motor City in shambles.

For those who went through it first hand, like one of my childhood priests in Detroit, the images of violence are still burned in their memories.

But today there is reason for hope as Detroit looks back while moving forward.

No one has a roadmap for a life in the priesthood, certainly there's no class, no eulogy, and no words of wisdom in the seminary that could prepare a young Donald Archambault for a life of service in Detroit.

Father Don says he and three other seminarians decided they wanted to live in the black community to understand the culture better.

Behind the walls of Sacred Heart Seminary, future men of the cloth used to be isolated from the predominantly African American community right outside their windows, but that all changed on July 23rd of 1967 - five days of what some described as a race war in the heart of Detroit.

Father Don was living with a black family near Mack and Fairview. While watching the news, the owner of that house threw Father Don to the ground.

Father Don said 'what's going on?' 

The man he was living with says to him 'don't you see ,those are tracer bullets.' The National Guard had been chasing loiters down the alley, firing over their house and the bullets were coming through the porch.

Father Don says the unrest was all around them.

Father Don says, "We had put the family that we were staying with in grave danger, because there was a radical living in the apartment down the street who didn't like whites staying in the neighborhood."

The racial divide had been brewing for years.

Father Don says there was always this rumor that things were bubbling up, that there was frustration and rage in the community. But no one could have imagined it would erupt and leave the city burned and in ruins.

Father Don says while whites could leave and relocate to safer ground, blacks often found redlining would keep them out of certain neighborhoods.

Father Don says at that point he finally came to understand the struggle of being African American.

Despite the bullets whizzing overhead, Father Don was not fearful, and he had an underlying resolve that would not allow him to cut and run.

He says that experience of the riots and rebellion of that day really refocused his ministry and his life.

Among the poor and the middle class is where Father Don has made his mark, but he insists without good jobs, better education, and affordable housing for all, the sins of the past could haunt us again.

As Catholic churches and schools have closed in droves in the city, Father Don has been steadily growing his 4th parish, Corpus Christi Catholic Church, from 300 to now more than 700 families.

Father Don says he doesn't feel a racial divide in his church community and the neighborhood is 95% black and the church is a mixture from 15 different countries.

And it's in the neighborhoods where 50 years after the riots it may not be perfect but progress is visible, from a former dump behind the church transformed to a beautiful park, to a community fully engaged.

This past year over 65,000 hours of volunteer work was done by people in the community and other willing to help out.  What they're doing is moving forward on the right path for a better tomorrow.

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