Preserving a Quaker Presence in Detroit

Former meetinghouse on Fort Street in Detroit. Photo by Leslie Walden.

For the first 60 years of its existence, Detroit (Mich.) Meeting didn’t have a permanent meetinghouse, primarily worshiping in buildings owned by various nonprofit organizations, at a university, and even at various members’ homes. Taking a stand against White flight in the 1980s, the meeting purchased and renovated an old jewelry store located on a busy street in an industrial area. The new space had a rich simplicity but turning it into a meetinghouse involved the installation of wooden bookshelves, facing benches, and a lot of sweat equity. Though the meeting was small, there was a strong commitment and enthusiasm to own a spiritual home that would be supportive and welcoming of all people in a predominantly Hispanic community.

While it was a special place to worship, the location presented unique challenges as well as rich opportunities. The surrounding neighborhood gradually deteriorated, and many local businesses closed. After the Pitbull Tattoo Parlor next door finally closed, the boards on its windows and doors were dislodged by unhoused people in the area looking for safe shelter.

One cold winter day, a large fire destroyed that entire two-story building. Hearing reports of the fire on the news, members thought of those who had sheltered there. We were relieved to learn there were no casualties. Only the meetinghouse’s old brick wall separated it from the tattoo parlor’s wall. It was incredible the meetinghouse survived the fire undamaged!

With the neighboring structure gone, the exposed red brick wall quickly became an inviting blank canvas for several graffiti artists. Members repainted the wall twice to avoid paying city fines. The meeting also contemplated commissioning a graffiti artist from the neighborhood to paint the wall, knowing that a signed work would be respected by others. After much discernment, we acknowledged that the city would not approve of this as a solution.

Numerous times the meetinghouse was broken into and items were stolen: an air conditioning unit, ladders, a CD player, fans, copper wiring, small kitchen appliances, and even the outside flower pots. One First Day, members discovered that there was no electricity because our electrical meter had been stolen that week. We had a memorable worship service surrounded by darkness and deep peaceful silence. During this period, we noticed that the only items that never went missing were our extensive collection of treasured books!

Each year the meeting paid $450 for weekly trash removal, yet members often transported and disposed of the meeting’s trash at their homes because the trash bins were repeatedly stolen. Trash removal payments came to be viewed as our donation to the city. The meeting could not afford an alarm system, so we tried installing a fake camera to deter future break-ins. During the installation, one of our members fell off a ladder, injuring his ankle. We ended the project there.

Even with these challenges, the front door always remained open, and members developed a special fondness for this old meetinghouse. We treasured the community that had been established over the years and found humor in sharing these experiences together. We never proposed moving to another location or outside the city. As a meeting, we were and continue to be committed to the City of Detroit. Throughout Detroit’s history, Quakers have been a committed presence for social justice. Detroit was “Midnight” on the Underground Railroad—the last stop on the flight for freedom supported by Quaker abolitionists who helped people escaping slavery reach Detroit before crossing over to Canada. This city is our historical and spiritual home.

Almost a decade ago, the meeting realized that the State of Michigan would be taking our meetinghouse property by way of eminent domain to construct a new international bridge between the United States and Canada. While we grieved this loss, the State assured us that compensation would allow us to buy a new building and continue to be a force for change and social justice in this hard-hit city.

The meeting hired a well-known eminent domain lawyer, who eventually dropped us as a client after becoming frustrated with the Quaker decision-making process. During negotiations, we were told that our meetinghouse was not given the same value and legal status as other neighboring churches because it lacked an altar and religious symbols were not displayed. This was extremely disappointing to hear, and the rule was vigorously challenged by those of us present during the negotiations.

Eventually, after exhausting all recourse, we were forced to accept the State’s offer for our property, realizing those funds would not allow us to relocate to a similar structure in the city. During the long process, property values had substantially increased as investors from all over the world came to Detroit.

Detroit Meeting was simply asking to be made whole again. In the past decade, we had lost both our meetinghouse and school. Founded in 1965, Friends School in Detroit was one of the first integrated private schools in Detroit and had been a visible sign of Quaker values in the region until its closure in 2015. Its rise and fall gave us a chance to talk more about the challenges we have faced and confront the fact that there was now no permanent physical Quaker presence in the city. Furthermore, we were painfully aware that the relocation process had become a spiritual distraction for many of the attenders.


Renderings of the new meetinghouse by designer Cassandra Keil; exterior (left) and interior.


While considering relocation possibilities, the meeting rented a building owned by a neighboring United Methodist church for two years. At this location, we were more visible and began attracting new attenders of all ages each month. But once again, we were asked to move: the building was being sold. Then the pandemic hit, and we began worshiping virtually, which has increased weekly attendance by 25 percent. Our meeting is a unique international monthly meeting, with members and attenders from the United States and Canada.

After years of discernment and uncertainty over the path forward, our meeting has decided to double down on its commitment to Detroit. We are in the process of purchasing lots through the Detroit Land Bank Authority in a predominantly Black neighborhood, a reflection of our choice to operate as an antiracist faith community. We envision our newly constructed energy-efficient 2,500-square-foot meetinghouse will be a beacon of Light in the city and a shared space for community partners. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Land Bank representative assigned to our case is a former Friends School student familiar with Quakers.

Our 24 members, along with a faithful group of attenders, have stretched and will continue to stretch so that an active and empowered Quaker presence can remain in Detroit. With determination and faith, Detroit Meeting is committed to ensuring that our collective Light continues to shine.

Sharon Ottenbreit and Kelsey Ronan

Sharon Ottenbreit and Kelsey Ronan are members of Detroit (Mich.) Meeting. Sharon is co-clerk of the meeting and a former educator. Kelsey is a new member, convener of the meeting’s antiracist working group, and an educator in the Detroit Public Schools. Learn more about the new meetinghouse at detroitfriendsmeeting.org.

2 thoughts on “Preserving a Quaker Presence in Detroit

  1. This is a great story of persistence, commitment and faithfulness. It is also a story of how, by charting a course and putting one foot in front of the other, we end up going to a good place. In this case the good place is being set up to work as an anti-racist organization with people of the local community. That’s fantastic.

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