On the Ground: From radical to reverend in Brightmoor

Rev. Larry Simmons, pastor at Baber Memorial A.M.E., a church in Brightmoor of about 112 congregants, walks with a limp. It developed when he overexerted himself while hauling materials that are being used to build Baber's new facility. "I guess I'm not as limber as I was when I was in my 20s," he jokes. But Rev. Simmons, for a man in his 60s, has a youthful energy about him, particularly when he talks about his church and the place his congregation calls home -- Brightmoor.

"There's this spirit right now in Brightmoor that we're not waiting on others to do for us, but we are doing it for ourselves. We are realizing that we are the ones we were waiting on. In 10 years, this will be a wholly different community. Brightmoor, for all of its challenges, is a dynamic place to be right now. You can see it going up."

Hearing him tell his life story, it is apparent that Simmons always believed he could be a part of the change -- and in fact drive it.

In 1967, Simmons, who was born and raised in Detroit, went down to Oklahoma to attend Langston University. He quickly got involved in what were considered radical politics in the small town of Langston.
"Mississippi had nothing on Oklahoma in those days," says Simmons, recalling the atmosphere of segregation and conservatism in the town of Langston. That atmosphere did not stop him from trying to start a branch of the NAACP, drawing a cartoon character called the Black Panther in the school newspaper, and protesting the war in Vietnam.

"Someone took a photo of me with my fist in the air at an anti-war protest and it made the front page of the local paper with my name underneath it. Some people in town didn't like that and were plotting to lynch me. The school got word of it and bought me a plane ticket home," says Simmons.

He returned to Detroit, where he says his radical politics led him into electoral politics. He went to work for the Urban League and became a regular on a debate-style show on WDIV moderated by legendary anchor Mort Crim. "I guess I represented the left wing point of view," chuckles Simmons.

During this time, Simmons volunteered on the campaign of Coleman Young, who would become Detroit's first black mayor in 1974. In 1983, he went to work for Mayor Young in a formal capacity, serving as his executive assistant and campaign manager for 10 years. It was at the end of that period that he found his true calling -- public ministry.

In 1999, Simmons was appointed as pastor at Baber A.M.E in Brightmoor. A defining moment for the congregation occurred in 2009, when their church building was destroyed in a fire. "This was important," says Simmons, "because it made us homeless. God pushed us outside the walls of the church, so we started to minister outside."

The Baber congregation adopted a vacant lot on the corner of Burt Road and Outer Drive across the street from the site of their old building. Rev. Simmons runs a summer youth employment program that provided labor to the effort in cleaning up what came to be known as the Healing Park--a place where people can sit and reflect. Rev. Simmons realized at this time that there were six churches within six blocks on Burt Road and reached out to them to form the Beautiful Burt Block Club. Churches in the group adopt and maintain vacant lots along Burt.

Over his tenure at Baber, Rev. Simmons has emerged as a community leader. He is the president of the Brightmoor Pastors Alliance, a group of interdenominational faith leaders dedicated to improving Brightmoor for their congregations and other residents.

A recent initiative of the Pastors Alliance in partnership with the Brightmoor Alliance is something called "Present in Brightmoor," an anti-truancy initiative that has the ambitious goal of getting all students in the neighborhood to attend school at least 97 percent of the time. "There are few pathways to success that don't start in school," says Simmons.

One of Simmons's true passions is working with youth. "You see something in kids in this neighborhood I like to call the 'Brightmoor Swerve.' It's a braggadocio that kids have, being hardened by their environment, that they are always in control of the situation, when in reality, they are not," observes Simmons. Some of his greatest joys come from breaking through this hardness.

"Young people need to know that someone is listening to them with a responsive ear," says Simmons, who tries to be that someone when he runs Baber's summer youth employment program. "This program is our effort to train children to form a vision, strategy, and work plan for a project that benefits the community. Then we look back and work with them to evaluate the project." Simmons does this every summer with about a dozen kids, who are paid for their time with funds donated by philanthropist Marjorie Fisher.

Speaking about his plans for next summer's youth employment program, Simmons says, "We've cut down brush, we've boarded up houses, and we've painted. Now it's time to build something."

Since 2009, the Baber congregation has been using the Brightmoor Community Center for worship services. This Thanksgiving, Rev. Simmons is looking forward to holding the first service in the new facility. Until then, Simmons and his flock will be working hard to meet that deadline. In the long term, Simmons will continue to focus his efforts on realizing his personal vision for Brightmoor: creating a neighborhood that is "saved, prospering, peaceful, diverse, engaged, and empowered."

Matthew Lewis is project editor for the On the Ground series.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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