A little after 5pm on Monday, December 8th, Auntie Na locked the front door, piled the kids into the van, and drove off from Yellowstone leaving Christmas lights blinking in the window. Na, the kids, and some volunteers had been making Christmas gifts for elementary school students, and had been packing winter coats, boots, hats, wool socks, and children’s toys into gift bags. Every year, Na does a Secret Santa for the kids and sneaks the gift bags into their cubbies the day before school lets out for Christmas.
This year, Auntie Na’s House was not to live out this gentle dream in peace. Shortly after she left, she got a call from her neighbor telling her to rush home. Na and the kids drove back to Yellowstone to find the house ablaze, flames roaring out the front window, walls and ceiling igniting, wood beams snapping and cracking, charred pieces of the porch falling onto the ground below.
The fire department eventually put the fire out, but the damage was done. The fire swept through the first floor, destroying countless items of sentimental and financial significance. The rest of the house has sustained smoke damage, and subsequent water damage, since many of the windows were broken out. Na and the kids had to watch as that fire swallowed up years of hard work, aspirations for the future, and the present reality of this vital community center, which is a support and backbone for so many who are struggling in this community.
All of us are still reeling from this tragedy. I, personally, have been able to think about little else, and have been struggling to find words to express the gravity of this loss. Many of us have pinned our hopes and faith to this little community center. While the rest of Detroit is spiraling downwards in crisis, Auntie Na’s House has been patiently nurturing and caring for those who are the most vulnerable. While the rest of our country has been grappling with the daily police violences against Black and Brown people, folks at Auntie Na’s House have been doing the incredibly important work of raising up Black youth in an environment where they know that their lives have meaning – that Black Lives Matter.
This senseless disaster – a fire started by some Christmas lights hanging in the window – is too big a burden to bear at this trying time. We desperately need the love and support of our communities. All those who have been involved with Auntie Na’s House, in whatever way, we need you now. We need you to share with us your stories, memories, photographs, poems, songs, artwork, and love. We need you to help us rebuild Auntie Na’s House – with volunteer labor, donations of materials, and connections to other organizations who can help us. We need you to support Auntie Na’s House financially. The home was not insured (a result of the deep poverty of this community). We are relying upon financial donations to rebuild the home. We need funds to purchase some new Christmas gifts for these kids – all of the Christmas gifts were burned in the fire. Also, it has been a constant struggle for Auntie Na’s family to pay the utility bills and property taxes. In the midst of this horrible disaster, the city, banks, and/or utility companies may try to repossess the house and shut off its services.
We cannot, we will not, let this happen. The spirit of Auntie Na’s House – the generosity, compassion, faith, and kindness – lives on in all of us who have been blessed to connect with this community. We would be failing ourselves if we let this tragic fire be the end of Auntie Na’s House. Let us prove to Na, her family, friends, neighbors, and community that we truly care about their struggle – that we are willing to make sacrifices in our own lives to make sure that people can survive and thrive at Auntie Na’s House for generations to come. Let us take this moment to prove that Black Lives Matter – that we will not abandon folks in inner-city Detroit the way that corporations and governments have been doing for half a century.
As I look back at all the photos I’ve taken over the past two years of working at Auntie Na’s House, I see a lot of joy and beauty that has come with the transformation of that house. Those memories are wounds now too – they are scars yet to heal, that open anew each time I revisit them. For me, there will be a long process towards healing. Right now, the only way I can conceive of healing these open wounds is to make sure that Auntie Na’s House does not fade into memory – that it lives on in the present, and holds fast into the future. This story is yet unwritten, but I imagine that it will unfold alongside the story of the rest of the city of Detroit.
In 1805, a great fire swept through Detroit, leaving massive destruction in its wake. A priest, Father Gabriel Richard, had recently opened a Roman Catholic church and a school that were incinerated in the fire. In that time of crisis, he wrote a motto for the city of Detroit, one that is as true today as it was then – Speramus Meliora, Resurget Cineribus – “We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes.” Today, if you drive through the city of Detroit, on almost every block you will find abandoned, boarded-up, decrepit, burned out houses. Each one of these was once someone’s home. In fact, Auntie Na’s House has taken in and supported many who have lost their homes to fire. As you drive around the city, you will also see children playing around in the streets, old men shuffling to their cars, pregnant women leaving the Dollar Store, and homeless folks pushing around grocery carts. These people need a place that they can call home, a place to find a hot meal, some baby diapers, a warm coat, and a loving embrace. Auntie Na’s House has been that place for 6 generations of her family. Let us make sure that it remains that for 6 generations more. Resurget Cineribus – It Shall Rise From the Ashes