The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
On a Wednesday morning last Spring, just a week shy of his 66th birthday, despite aching knees from decades pounding the basketball court, Bill powered up the three flights of stairs to my office in the old Episcopalian Church overlooking downtown Detroit. I knew something was stirring since he usually whips out his flip phone and sends me a text message if he needs anything while working in his makeshift cubicle downstairs—that, and his eye-of-the-tiger stare down he gave me when he arrived breathless. Obviously, it was game day.
Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann is a pastor who takes his prophetic call seriously. He had just received word that the city’s water department would be voting on renewing its contract with a private wrecking company to shut off water to homes of residents who were $150 or 2 months behind on their water bills. The department had already forked over $6 million to do the dirty work. This was for another million. Who said this place was bankrupt?
The residents of this city of less than 700,000, 40% of whom are surviving below the federal poverty level, are getting pummeled with water bills with rates twice the national average. As of Spring 2015, 14,000 homes currently did not have running water and 30,000 more were estimated to be shutoff by the end of summer. It’s the new normal in the municipality formerly known as “The Motor City.”
Bill scraped together a rag tag group of us, a thrift store version of Oceans 11. He was determined to do whatever he could to block the inevitable—even if it meant getting arrested. First, he wrangled his thirty-something sidekick Luke, a farmer who has squatted on abandoned land the past few years, selling his kale, garlic, beats and raspberries at Eastern Market. Luke has wire-framed glasses and a dirty blonde dreadlocked mohawk. He learned how to resist evil in high places when he lived at Jonah House in Baltimore with the septuagenarian nuns known for their civil disobedience at military bases and the Pentagon. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Just ask any of the guests he serves during his mornings at the soup kitchen.
Bill recruited a half dozen more friends to testify during public comment, and coaxed a socially conscious filmmaker to get video coverage. I was drafted to bail him out of jail. When we got to the Checker Bar in downtown, he handed me his keys, the card to the parking structure, a list of phone numbers to call after the police carry him away and $500 in cash. He’d obviously done this before—decades of resistance work in dozens of locales, from military bases to board meetings to the middle of the street. Daniel Berrigan and William Stringfellow compelled him long ago: if the Lord Jesus and Dr. King did it, why shouldn’t Reverend Bill?
When we arrived at the water department on Randolph Street, we took the elevator to the 5th floor. The water commissioners meet in a large room, only a quarter of the space devoted to public seating. A 3-foot wooden barrier with a single gate separated us from the appointed officials and their staff. It reminded me of the design of an airplane. We weren’t the ones sitting in first class. 5 of the commissioners were white men and 4 were people of color, odd in a city with an 83% black population.
There were about twenty of us in coach that afternoon. Bill’s friends spoke with eloquence and clarity: a seminary professor, a marriage and family therapist, another pastor and even the presidents of the Sierra Club and the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute. A resident none of us knew came to the microphone. Her name was Donna. She testified that, in March, her monthly water bill jumped from $294 to $928. The department sent someone out to check for leaks. None. Either she takes hourly showers and is fracking for oil in her backyard or the department is making a major mistake. DWSD demanded she pay it and, of course, she couldn’t afford it. Now she doesn’t have running water.
At 2:55pm, the meeting finally got to our agenda item: the $1 million contract with Homrich Wrecking Co. Immediately, Bill stood up and approached first class to hijack the proceedings: “Stop the water shut-offs! Stop the water shut-offs! Stop the water shut-offs!” Three security guards immediately took their position at the gate. One of them looked a lot like Shaq’s bodyguard who used to sit behind the bench of every Laker game: a large black man with a neck as thick as my waist.
After they carried Bill down the aisle and through the doors, it was Luke’s turn: “Stop the water shut-offs! Stop the water shut-offs!” A 60-something white guy immediately body-slammed him to the ground. When he got up after being hauled out, Luke was mostly concerned that the older man might have been hurt. As Luke apologized, the man cursed him out. Later, right after apprehending Rev. Denise, another normally well-behaved pastor who went rogue with shouting & singing, he apologized to Luke for his temper.
Another white 60-something security guard with a shaved head stared me down when I came out to the lobby, which was serving as a holding tank. The black chief of security, though, struggled to hide his appreciation for this holy spectacle. Lindsay, the licensed therapist, came out of the commissioners’ boardroom and shook his hand. She thanked him for doing his job, graciously allowing her to stay in the room when she led activists chanting “Shame!” after they voted unanimously to approve the million-dollar contract. “I’m smiling,” he said, “because back in the 60s and 70s, we were doing the same thing.” That was before 40 years of police work in the suburbs.
Thirty minutes later, five Detroit cops calmly strolled out of the elevator, and after a short period of deliberation, decided to let the angelic troublemakers go with a warning. Outside in a cool spring drizzle, Bill retrieved his keys and cash from me, half-jokingly suggesting that he “might be getting too old for this.” I shook my head and told him he’d better wear his knee braces next time.