Home Christian News His Parish Was the Poor: The Rev. Tom Lumpkin Spent 40 Years...

His Parish Was the Poor: The Rev. Tom Lumpkin Spent 40 Years Ministering to Detroit’s Homeless

The next year, they pooled together $600 apiece to buy a rambling 16-bedroom house on Trumbull Avenue for $2,400. Lumpkin received permission from Detroit’s archbishop, Cardinal John Dearden, to work at Day house as his full-time pastoral assignment for one year. But Lumpkin was told one more year was all he would get.

Feeling the anxiety of a nascent priest shortage, Dearden gave Lumpkin one year to choose a new parish. Lumpkin took a period of discernment and concluded it wasn’t the place that mattered but the proximity to the poor.

“If I could find a parish that would take in homeless people in the rectory, it would still work,’ he said. “That was part of the philosophy of the Catholic Worker, that parishes should have more involvement with the poor.”

But before Lumpkin’s year was up, Dearden retired and the search for his replacement dragged out. Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop in Detroit who oversaw Lumpkin, told him to just stay at the Worker home for the time being.

“When the new archbishop finally came, Gumbleton never told him about this requirement that I had to go back to a parish,” Lumpkin said. “So, I just kept doing it for 40 years. It worked out great.” During that time he also served as a chaplain at Wayne County Jail.

For most of the 2010s, Lumpkin lived as the sole Worker in Day House with about a dozen guests. “There are just a very few people who make this their life vocation. Most people that come stay for a few years and then move on,” he said.

But, he said, he was never lonely. Sunday Masses were always well-attended, and volunteers would drop by often to help.

In 2019, Lumpkin handed over the house bank account and day-to-day operations to two young women who had been closely affiliated with the movement and wanted to move in.

“There are a hundred different ways you can run a Catholic Worker,” Lumpkin said. He decided to let the next generation chart their own way and to move out. Now in his 80s, Lumpkin said not answering the door to knocks at midnight is a relief.

He lives just a few miles away, renting an apartment from the co-manager of Manna Meal, Marianne Arbogast. He’s seen the neighborhood around the soup kitchen change a lot since the Workers chose to set up shop in Corktown. “Little did we think it would be  the  gentrified area of Detroit right now,” Lumpkin said with a laugh.

The two lots next to St. Peter’s have recently been bought by developers to put up condos. “It’s nonstop,” Lumpkin said. The church bears a sign proclaiming “Not for Sale,” in response to the rapid developments of the neighborhood.

“That’s their way of saying, we’re not just going to sell this to the developers. We’re going to stay here for the homeless people,” said Lumpkin.

When reflecting on what he’s learned from over four decades living in solidarity with Detroit’s homeless, Lumpkin said it has prompted him to confront his shortcomings.

“Living with people who have lots of problems helped me see my own dark side,” said Lumpkin. And, he observed, to identify the role privilege plays in morality.

“We may be tempted to do something illegal or immoral, but we don’t do it. Not necessarily because we’re just so virtuous, but because we were afraid it might screw up our life. We’ve got a future. Thinking we have a future keeps us out of a lot of trouble,” said Lumpkin. A person on the street who feels hopeless, or helpless, or doesn’t see themselves going anywhere, doesn’t suffer from lack of virtue, Lumpkin said, but the guardrails the sense of a future gives us.

“Living in a Catholic Worker house can make you feel really bad about yourself,” Lumpkin said, “because you will see a lot of your failings.”

For him, the chief lesson of a half a lifetime in the Catholic Worker Movement was learning to see love as something beyond agreeableness. You learn to find God, he said, in people who aren’t loving because they have grown up without love. And although he’s left Day House, those lessons are still present, he said.

“You never retire from your Christian vocation. You can always be a force for good.”

This article originally appeared here.