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Film profiles bishop who healed Detroit after ’67 riots

Kyla Smith
The Detroit News

Just months after riots rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton became the youngest vicar general of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

At 38, he took on the challenging task of healing a community torn apart by violence. Now, nearly 50 years later, a film examines Gumbleton’s work during one of the city’s most difficult periods.

“American Prophet” tells the story of Gumbleton’s struggles to bring a broken and devastated Detroit back together.

The racial tension that bubbled below the surface helped fuel the riots that started July 23, 1967, sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar in a mainly black neighborhood. When the violence had eased four days later, 43 people had been killed, more than 300 injured and nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned.

“It was tension and a lot of decisions had to be made,” Gumbleton, 85, recalled. “A major issue had to do with integration. Some people were opposed, and some favored the idea. It was a very difficult time in the Catholic church.”

Gumbleton, known for his liberal stands on issues such as gay rights and nuclear proliferation, said he had to help local parishes navigate racial issues as well as changes within the church in the years following Vatican II.

“After the 1967 riot, the church went through a lot of dramatic changes. It had a lot to do with leadership style,” Gumbleton said. “I wanted to make sure we carried out the mandate to welcome all people.”

Gumbleton served as pastor of many parishes, including St. Aloysius, Holy Ghost and St. Leo’s, until his retirement as auxiliary bishop in 2006. He remains active as a priest.

Some consider Gumbleton a hero for his work uniting black and white parishes, and that’s what prompted local filmmaker Jasmine Rivera to document the bishop’s life.

“I have known him since I was a child. He was my pastor and did all of our family functions, such as weddings, baptisms and confirmation,” said Rivera, who was born in Detroit, raised in Oak Park and graduated in 2012 from Columbia University’s graduate film program in New York. “He had such an inspiring story, that I came from New York back to Detroit to start filming ‘American Prophet.’ ”

With the 48th anniversary of the Detroit riots coming up in July, Rivera said she had no idea the film would resonate so strongly today.

“There is a scene in the film where a person is beat up by the police. This was written two years ago,” Rivera said. “Who knew it would foreshadow the riots we are seeing now in Ferguson and the protests in New York and here in Detroit. People were angry, and it represented the oppression of one population.”

Despite having a heavy theme of race relations and religious strife, “American Prophet” also reveals the playful side of Gumbleton and his long-time friendship with the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw.

Rivera said Gumbleton “was on a hockey league and he played with one of his best friends, Kenneth, who had a wooden leg. They would get pretty passionate and competitive about these games.”

The film will be released this summer and will have a special Detroit premiere before it is submitted to festivals and screenings in other cities.

Rivera hopes that after people see the film, they will have a different outlook on Detroit and its people.

“ ‘American Prophet’ will show the behind-the-scenes version of the abandoned houses and why it really is,” Rivera said. “The city is overwhelmed with a negative outlook, but we show that we keep moving forward and are striving for something better.”