Berman: Born again in Brightmoor
She was living in a house long abandoned, with stacked cans as her kitchen, a bucket of water to flush the toilet, and a cat poster tacked to the wall that said, "You're special."
Unabashedly honest, she talked about her situation: her crack addiction, her life walking the streets, the friends and family she'd had before her life had crumbled like rocks in a pipe. "I'm cherishing the memories of my family," she told me, in an unlit room she had decorated with things from the street. "I have those. And they've got the peace of not having me around them."
That was 16 years ago, and I have never forgotten the woman, whose name is Kay. But I never knew what happened to her, either.
The sad little house on Blackstone in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood — even then deeply pocked by empty and burned-out homes — was listed for emergency demolition. And there was nothing to suggest a better future for Kay, with or without the house as shelter.
But last week I received an email from Carole Johnston, a woman I had never met, who lives in Novi. The day after the 1998 column appeared in The Detroit News, she had rounded up a friend. "I felt in my heart that I should find Kay," she says. Johnston, who grew up in Ohio, readily traversed the distance that day from her suburban home to a place where despair doesn't hide behind trimmed hedges.
It was a perfect fall day, clear and crisp, when she found Kay walking, alone on Fenkell, uninterested in rescue. Johnston, who has the patience and continual smile of the kindergarten teacher she is, was not put off: She followed her on foot until the two women were face to face. "She began to hit me," recalls Johnston, "and I kept saying it's OK, it's OK, lovey." Johnston's attitude was, "I'll take the hits. You can stand on me."
Inside, though, she recalls: "I was asking the Lord, 'What exactly did you want me to learn from this?' "
Johnston, who works at a Christian school and belongs to the Brightmoor Christian Church in Novi, did not walk away. She came back, day after day, without ever getting close to Kay.
Over months, she built an alliance with Kay's neighbors, women with children, struggling to keep the rain out of their homes, fighting for survival every day. One of the women told her, " 'You know, people like you come here and you say you're going to help and then you leave. They come and then they just can't take it any more and they close up and they're gone. I will give you three months.' "
Three months later, she was still there. "We did a lot of praying," says Johnston, who eventually founded the Brightmoor Prayer House, now affiliated with the Novi church, whose roots are in the Brightmoor neighborhood. "I fell in love with those women, and my whole perspective began to change."
Not theirs, but hers. She saw the cascading problems that faced these neighbors every day — the cars that broke down, jobs lost, substance abuse, health crises among family members that derailed their plans. "I used to wonder why people didn't just, you know, get their lives together. Snap."
A chance encounter with a landlord on the street enabled her to open a storefront mission in 2000. The building was a mess but her husband, Bob, and his friends carted out junk and installed shelves, and helped ready it for habitation. Like the rest of the neighborhood, they were not immune from disasters — fires, pipes bursting, obstacles laid in their path.
"Our buildings got destroyed. At one point we were operating out of a Coney Island. That part, for people to see — the Salvation Army closed. Other churches in the area do a lot, but our place is a little different: we're really here to love the people and pray with them."
Before her 1998 visit to Brightmoor, Johnston had rarely ventured into Detroit. Most of her adult life had been in Akron, Ohio, where she'd graduated from college, married and eventually divorced, moving to the Detroit area after falling in love with Bob Johnston, the man now her husband.
Here, she defied common sense, walking down the city's toughest streets without fear. And she embraced everyone, praying in homes without working plumbing, where the cockroaches scattered in daytime, offering hugs and kindness, human warmth and connection, and prayers. What is the prayer for? "My prayer is that they all have the chance to meet Jesus in a wonderful way," she says.
You can see what happened next through any lens, as serendipity or fate, as proof of God's work or, more simply, the value of patience and a kind heart. Those who trusted nobody placed their trust in the smiling, upbeat, unpretentious woman who became known on these streets as Miss Carole.
One day, perhaps a year after Johnston read the newspaper column about Kay, Johnston spotted her walking alone on Fenkell. She stopped and offered her a ride. Kay got in. "She was very tired and her life was very hard," Johnston recalled the other day.
Through Johnston and her "prayer warrior friends," as she calls them, Kay gradually emerged from the ravages of addiction. They helped her find a job and, through the job, a husband and a real home. Although Kay chose not to speak to me, her sister, the Detroit artist Jean Wilson, told me that "these Christian ladies" had patiently helped find Kay find her way on a path back into the world.
Johnston is still a presence on Fenkell, working out of a little storefront decorated with a "Jesus said" banner, a few shelves of clothing, and some canned goods. Most of the buildings on the street are boarded up or burned, but it is the people here she cares about.
Kay is one of the many miracles she has witnessed on this street, she says, with a knowing smile. Sixteen years later, Kay's survival, and Carole Johnston's role in it, is a true, and truly improbable, story — the kind that's a reason for thanksgiving.