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Spirit of Hope

1519 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Detroit, Michigan 48208

Matthew Bode

By Tunde Wey
April 1, 2013

Matthew Bode looks relaxed as he sits, legs crossed, in his office. His prominent desk is busy, full of files and books jostling with a computer and phone for space. Today he is dressed in a dark blue blazer over a lighter blue-checked dress shirt. Slightly-faded blue jeans and boots round out his presentation. His office is large, comfortably holding a convenient meeting area marked by an easy-looking couch and a couple of equally casual chairs around it. The office and the man seated in it appear ordinary, except on the couch and in plain view are more than a handful of hermetically-sealed Orasure HIV testing kits.  The syringes are a small though important part of Bode’s work.
In no particular order of significance, Matthew Bode is a reverend, gay, and resident of Detroit. He is definitely more than these three things, but somehow they have woven to create a mesh of purpose in his life.
Bode pastors at Spirit of Hope, a multidenominational congregation at the daunting vehicular intersection of Trumbull and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Corktown. The church was formed in 2006 when two congregations merged: Trinity Episcopal Church, which was at the current location of Spirit of Hope, and Faith Memorial, formerly across the street on Alexandrine and Trumbull.
Spirit of Hope’s work is relevant and interesting, and for Reverend Bode this opportunity to do nontraditional ministry work is mostly in response to the context, both physical and cultural, the Church exists in. For most other parishes, in perhaps less obviously dire circumstances, the definition of ministry might be explored in a solely religious context, but for Spirit of Hope religion is only valid if it affects the secular. Hence their ministries are more like social programs addressing the community needs.
Every Wednesday and Saturday at noon, Spirit of Hope operates a community kitchen, feeding the homeless and hungry. On Sundays, just before the morning service, the food pantry is open.

There is a popular farm, Spirit Farm, on a lot adjacent to the church, growing a variety of produce with a clucking chicken coop that provides a bounty of fresh eggs and an opportunity for the community to volunteer.

Spirit of Hope’s more recreational ministries are its 'Pray and Play' youth basketball and mentoring program and 'Spirit Spit,' an open mic event hosted on the premises.  These programs serve to bring the community together around less serious issues while still promoting what Pastor Bode outlines as the Church’s core value of 'love and justice.'
Spirit of Hope runs an HIV prevention ministry, which includes HIV testing and the distribution of safer sex kits. It runs this ministry in conjunction with Gospel Against Aids.
This is the important work of the Church, which, with an official member count of 145, is amazingly leveraged, serving about 15,000 community members annually through these six ministries. 

It might be totally inconceivable to some people living outside of Detroit why anyone would choose to live here, but it is equally difficult for many residents to think of living anywhere else. There are as many reasons why people stay in the city as there are people living here. For Pastor Bode that reason is love.
"I love the city. I spend most of my time in the city. Detroit is an important place in this world to learn about people, systems and issues of justice," Bode says.
Bode grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee and went on to attend college in Iowa and New York. While in New York’s Union Theological Seminary, he was posted as a student pastor to a church on Detroit’s Northwest side. After finishing school he was assigned to what was to become Spirit of Hope.
"Our assignment process is kind of like the baseball draft. Because I had some ecumenical experience and Detroit history (Spirit of Hope) was a really interesting and creative opportunity that the Bishop thought was ripe for something new.
'It was ripe for something new because the Jeffries Housing Project had closed the year I got here and the neighborhood was in some transition and identity crisis.”
Bode relocated permanently to Detroit in 2002 to pastor the Spirit of Hope. He helmed the Church through its congregation merger in 2006, working with allies to strengthen the community-focused identity of the church. However, two years before the merger, an equally difficult situation arose: Bode told his congregation he was gay.

"I came out to my family and friends while I was in seminary, and I came out to the congregation in my second year here, in 2004. For most of my family and friends it was a learning experience. They were not hostile but it was very new and not something they had talked about or contemplated before. Now they are very supportive and affirming of whom I am."

'The congregations had every reaction you could imagine, from positive to negative. We lost some members and there were some significant power struggles within the congregation. There was division within the community about what the role and response should be. There was also division within the community about what the response (of the congregation) should be." 
It must have been a difficult time, but Bode characteristically shifts the emphasis of the story away from him and to the Church’s larger purpose and practical victories.
"Most of our congregation (members) self-identify as heterosexual, however it can be safely said that everyone in our congregation wants to be part of a place that is welcoming or affirming whether that be (of) sexual orientation, gender expression, income level, history with the church, or whatever places of rejection and healing they have experienced in their lives. So it’s bigger than sexual orientation. It’s about seeing all of life fully, inclusively, through the eyes of justice.

'It’s because we are LGBT-affirming that we are able to do HIV prevention. Because we can talk about sexual orientation we can talk about sex, and we can talk about all the other things that make us uncomfortable, not just in church but in society."
Which brings us back to the HIV testing kits indiscreetly sitting on the comfortable couch in Bode’s office: the lesson is there is no shame, no guilt, and everyone is welcome at Spirit of Hope.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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