Belle Isle Conservancy
Bishop James Williams
When Pastor James Williams sits down, he does so with an air of measured authority. Smartly dressed, he begins speaking slowly and methodically. His voice instantly draws listeners in as stories of lifelong Detroit experiences begin unveiling themselves, piece by piece. “This guy,” you think, “this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
Soon, Williams fills the air with a vivid, tenacious and contagious fervor, pouring out an hour's worth of experience on the past, present, and future of Belle Isle. “The island has been my place of solitude. I’m a pastor, I’ve been doing that for the past 20 years. I’ve always been in the Church, I’ve always had a hectic kind of life [...] the island is the place I came to breathe."
Recalling his childhood, Pastor Williams remembered how “the Island was always part of my life growing up [...] I remember coming to the island and playing with whatever kids happened to be on the island at the time. I couldn't necessarily play with the kids on the other side of Outer Drive. But when we got to the island, for whatever reason, those barriers were down. I’d love to see the island again become that place where barriers come down. Children don’t recognize barriers. One kid can’t look at another kid and tell what economic or social status he comes from. He just sees a ball and wants to go play! [...] There are still issues to address to have a place where everybody can breathe. Where people are just people.”
Drawn to his words, I ventured around the island the next day, searching for what Williams so vividly believes in. I happened upon Belle Isle’s East Shore Playground, nestled between the edge of the Messic Flatwood Forest and one of the island’s inland lakes. I found a moment out of his vision - a place where children of all races, ages, and ethnicities just, well, played.
Pastor Williams is the kind of guy who needs something he can dig his teeth into. He’s considered moving, but talking to him, you can’t help but get the sense that Detroit just isn’t done with him yet, nor is he certainly done with Detroit. For many Detroiters who haven’t been to the Isle in a long time, he simply says this: “It’s time. It’s time for you to go visit the Island.”