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"American Prophet" shares story of Detroit bishop's fight for social justice

1968 was a very tense and pivotal year in Detroit's history. The city was putting itself back together again after the riots in July of '67.

That was the year 38-year-old priest Thomas Gumbleton became a Catholic bishop, and set about working to unite black and white parishes in the Detroit Archdiocese.

Today, after a lifetime of fighting for peace, justice and equality, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton is 85. And his life is now a film. American Prophet written, produced and directed by his parishioner Jasmine Rivera.

Rivera grew attending Bishop Gumbleton's parish and says she didn't truly understand how incredible his story was until she was older.

The film retraces the origins of when he became a bishop in 1968.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton.

During the summer of 1967, Bishop Gumbleton was living on 12th Street where the riot – called a rebellion by many – started. He remembers trying to travel to his church on the day the unrest started, only to find the street blocked by police. After explaining he was giving Mass, they allowed him to pass. 

"One of the main problems was the treatment of the black people in their neighborhood by the white police. At that point we had an almost 100% white police department," the bishop says.

Along with his fight for racial equality and social justice, the bishop has also spoken out about sexual abuse within the church. He himself is a survivor of sexual abuse inflicted by a professor at the seminary where he studied, and he avoided discussing his experience for 40 years.

"I never said anything about it to anybody until just a few years ago when the opportunity came along to help the survivors to get legislation that would open up the statute of limitations," the bishop says.

Bishop Gumbleton says he's been frustrated by the church's response to the sexual  abuse scandal. He says the church hierarchy  listened to the advice of their lawyers first, rather than fulfilling their duties to their parishioners.

Rivera hopes that the film can start a conversation about Detroit's past and how to move forward.

She wants audiences to "see a portion of Detroit's history that goes beyond the narrative that is so taken up by so many other voices. This is something that was written and it was made by people from Detroit."

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