Business Departs City, Yet Covenant Presence Grows

Post a Comment » Written on April 23rd, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

DETROIT, MI (April 23, 2008) – Hope Community Church sits on the side of Alter Road that many people have written off as without hope. Drugs are sold openly. Burned out, boarded up, and abandoned buildings stretch for mile after mile after mile. Guards patrol Hope’s parking lot so no one breaks into worshipers’ cars during Sunday morning services.

In the seconds it takes to cross Alter Road, Hope’s pastor, Kevin Butcher, can walk into Grosse Pointe Park, a neighborhood of luxury homes, perfectly groomed lawns, and comparatively nonexistent crime rates.

Butcher preachingAlter Road has long been a symbol on the city’s eastside of the racial and economic canyon that has divided all of Detroit throughout its history. But Hope Community and other Evangelical Covenant Church congregations are passionately and creatively working to bridge long-divided communities and transcend the city’s broken history.

In the last seven years, the Great Lakes Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church has determined to make a difference. As business continues to leave the city, the conference has multiplied the number of churches in the area from one to seven.

Three new congregations are in the city: Hope Community ministers on the east side, Citadel of Faith Covenant Church was planted in the center, and Messiah Covenant Church serves on the southwest side. For a closer look at the role racial tension and distrust played in one of the new starts, see Building Trust.

Other congregations have sprung up in the surrounding areas. In recent years, the Covenant has planted or adopted Crossroads Community Covenant Church in South Lyons; Christ Covenant Church (C3) in Novi; Trinity Covenant Church in Livonia; Connextions Covenant Church in Dexter; and Life Covenant Church in Byron Center.  They have been supported in various ways by existing congregation Faith Covenant Church in Farmington Hills, Dearborn Evangelical Covenant Church in Dearborn, and Kensington Community Church, a non-Covenant congregation in Troy, that has worked closely with the denomination to help plant several churches.

Impassioned Sense of Shared Ministry

All of the churches reach out to their own communities, but they also work with an impassioned sense of shared ministry. They have done everything from camping on street corners where gang activity has been rampant to starting a health clinic that recently received a $2.3 million grant to serve the poorest of the poor.

Superintendent Dick Lucco and Associate Superintendent Larry Sherman, decided to move the conference offices from Hudson, Ohio, to the Detroit area, in part, because they believed the metro area was fertile ground for planting new ministries. Still, the soil can be hard.

Horse“It is hard to plant a church in Detroit,” acknowledges Sherman. There is so much to overcome: racism, poverty, crime, and unemployment.

“This is the most racially polarized city in America,” Butcher says.  According to U.S. Census Data, Grosse Pointe Park is nearly 96 percent white, with African Americans accounting for less than 1 percent of its residents. In contrast, metro Detroit is 86 percent black, with less than 4 percent white residents.

There is a wall in northwest Detroit that served as a physical barrier to integration as much as Alter Road is its visible symbol. The Birwood Wall, standing six feet high and a half-mile long, was built in the 1940s when a developer wanted to build homes for middle-class whites.

The U.S. government would not back the mortgages, however, because too many blacks lived in the area. To solve his problem, the developer built the wall to separate the black and white neighborhoods. As a result, the government willingly backed his project.

White-flight already had begun when tensions between blacks and whites erupted in 1943 in what has become known as the Detroit Race Riot. Thirty-four people were killed, nearly 700 injured, and 1,900 arrested. In 1967, the 12th Street Riot inflicted even more death and damage. During five days of rioting, 43 people were killed, nearly 1,200 injured, 7,000 people arrested, and 2,000 buildings burned to the ground.

The city—referred to in the 1880s as the “Paris of the West” because of its lavish architecture, bustling economy, and for Washington Boulevard, which had been recently electrified by Thomas Edison—was left in shambles.

RappersAs recently as 2004 Citadel of Faith’s zip code was identified as the second poorest in the state. It has one of the highest crime rates in a city the federal government has officially called the nation’s most violent. Northern High School recently graduated only 21 percent of its students.

Choosing Where to Live

Some members of the racially and economically diverse Covenant congregations could live elsewhere, but have chosen to reside in some of the worst parts of the city. Lisa Johanon, a founding member of Citadel of Faith, moved into the neighborhood in 1989 and is executive director of Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC). The nonprofit, faith-based organization seeks to empower people through various programs that focus on individuals as well as those which promote economic development.

Johanon is familiar with tough neighborhoods: she previously worked in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. “You go where there is great need,” she says.

Compassionate and seemingly fearless at the same time, Johanon has stubbornly stared down armed gang members while also reaching out to them. “It is hard for a kid to grow up on the straight and narrow,” she says.

Harvey Carey, Citadel’s pastor, has worked with the church leadership to boldly proclaim the gospel. Some nights, men of the church have camped out on a street corner generally occupied by drug dealers. When one of the dealers challenged their right to be there, Carey responded, “What kind of respect would you have for me if I said I followed Jesus and didn’t do this?”

Later, he explains, “I think they saw that we weren’t a bunch of wild people on the corner, but that we actually thought about them.” Over several months, the church delivered free Bibles to every apartment and house/residence in the zip code.

Carey says his church is determined to change the city “one person at a time, one block at a time.” As he considers his community, with its abandoned houses and businesses, he says, “I look at my own life. I was a boarded up building. Jesus saves sinners like me.”

CitadelFor previous stories on Citadel’s ministries, see Hip-Hopera and Backpacks.

Bob Hoey, pastor of Messiah Covenant, says that people often look at Detroit in the same way the people of Jesus’ day viewed Nazareth. “They wonder if anything good can come from there.”

Some of his members have moved to the area believing that good can indeed come from here. “They don’t see themselves as missionaries but as people of the community, with the people, not just for the people.” He emphasizes that the attitude is important. “Don’t come here to do anybody any favors,” he states.

Hoey, who is white, is a widely accepted member of the community. Many come to him for advice or help with their own outreaches to the community. Every Sunday, two small African American boys leap into his arms. He introduces them to others as if he were their proud grandfather. That tradition began one Sunday when he carried them to a car a block away. “I’ve done it ever since. That’s what they want.”

Pastors Share Love for People in City

The pastors share that kind of love for the people in the city.  “If I look at buildings and institutions, I would have no hope,” says Butcher. “But I see the faces. I ask God to break my heart.”

His heart does break. While talking about the people of his congregation and others in his neighborhood, his eyes frequently begin to tear up.

The tears come as he begins the story of a woman who has been ministered to in various ways by the church, “She came in and said, ‘For the first time in my life, I feel like a human being.’ ”

During one Sunday morning service, Butcher asks for prayer because he and several other church members are going to visit one of the local influential drug dealers who has been struck by a car.

BaptismMembers of Hope Community come from both sides of Alter Road and are gradually building community. One Sunday morning, the multi-racial worship team is leading the congregation in a kicking version of  “I’ll Take You There,” first made popular by the Staples Singers. A southern gospel number follows, and a traditional hymn is included later in the service. The music flows naturally and doesn’t feel placed in the service as a way of simply catering to different groups.

Butcher emphasizes that the growth of the church is the result of deliberate efforts to build community. “The show doesn’t matter; it’s the relationships,” he says. Each service, attendees—including first-timers—assemble in small groups to pray for one another and others in the congregation who have made their needs known.

“It’s the love of Christ that brings people,” Butcher says. “It’s not the parking lot. It’s not the nursery. It’s not the children’s program. It’s the love.”

Butcher explains that the church always is asking, “How do we include and value the people God has given us the privilege of being with? It’s reaching across, not reaching down.”

Love is not easy, however, and growing diverse churches in a long-segregated city can take its toll on both ministers and laypeople. Butcher recalls being emotionally spent and drained of hope. He called Carey, who told him, “This is the hardest thing we will ever do. We have to trust that Jesus Christ is going to honor what we do.”

The churches have been reaching more and more people. Citadel of Faith has grown to nearly 400 people in attendance and moved last September into a building that was once the first synagogue built in Detroit. Messiah attracts 260, and Hope Community regularly draws more than 230.

“If we will offer him our little, it creates an opportunity for him to multiply it,” Butcher says.

Editor’s note: Staff writer Stan Friedman spent several days in the Detroit area, meeting with Covenant pastors and members as well as conference leaders. This is the first of a three-part series – additional stories will appear Thursday and Friday. The photos show (top to bottom) Kevin Butcher preaching at Hope Community, a Messiah program to introduce children to farm animals, rappers performing at Citadel’s hip-hopera, the first worship service at Citadel, and Butcher baptizing a youth at Hope Community.

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