By Stan Friedman
DETROIT, MI (April 8, 2011) – In Fall 2009, the leadership of the Covenant Church of Cheboygan began looking for ways the church could serve outside their small rural community and beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. They also decided to tithe on the money raised for a construction project and use it to help a fledgling congregation.
The church wanted to give more than just money, however. With the help of the Great Lakes Conference, they eventually connected with City Covenant Church, the newest Evangelical Covenant Church congregation in Detroit.
The developing relationship between the two churches with obvious similarities is helping attenders to see that the congregations aren’t so different in other important ways as well.
Swedish immigrants started Cheboygan Covenant in 1887, an all-white congregation in a community of 5,000 people. City Covenant, a multiethnic congregation, opened its doors on July 18, 2010, starting out of a nonprofit social service agency serving poor youth on Detroit’s west side. The congregation now meets in a building formerly owned by a Southern Baptist church.
More than 50 people have been baptized at City Church. Both churches have an average attendance of more than 110 people.
Several members of the Cheboygan congregation have visited the Detroit church, and in the summer, City Covenant members will travel north. “There is a desire in both churches to break down barriers,” says Semmeal Thomas, City Covenant’s pastor. “Our hope is that this relationship will teach both churches more about who God is and what he is doing in our world.”
One of the biggest challenges is each congregation’s perception of the other, which is why the continued interaction and visits are important, Thomas says. “They can see Detroit is not what they think it might be. Our people can see the challenges the people there face.”
The pastor adds, “We have much more in common than we know.” He notes that the youth have the same basic needs to be accepted and understood, as well as for strong role models who can give spiritual guidance. The also share the same concerns about the economy and jobs as well as other issues.
Another issue common to both churches is fear. “For some of our teens, going to the city is scary,” says Carl Franzon, pastor of the Cheboygan church. “For some of their younger folks, going into the woods is frightening.”
Climate differences have kept the Detroit parishioners at home. “They didn’t want to send anyone in the winter because of all the snow,” says Franzon, laughing.
Funding from the Cheboygan church has been instrumental in helping City Covenant get established. “Our friends at Cheboygan have just been a huge blessing,” Thomas says.
Donations have helped even in small ways. “We didn’t have communion trays, we didn’t have a pulpit – many of the things most churches take for granted,” Thomas says.
Franzon says both congregations want the relationship to grow beyond just Cheboygan Covenant helping the Detroit church. “We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but that’s part of what is exciting – not knowing.”
Thomas says he is excited about City Church’s connection with the Covenant denomination. That relationship began when the Great Lakes Conference associate superintendent heard from two non-Covenant congregations about Thomas’ desire to start the church. The conference has worked with the congregations previously.
“I have been absolutely floored by the support they give you,” Thomas says. “The Covenant is dedicated to going into areas where others have left.”
In addition to sharing doctrinal perspectives, the denomination’s commitment to diversity also is important to Thomas. “The Covenant really is multicultural. Most denominations mean black and white when they say multicultural, but the Covenant has all kinds of people. I’ve never seen anything like the Covenant.”
Most of the people in Cheboygan have not had contact with others in the denomination. “We’re pretty isolated as a Covenant church up here,” says Franzon. The nearest church is more than 100 miles away. “People are learning the importance of the Covenant.”