By Stan Friedman
DETROIT, MI (June 26, 2013) – Once upon a time, Detroit was referred to as the “Paris of the West.” It was the 1880s, and the city’s architecture was lavish, its economy bustling, and Washington Boulevard had been recently electrified by Thomas Edison.
But it’s been many decades since anyone has made such comparisons. Bob Hoey, pastor of Messiah Covenant, says that when people look at Detroit today they are more apt to compare it to Nazareth of Jesus’s day. “They wonder if anything good can come from here.”
By almost any measure, the city is one of the country’s most violent, most segregated, and impoverished. The state has taken over Detroit’s daily operations because the city is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. As jobs have left, a mass exodus of people has followed.
Yet even as the city collapses, the Evangelical Covenant Church has grown even more determined to be reconcilers and rebuilders through a holistic sharing of the gospel. Churches feed and clothe the poor, stand against gangs, and lead gang members to Christ. They visit prisoners and help to heal the sick. They preach and worship.
And Detroit residents are responding.
“People have found out you cannot trust G.M., Chrysler, Ford, or the government, and their hearts are ready for the word of God,” says Semmeal Thomas, pastor of City Covenant Church, which is being accepted into the denomination at the 128th Annual Meeting this week. “Our church has experienced tremendous growth over the past three years. We have baptized over 150 new believers in Christ.”
And so the Covenant has planted.
“One Detroit pastor commented to me, ‘I want to know more about the Covenant because while everyone else seems to be abandoning Detroit you keep planting churches,’” says Dick Lucco, former Great Lakes Conference superintendent who is now the denomination’s executive director of ministry development.
Since 1999, the number of Covenant churches in the area has grown from two to 16, including the four that will officially be received into the denomination at the Annual Meeting this week.
Local and national publications such as Christianity Today magazine highlight the work of Covenanters like artist Yvette Rock, who recently opened an art gallery that will showcase the works of Detroit high school students alongside those of more established artists.
Covenant Community Care is a ministry to the underserved sponsored by denominational churches in the Detroit area and Covenant Ministries of Benevolence. It offers integrated medical, dental, and behavioral health care to nearly 10,000 patients annually through its three locations. It has been recognized by the federal government as a model for other clinics.
Members of several churches who could afford to live in more prosperous and safer neighborhoods have moved to the city because they believe 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,” Hoey says.
He emphasizes that the attitude is important. “Don’t come here to do anybody any favors.”
Love is not easy, however, and growing diverse churches in a long-segregated city can be a challenge. Kevin Butcher, pastor of Hope Covenant Church, once confided that he was emotionally spent and drained of hope to Harvey Carey, pastor of the Covenant congregation Citadel of Faith.
Carey responded, “This is the hardest thing we will ever do. We have to trust that Jesus Christ is going to honor what we do.”
It is a bittersweet Annual Meeting, however, because Larry Sherman, the former associate superintendent who guided the growth in the conference, died unexpectedly earlier this year. “He had an amazing capacity to make people feel at home and welcome in the Covenant,” says superintendent Garth McGrath. “He had such a strong belief in the people and pastors.”