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Faith in Detroit

At the height of the Vietnam War, the Jesuit brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, actress Jane Fonda and world renowned minister Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered antiwar sermons from the pulpit of Central Methodist Church in Grand Circus Park.

Those speeches reflect the current mission of Central Methodist, says James Bull, historian for the Gothic Revival church that continues to house annual Martin Luther King Jr. tributes, antiwar rallies and world class speakers. The church, built in the mid-1880s, has a seating capacity of 1,000.
   
“Two banners hang in the sanctuary that sum up our mission," Bull says. "(They say) peace and justice.”
   
Around town the First Congregational Church hosts almost daily re-enactments of the Underground Railroad in its basement and Gesu Parish brews its coffee ministry to attract young urban professionals.  Central Methodist operates the Swords into Plowshares Peace Center and Art Gallery.  Each seeks a niche that renews faith and followers.

“The definition of a church is the very alternative to what is dehumanizing society,” says Steve Spreitzer, the interfaith coordinator of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion. “Churches are about faith and interdependence, coming together in a body to worship.”
   
Underneath the majestic spires, historic stained glass windows and ceiling murals are looming utility bills that tower over $100,000 a year and preservation tasks that spiral to hundreds of thousands. Expanding outreach is essential.
   
“As you ride up and down Woodward Avenue you’ll see numerous buildings demolished while the churches are still standing. It is art and architecture preserved by dedicated congregations,” says Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and head of the Sacred Places Project.
  
Four workshops a year are attended by church leaders and board members to address nagging bills and spreading ambivalence. Members of the the preservationist organization share ideas that range from creating a weight/workout room in the basement and hosting faith-based rap concerts to conducting historical research to display on the web.
   
Why has attendance at churches declined? Spreitzer suggests three causes – the secularization that swept Europe, Canada and the United States made church less relevant to the masses that chose shopping, house hunting and relaxation to church attendance.
   
Second, the scandals over graft, political contributions and predatory behavior have weakened the respect for the institution of the church and the belief in its ethics. Third is a largely non-traditional spirituality found outside of the formal church among those who don’t find relevance in the pews, according to Spreitzer.

First Congregational Church

Sent to find a box in the basement labyrinth  of the 100-plus year old church at Woodward and Forest in the year 2000, a volunteer quipped the basement was mysterious enough to house escaped slaves during the Underground Railroad. Pastor Lottie Jones-Hood didn’t laugh. She spun into action with an idea for a living museum that touched lives locally and globally.
   
Starting with a $5,000 grant in 2001 from the Detroit 300 Committee, and then adding a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the church now offers almost daily re-enactments of the Underground Railroad journey. A group of slaves – parishioners volunteering time – take visitors along an interactive journey from a cabin on a Louisiana Plantation to the dock near the Detroit River where a boat would take them to safety in Canada or Canaan.
   
Recently the church had a busload of visitors from Idaho who came to see what was happening in this dwelling.
   
“With the drama of the Underground Railroad, we could teach both diversity and spirituality,” Jones-Hood says. “It’s a form of ministry for us to depict the healing in song, story and drama, with whites and blacks participating in the path to freedom.”
   
Tour groups have an option of taking a tour within the church or opting, for an extra price, a taking a new tour of Underground Railroad sites in Detroit. First Congregational owes its long history to being a safe spot on the symbolic rail in the mid-1800s.
   
Back in the day, slaves were referred to as “packages” or “freight,” the safe houses were “stations” and the “rail” was a path that took more than a year to follow from the Deep South to Detroit. Guides such as Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery herself, were known as conductors.
  
The tours help fund a whopping $100,000 a year utility bill, up from $30,000 when Jones-Hood took over the church. A project to help redo the porch steps started at $16,000 and rose to $350,000 when contractors found the whole structure ready to fall in. The Lake Superior red sandstone that comprises the church structure needs constant tuck pointing.
  
“We work to make this church self-sustaining, to create the kind of ambiance that people feel good about when they walk in,” she says. The church is a major destination for the University Cultural Center Association's Noel Night in December and Detroit Festival of the Arts in June. Tourists take mini tours of the Underground Railroad sets and return to learn a vital chunk of the nation’s history.
   
“Contributing to a church is in fact contributing to the heritage of Detroit,” she says.

Central Methodist Church

When lecturer and author Marianne Williamson took the pulpit of the historic Central Methodist Church for a capacity crowd celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January, she was mesmerized by its commitment to social justice.
 
“I have a lot of respect for the history and the spirit of Central United Methodist,” she says. “Every pulpit has a personality, and I’ve spoken on many pulpits. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there, remember. There’s a spirit and passion – for God, and for humanity – at that church. And I think Rev. Ed Row extends that spirit graciously.”
   
The congregation dates back to 1822 when then Gov. Lewis Cass approved a constitution for the First Methodist Episcopal Society. The church opened its present facility in 1867.
   
Like many churches along Woodward Avenue, a 30-foot section was removed from the nave, and the front entrance and tower relocated in 1936 when the M-1 was widened. Its stained glass windows explore the theme of good and evil, celebrating former UAW labor leader Walter Reuther as good and the atomic bomb as a grave evil.
 
The liberal consciousness, according to church historian Bull, dates back to 1830 when the sheriff and church member resigned rather than preside over the last execution held in Michigan. Church members threw a flogging post in the river rather than let someone be whipped in the town square.
   
In addition to contributions from peace and justice groups, sales and awareness comes from Tiger fans attending games at neighboring Comerica Park. They come for tours, parking places and peanuts on game days.
    
A legal brawl between the American Atheists Inc. and the Detroit Downtown Development Authority has tied up a $310,343 DDA grant to improve the façade, sanctuary and two parking lots for the 2006 Super Bowl.
   
“We’re still waiting for the money, it could go a long way,” Bull says. The funds were given to churches as property owners of strategic locations. “There are times in the winter where the congregation meets on the second floor because it costs too much to heat the sanctuary itself.”

Gesu Parish

While riding his bike through the University District neighborhood near Livernois and McNichols in 2005, Walter Pilon heard a choir singing inside a Spanish styled Roman Catholic Church and stepped inside.
   
“The music was fabulous and the sermon was interesting. I couldn’t get enough of the feeling I experienced every time I came,” says Pilon, the COO of Flushing-based Coffee Beanery who lives in northwest Detroit. “I felt called to be here.”
   
Gesu, built in the early 1930s and remodeled in the 1980s, once had a congregation so wealthy it declined new contributions between the 1930s and 1950s. The late Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanaugh was an active member. Today it welcomes contributions to its community-building ministry.
   
“This is one of the most stable parishes in the city of Detroit, and we credit our excellent music director and spirited choir that find relevant and meaningful music,” says Bob Herman, Gesu's business manager.
   
Remarkably, the church was designed by George Diehl and renovated by his son Jerry Diehl, both parishioners. The new design subtracted pews, creating a gathering room that only recently took hold of its vision.
   
Church members volunteer on periodic Saturdays to ring doorbells in surrounding communities, seeking out people’s spiritual and social needs. Others are drawn to the friendly atmosphere that acknowledges birthdays and anniversaries from the pulpit on a weekly basis. People stay and socialize with Fair Trade coffee and donuts.
   
Coffee Beanery now supplies the coffee, cups, napkins and air pots so senior citizens can pour drinks with ease,” says Pilon who arranged the donation. “The crowd in the coffee house snowballed when the taste improved.”
   
With a corporate donor for hot drinks, the church invests more in bagels and donuts. Parishioners surge out of their pews to enjoy their social hour.
   
“More people sign up for volunteer activities because church leaders reach them during the coffee hour," Pilon says. "New ideas percolate.”

Maureen McDonald is a regular contributor to Model D, where part one of her report on Detroit's historic churches was published in May. For more, see photographer Dave Krieger's photo essay Sacred Urban Space.

Photos:


Gesu's Sanctuary

Central Methodist Church

Fellowship at Gesu

First Congregational Church

Central Methodist Church

Fellowship at Gesu

Gesu Catholic Church



All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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