Redemption Song

Before there were lofts and townhouses, before there was ever talk of Detroit as a cool city, there was development based on faith.

Pioneers like Rev. Charles Adams, pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, and Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of Historic Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church, paved the way for church-based community development in Detroit. Rev. Holley has long held that the church has a pastoral responsibility – as well as an evangelical opportunity – to serve the needs of those living in the area near it, which he calls "redemptive territory." In a 1993 sermon, he defined Little Rock’s mission in terms of filling the gap between the needs of people in the Central Woodward area and the ability of his church to meet them through economic development, beginning with the Country Preacher bakery and food service.

Today, Little Rock's community development corporation (CDC) sponsors more than 20 human, economic, and community development programs, including a charter school, a job placement center, two commercial strip malls, a convalescent center, and a medical services building. Little Rock also plans to construct 175 single family homes in the Central Woodward area, according to Rev. Holley. Little Rock’s enterprises have also provided more than 500 jobs, ranging from minimum wage to a $150,000 yearly salary.

Church organizations are 'cornerstones'

Church organizations like Little Rock and Hartford Memorial have played a "crucial role" as "cornerstone institutions" in urban Detroit, says Greg Roberts, director of the Michigan Office of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Roberts, an ordained minister at Fellowship Chapel in Detroit, helps community development organizations connect with state resources.
While Roberts acknowledges that secular community development efforts also play a role, he credits religious organizations as having a unique sense of "faith" that overcomes barriers which might have seen insurmountable to others. "What drives a person of faith in any area is the ability to deal and overcome challenges," he says. "People of faith are driven by (the belief that) the Almighty will give you the guidance that you need," Robert says. "I would hate to think of what the city of Detroit would be like without stable, stalwart churches.”
Faith-based community development is largely an African-American tradition, stemming from the need to compensate for a segregated society, according to Donna Givens, executive director of Vanguard CDC, affiliated with Second Ebenezer Church, in the North End district. The area along Oakland Boulevard was a vibrant African-American community in the mid-20th century, until integration and regional economic opportunity lured its businesses and residents to other communities. The area declined dramatically, losing more than 70 percent of its population, leaving Oakland Boulevard nearly vacant.

Vanguard, which received the 2006 Detroit community development award by MASCO Corp. and LISC-CDAC, has launched a small business development center, educational programs, and a housing initiative. The CDC views housing as critical to restoring population in the community. Genesis Villas, an 89-unit townhouse development, is in place. Groundbreaking is planned soon for Melrose Square, 24 single family houses. Cameron Court, a 20-unit townhouse development, is also in the planning stages.

"I believe that if Oakland Avenue is ever going to come back, it's not going to be because someone looks at a demographic study and says this is where I want to place my business," Givens says. "It has to be a person of faith who believes, if I build this business, people will come." Givens is a graduate of the Harvard University Summer Leadership Institute, a faith-based community development program co-founded by Rev. Adams.

The bottom-line is more than financial

While the principles of community development are the same, faith-based initiatives have a subtle difference. "When you come in with a purely capitalistic mindset, you get as much as you can," Givens says. "That's the way the economy works. A person of faith believes that there is a social value. … When you believe in principles that are greater than your self interest, you’re likely to do that."

There is also a distinction drawn between the church and the community development activities of Vanguard, Givens says. "We don't proselytize. We don’t talk about religion on this side of the street," he says, "although we’re very connected to the Second Ebenezer side of the street."

There is a similar distinction between Church of the Messiah on the Near East Side and its housing corporation, even though housing staff work out of the church building. "We are a mission-driven organization, but we're also a developer," says Frances Howze, executive director. Messiah Housing is located in Islandview Village, which placed fourth in the 2007 Neighborhood USA competition. "The bottom line is this is a church and God'’s house. Messiah Housing always has to remember that we have more of a human piece to us than just bricks and mortar," Howze says. "At the end of the day, people don’t see us as Messiah Housing; they see us as Church of the Messiah."

Founded by community activists in the 1960s, Messiah Housing has been a leader in establishing new housing in Detroit and preparing its adjacent area for market-rate development. Messiah Housing has recently begun construction of 150 single family homes in Islandview Village.

Howze owns a townhouse in English Village, a market-rate townhouse development on the Near East Side. "Would I have bought here if there had not been Messiah? Would English Village have thought about building if there hadn’t been the public improvements (made possible) by Messiah Housing? I don’t think so," Howze says. "Or it would have been more difficult."

Howze has roots in the neighborhood and recalls playing on the steps of Messiah as a child. "It has been a great force in keeping the neighborhood going (but) it's the community itself, the people who live here, who made Messiah what it is," he says.

Building pride into the neighborhood

Central Detroit Christian CDC also views itself as a force of community revival. Its rehabilitation and resale of abandoned homes and new construction of single family homes has generated “new pride” among residents, says executive director Lisa Johanon. Central Detroit Christian has renovated 16 homes and built nine new homes. “We’re seeing a greater number of people out on a ladder (repairing their homes),” says Johanon.

"You see more private Dumpsters in driveways because they're doing some type of renovation. There are more homes for sale – that's good and bad. There is a value to my home now, when maybe there wasn't one before," says Johanon, who lives in the neighborhood. Her 2,000-square-foot home purchased for $22,000 in 1989 is now valued at $122,000. She lives within walking distance of her office, which is located in the basement of an apartment building the CDC renovated recently.

The CDC recently purchased and renovated Mr. Fo-Fo's delicatessen, converting it into a more community-friendly deli/ice cream parlor. "I want this to be a place where people are comfortable and make it have a family feeling," says Johanon.

The Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, a coalition of nine Detroit churches, has made a major impact in the Gratiot Woods area on the Near East Side, which is anchored by Nativity Church, a 4-H club, and a market. Organized in the wake of 35 Catholic church closings in the city, the Alliance pledged to promote housing, economic development, anti-racism, senior services, and spirituality.

More than $5 million in private and nonprofit development has occurred in Gratiot Woods, largely through the Alliance. The Alliance is recreating the neighborhood through diverse housing – single family infill, townhouses, mixed use live/work condos, and high rise senior apartments.

The Alliance, which owns 150 lots in the area, has renovated 16 homes and built 16 new infill homes, which have inspired homeowners to invest in home improvement. It has launched a second phase of development, offering 15 single family homes, 15 townhouses, and 30 loft condominiums for $135,000 to $150,000. It has also been responsible for about $500,000 in beautification improvements, including planting 300 trees made possible through the Greening of Detroit.

Like other faith-based initiatives, the Alliance sees its role in creating a holistic community in Gratiot Woods, preparing the way for market-rate development. "Once we get to that pricing level and are able to sell those units, a market-rate developer is able come in and make some money on a development," according to Christopher Bray, development director of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance.

Givens says that Vanguard also sees a role of developing an area and creating economic opportunity. "We believe that you can try really hard to get Wal-Mart to come into the ‘hood. Before there was a Wal-Mart, we had our own businesss," Givens says. "We believe we have to spur business development within our community.”

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D.


New Housing in Islandview Village

Little Rock Baptist Church

New Commercial Space on Woodward across from Little Rock

The Corsi Apartments in Gratiot Woods

Church of the Messiah

New Housing in Islandview Village

Mr. Fo-Fo's Deli

Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance

Gratiot Woods Infill Housing

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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