Spirit of Detroit

Step inside Historic Trinity Church and the majestic sounds of Bach or Handel or Vivaldi resound from mammoth pipe organs throughout the three-story house of worship. As the sun streams through the leaded stained glass windows, spilling onto oak pews, music and light  illuminate the gospel of joyful preservation taught from the pulpit.

“A church needs to be an open place, a focus of city life," says the Rev. Dr. David Eberhard, pastor of Holy Trinity. "It's a place you come to all at once, in a great rush of contradiction and paradox that is orthodox and outrageous. ... It is the church of the new urbanite.”

Historic Trinity parishioners distribute church flyers at loft buildings, coffee houses, Eastern Market stalls and anywhere people gather in the city. Eberhard is proud to say he has 1,800 church members with an average age of 36 and that the parish has become a source of regional outreach from its location at Gratiot and Russell Street, just east of downtown Detroit.

“The urbanite doesn’t read newspapers or mail that comes in envelopes but he yearns for tradition, a church with a choir, liturgy, organ music and something more, a sense of belonging,” Eberhard says. “Historic Trinity models itself as a downtown church that understands people of multi-generations and invites them to its spiritual home.”

Historic destination

Just as P.T. Barnum did whatever possible to get people into the Big Top, Eberhard looks at a variety of historical, mysterious and comical resources to get more people into the pews.

Tour groups – from the blue haired ladies from Livonia to the spouses of convention attendees at Cobo Center – stream through this Lutheran cathedral each week to see how art and architecture contributed to its placement on the city, state and national historic register. They seldom leave disappointed.

In this magnificent space they find stone statues, a bell tower, wood carvings, stained glass windows and ancient crucifix, much as might be discovered at any big city church. But Eberhard and his team of tour guides reveal more: a secret staircase hidden behind a revolving book case, a trio of life-size pastors in glass cases and an assemblage of doll houses made by the pastor to reflect Victoriana, Halloween, the Caribbean, a firehouse and a row of shops.

Eberhard, who served on the Detroit City Council for 24 years, sees the best way to repair the city’s woes as soothing the soul and restoring inner valor.   

Eberhard greets visitors in a study designed in the early 1930s to resemble Martin Luther's German study of the early 16th century. Its walls are covered with murals depicting scenes from the Reformation and the Renaissance. Visitors see one of the original bibles produced on a Guttenberg press and preserved under glass.

“There is eye candy everywhere you look,” says Stewart McMillan, an Indian Village resident who leads periodic tours through Historic Trinity and other downtown churches. (Editor's note: see photographer Dave Krieger's photo essay, Sacred Urban Space, for immediate eye candy.)

The pastor is most proud of his crucifix from an 1866 altar and an accompanying painting, both acquired from Oberammergau, Germany, a village that has staged annual Passion Plays since the 1600s.

Vocational calling

Growing up as the son of a minister, David Eberhard didn’t question how he wound up in seminary school in the days of spiritual activism and civil rights. He came to Detroit with his wife Beverly in the mid-1960s to Riverside Lutheran Church. The church ran medical clinics and community building workshops while he delivered rousing sermons that built a base of motivated followers.

Eberhard moved from the pulpit to the political arena, riding the wave of progressive leaders from President John F. Kennedy to then Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. He worked to restore Detroit's hopes and houses after the 1967 riot and later became a close friend of Mayor Coleman Young. He might have stayed in politics if not for Dick Huegli, then president of the Community Foundation for Michigan, who begged him to help restore Trinity Lutheran to its glory. Its membership had fallen to just 80 families, all seniors.

“Most downtown churches had become private clubs, where only card carrying members could worship. Visitors were welcome but not really. Then pastors wondered why they couldn’t get enough collections to fix the roof,” Eberhard says. “No building can serve its mandate when it is open only 1.8 hours a week.”

With the help of Monsignor Clement Kern, the late pastor of Most Holy Trinity, a Catholic church in Corktown, Eberhard learned how to create a niche for his congregation that would grow in size and stature. The two churches distinguished themselves by their antecedents, “Historic” and “Most Holy.”

Eberhard reached out to the Metropolitan Visitors and Convention Bureau and the Detroit Historical Society to offer tours and scheduled tours of other neighboring churches. Soon people were calling to schedule weddings, events and meetings at a facility that welcomed newcomers and old-timers. He founded the Detroit Historical Church Association, a group made up of ministers that meets three or four times a year to brainstorm about ways to grow a congregation.

“We are all here to promote downtown. As one church is strong, all of us become stronger,” Eberhard says. Eberhard, the father of five boys with 13 grandchildren, has a succession plan in place to keep the ministerial team focused on preservation.

Yet his primary purpose is to nurture the flock with a dynamic sermon, a service that might include the organ with bagpipes, guitars, re-enactments of holy scenes and a major processional with up to six clergy. Young adults who seek traditional dining rooms, classic styled cars and wardrobes look for a house of worship that looks solid.

The front door of Historic Trinity alone portrays 300 religious figures, starting with church founder Martin Luther and including Moses, Aaron and the Woman of Canaan.

“A church feeds the soul just as restaurants feed the stomach. You go to church because you want the ambiance and the emotional uplift of a service," Eberhard says. "You leave feeling you are forgiven, that God will walk with you through the week and give you the strength to take care of what you cope with.”

With that, he puts his head back in the Bible to prepare his next liturgical service. The phone rings, a new voice asks if the service will be relevant. “Come and put your feet under the Lord’s Table and partake of a meal," the pastor says. "You’ll gain a peace of mind that you cannot find all by yourself. God is listening.”

Maureen McDonald is a Detroit freelancer who contributes regularly to Model D. This is the first of her two features on historic downtown churches. The next one will appear in June.

Photos of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and Dr. David Eberhard Copyright Dave Krieger