Religion & Liberty Online

This church is rebuilding Detroit’s economic life

(Photo credit: Chuck Andersen. CC BY 2.0)

When reflecting on the church’s economic responsibility, some of us may envision an assortment of needs-based “outreach programs,” from food pantries and homeless shelters to short-term mission trips and fundraising drives. While these can be powerful channels for loving and serving our neighbors, we should consider the basic vision for human flourishing that precedes them. In addition to meeting immediate material needs, we are also called to affirm the dignity, callings, and gifts that people already have. “Solidarity means more than simply providing relief,” the PovertyCure vision statement says. “It means viewing the poor as partners and joining together with them in networks of productivity and exchange.”

For the Church of the Messiah, a 156-year-old Episcopal church in Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood, recognizing this basic distinction helped them reposition from relief hub to “incubation center,” bringing personal empowerment and transformation to their congregation and community. In a profile for Faith and Leadership, Angie Jackson digs deeper into their story and unique approach.

Up through the 1990s, the church was known for its traditional outreach ministries, including housing programs, summer camps, and after-school support. Yet attendance in actual services was increasingly sparse, eventually dwindling to 40 members with an average age of 56 in 2008. People “didn’t come to worship,” explains Rev. Barry Randolph, the church’s pastor. “They came to everything else.”

It was at that point that Randolph received a vision from God, Who told him to “go get my young people.” In addition to retooling Sunday services, Randolph adjusted the church’s approach to outreach, focusing more heavily on long-term economic empowerment. “You can’t throw money at it,” he explains. “It’s not about just getting somebody a job. Now you have to teach people how to keep the job. And it’s not about just bringing people up. Sometimes you gotta bring up the whole community.”

Learn more about their story in the following interview with Randolph:

According to Jackson, the church has now become a launching pad for people coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences:

Randolph and his parishioners see the church as an incubation center. At the church, someone with a business idea can team up with accountants and attorneys to get it off the ground, and many have. “You need your phone charged? Here’s a charging station,” said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, referring to Church of the Messiah’s four solar-powered community charging stations. “The entrepreneurial spirit, that kind of spirit, is what our church longs for.”

People returning home from prison can seek help getting a job from the church’s employment office. The church is also the home base for a marching band that secures college scholarships for teens who once thought they wouldn’t graduate from high school. To Randolph, it all ties back to providing people a path out of poverty.

Randolph also began tailoring Sunday sermons to focus more on the creative purpose and “greatness” that God has instilled in each and every human person, regardless of personal history, past sins, or professional pedigree. “Through the doors came formerly incarcerated people, former gang members, and individuals who’d dropped out of school,” Jackson explains. “These new parishioners wanted to know how to tap into the greatness Randolph preached about.”

Having clarified their theological vision for work and economic service, church leaders were able to better direct and connect congregants to economic opportunities, whether through one-on-one mentoring, job training, or referrals through the church’s own employment office. “We were putting things in place to where we were making the word of God tangible, regardless of your background,” Randolph explains. “We’re created in the image of God, so we need to bring it into fruition. We don’t want to waste that gift or talent.”

Since making the changes, Church of the Messiah has grown to 300 active members, comprising a mix of ages and races. Now, they are beginning to share what they have learned, helping other churches break the mold of traditional outreach programs and infuse their economic witness with a greater emphasis on human dignity, gifts, and creativity:

The church is spearheading what it calls The Master’s Plan, a coalition of 103 religious organizations seeking to rebuild communities and lift people out of poverty by drawing on the talents of their congregations. Randolph is leading churches in doing an asset assessment to identify members who work in the medical field, skilled trades, education and other professions to “help build the kingdom.”

“We’re trying to use other churches to be able to do it in their community and neighborhood with no excuses,” he said. “It’s worked for us.” The hardest aspect of this type of community building is for churches to shift their mindset from focusing on what people are missing to realizing what they have, said the Rev. Michael Mather … What would it take to shift your church’s focus from what’s missing to what assets are present?

As Christians, the success of such an approach should come as no surprise. We believe in a God Who fashioned us with dignity, creativity, and capacity — freeing us to love, service, and sacrifice through the gift of his own Son. As resources like Acton’s PovertyCure and For the Life of the World continue to proclaim and affirm, we are gift-givers and image bearers, not mere consumers or objects of pity. Our economic stewardship, generosity, and interactions ought to reflect that reality.

In Episode 1 of FLOW, Evan Koons puts the bigger Biblical story of all this in perspective, explaining how, despite our fallen nature and brokenness, God made a way to restore us to that original priesthood. “All is gift,” he reminds us:

God himself becomes a man, and the gift he offers to the Father is himself, and all of creation is in tow behind him. Once and for all he restores the way of our purpose. He restores our priesthood. We can once again offer to God our lives, our work, knowledge — everything. We join our gifts with Christ, to offer the world to the Father in love and for the life of the world. And that is the purpose of our salvation. That’s what it’s for — for the life of the world.

As we seek to alleviate injustice in the world — familial, social, economic, or otherwise — we can look to Church of the Messiah and others like it as reminders of how we ought to approach our neighbors: not out of humanistic striving or materialistic shifting, but by affirming and stirring up the gifts of others for the glory of God and the good of the world.

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.