AN EVEN TOUGHER BATTLE

The man who lost his toes to frostbite lays down on a mattress, and the man who lost his teeth to street fights checks the final name off his clipboard. The room quiets and the lights dim and Henry Covington, the pastor, who turned this church gym into a floor of hope at the bottom of the world, walks a rickety balcony and surveys the homeless men below.

They say the meek will inherit the earth, but there is nothing meek about Henry Covington. He weighs, by his own admission, north of 450 pounds, his arms roll out from the sleeves of his T-shirt, and his broad chest spreads atop his broad belly, suggesting a powerful athlete once operated beneath all that flesh.

But whatever his strength, Covington – whom they call “The Rev”- can’t hold up the building, and his Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in Detroit is falling down around him. The roof has a giant hole. The front vestibule leaks rain. DTE Energy shut the heat when the bills piled up – and how wouldn’t they pile up when the hot air shoots up through a roof hole? – so now, during church services, the congregation sits in a small area cordoned off by plastic sheeting, trying to stay warm.

But they get by. That is Covington’s mantra. God finds a way and they get by. He is pastor to an extremely poor congregation, too poor for dues or membership drives. Henry, as the leader, gets paid virtually nothing. He often cooks the donated food for street people who sleep here on Tuesdays and Thursdays – chicken, macaroni and cheese, pork neck bones and rice.

He doesn’t complain. He knows what it’s like to be hungry. And if his congregants are fighting drugs, he knows that, too. If they’re broke or even on parole, he can relate. He has been through it all.

“I wasn’t born saved,” he likes to say, smiling.

And just as the frostbite victim once played a baseball game at Riverfront Stadium, and the clipboard man once won a high school basketball championship, so, too, does Covington, the pastor, have a glory days story.

He may move slowly now, a heavy man with heavy burdens.

Ah, but once … Fooling around with the sweet science

Once he was lean and fast and strong in his punches, a kid who learned to slap-box on the streets of Brooklyn. As early as fifth grade, he remembers fighting two kids at once and still winning. As a teenager, guys in his neighborhood would put on old headgear and fraying gloves and pound on each other for hours, pretending they were Muhammad Ali or Ken Norton.

“I finally went to a gym and learned some technique,” he says. “I had fast hands. There were guys who told me I should go pro. But everybody talked like that.”

And then Henry went to prison.

In truth, he went several times, for days, weeks and once for 3 1/2 years, he admits, on a manslaughter charge. It was during that last stretch, he says, that he made his first promises to God -“get me through this and I will serve you.”

It was also there that he stepped into a ring.

“This was in the Elmira Correctional Facility in Elmira, N.Y.,” he recalls. “There were two guys in there, a heavyweight and a welterweight, and they worked with me and got me ready. We would box every chance we got in the armory. Because of my fast hands, they told me I could do well.

“When the annual prison competition came, I entered as a heavyweight. This was a big event. They had everyone watching. Maybe 300 or 400 people.

“The guy I had to fight, his name was Black. He reminded me of Jack Johnson. He was like 6-foot-3. His arms seemed to be 6-foot by themselves. I got in the ring, the bell rang – and I couldn’t move.

“I just couldn’t move. I was frozen. All those people. I couldn’t breathe. This was the first time I had ever fought on a canvas floor, and it felt strange to me.

“Well, Black started in on me with a four-punch combination. One punch was so hard I thought it broke my back. Then he hit me so hard on the chin I could feel the glove, the wrap and his fist right through it.

“The only reason I didn’t go down for good is on one punch, I was reeling backwards when he came with the upper cut. Everyone in the crowd thought I ducked it. But I didn’t even see it. I just got lucky.

“Somehow I made it through the first round, and I came back to the corner, and my guy, the welterweight, said, ‘Look. If you don’t start throwing some punches, this guy will kill you.’ “

That was good enough for Henry. He came out swinging and landed a hard body punch, he says, that seemed to open things up. From that point, any time his opponent swung, Henry slipped inside and pounded right hooks to his ribs.

He won a split decision. It was his first “official” victory in a ring. He let the referee raise his hand.

Then next week came the finals.

“I only weighed like 198 pounds. The guy I had to fight weighed like 214. His name was Walik. I remember that. And he told everybody in prison how he was gonna finish me, how I was gonna need a propeller on my head to stand up.”

Motivated by that talk, he says, Henry came right after the guy from the opening bell. And in the third round, he hit him so hard that his mouthpiece flew out. By the end, the judges all agreed.

Henry won by unanimous decision.

“I was heavyweight champion of the Elmira Correctional Facility on my 21st birthday,” he says, shaking his head as if it happened in another life. “They gave me a trophy. They wrote me up in the Inmate News.”

When he got out of prison, he thought about fighting, but he never did. He fell into drug abuse and more petty crime. He stole. He got high. He stole some more. He broke his promise to God. The heavyweight trophy wound up with his brother, who bragged that he had won it. Soon it was stolen and never seen again.

All that remains of Henry’s brief boxing career are a couple of Polaroid photos, a photocopy from the prison newspaper and his memories. Answering a higher calling

But that was 30 years ago. Covington, now 51, finally turned his life around, broke free of drugs and the street life, and got involved with the Pilgrim Assemblies in New York. In time, he became a deacon and was sent to Detroit, where he eventually became pastor in this church, a few blocks from the gleaming Motor City Casino, in a building that, believe it or not, is actually an official historic site, the former Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian Church. With Victorian architecture of towers, spires and parapets, it was once, in the late 19th century, the largest Presbyterian church in the upper Midwest.

That was long before the collapsed roof, the broken pipes, the stolen stained glass windows or plastic-enclosed “warm” section of the sanctuary.

These days, Covington fights a different battle than the one in the ring. He fights for people who have been forgotten. He fights for people who might otherwise be discovered dead in the snow. He makes no judgments. How can he make judgments? Look at the wretch he once was, he says. In a recent sermon, he spoke about how too many people in the world “only want to see you for what you used to be or what you are now. They don’t want to see you for what you can become.”

Isn’t that the truth about the homeless in Detroit, the women who bounce between shelters, the men who sleep on this gym floor? Most of us see them stumbling through the cold, and while our hearts may go out to them, we often figure this is their fate. They are never getting warm. They are never getting straight. They are never getting out.

But never is an unjust word for human beings. Anything can happen. One moment can change a life. There was a night in Henry’s past where he’d held up a man for money, and a few hours later, the police had Henry in a lineup and the man was brought in to identify him.

“He knew it was me,” Henry says. “But for some reason, he said he couldn’t be sure. If he had fingered me, I might have gone away for a long time. He was being kind. God was being merciful. And I knew I had to do something about that.”

So now the lights go out in the gym and blankets are pulled over sometimes shivering bodies, and the guy who did something about it, Henry Covington, sits in a chair that overlooks it all and watches in the dark for several hours.

“It’s funny,” he says. “When I sit up here, and I look down on the guys, it’s like this feeling of … protection. It’s like: ‘Nobody’s gonna hurt you now. God has put you in my care. And I love you.’ “

He folds his thick arms across his broad chest. “And that right there is one of the most satisfying moments in my life.”

Once, they played baseball in Riverfront Stadium, or made a game-saving tackle, or held a boxing trophy high overhead. And in their dreams they are still young and powerful – as we all are in our sports dreams – but in the light of day, the world is meager and cold and hungry.

This is not a foreign country. This is just down the street. This is smack in the middle of our city. This is just another weeknight, where a one-time heavyweight champ watches a floor of sleeping men who have all their worldly possessions in plastic bags near their heads, and he still sees hope rising with each snoring breath. Because it’s life. And life must always mean hope, or why would we go on?

Mitch Albom’s Dreams Deferred has been a holiday tradition in the Sports pages of the Free Press since 1994. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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