Brother’s Keeper church in Detroit needs new helping hand

by | Jun 9, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

This time, it’s not a hole in the roof.

It’s a gap in the community.

Ten years ago, I wrote about a church on Brainard and Trumbull, not far from old Tiger Stadium. It was holding services in the rain and snow — literally, in the rain and snow — because a large roof hole let all the elements through.

The church, I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry, was run by a remarkable man, Henry Covington, who overcame an early life of drugs and crime to become an inspiration to his congregation. Despite no heat, despite a wintry cold that forced his members to gather inside a plastic tent draped over the pews, Henry led his flock of mostly poor followers in prayer and hope every week.

He fed the hungry. He sheltered the homeless. On freezing nights, 80 or 90 people might sleep inside that church, fed by its kitchen, and warmed by the spirituality of the heavyset pastor with the sweet voice and easy laugh.

Thanks to many of you, we were able to raise funds to fix that roof hole in 2009. And to this day, a plaque hangs in the ceiling where that hole used to be, with the names of everyone who gave even a dollar to protect the souls below it.

Since then, sadly, other holes have gaped. The biggest was the loss of Covington himself, one year after he led a brigade of shingle-carrying volunteers to patch that roof. Henry died of a massive heart attack just before Christmas of 2010, after visiting with family in New York City. He was only 53.

The next hole came when Henry’s longtime friend and confidant, Anthony “Cass” Castelow, who was a homeless addict himself until Covington took him in, died of his own heart attack five years later. He had taken over the pulpit from Henry. Now he was gone, too.

It was like losing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Who would tilt at windmills with them gone?

Called into ministry

That charge fell to Henry’s wife, Annette Covington. For years she was the quieter partner to Henry’s boisterous persona. But privately, Annette was as tough as her husband. After all, she had endured his life of crime and his addictions, and joined him in building the ministry from scratch.

Many times, Henry would say to her, “I don’t know who I’m going to turn this congregation over to if I die.” He urged her to find her own calling. To become a pastor. But she would say, “I just don’t know yet.”

Five years ago, after constant battling to keep the church going, Annette knew. She found her calling. She was ordained, she said, in 2015, through the Faith Reconciliation Tabernacle Center, and began to lead the congregation, standing at the pulpit where her husband and Cass had stood before her.

And the Sunday services continued.

Until today.

Faith and a shaky foundation

Today will be the first Sunday her church does not offer an open door to whoever wishes to come and worship, Covington said. That’s because an inspector from the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department came out last week and determined the building isn’t safe.

“They told me someone called them anonymously,” Covington said. The inspector looked around. And until a structural engineer can be found — and a plan presented to repair the deficiencies — here is the verdict:

“All public services are to stop immediately. This includes religious services, food bank work, and volunteer services.”

Those are instructions from the city.

What the city doesn’t say is where the congregants are supposed to go, where the hungry are to turn, where the poor who have benefited from those services are expected to get them instead.

I guess that’s another department.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” Covington said. “We don’t know who called them out, but once they see something, if something were to happen and they knew about it, I guess it would be on them.”

Now, there are surely issues with the building. How could there not be? It dates back to the 1880s, when it was constructed as the prominent Trumbull Avenue United Presbyterian Church.

The structure is magnificent, with a Venetian Gothic exterior, numerous spires and arches, stained glass windows from another time, even a massive wood tracker organ that was installed 130 years ago.

But with the city’s decline, and the old congregation’s departure, the church was pretty much given to Henry Covington. Once it had been the largest Presbyterian congregation in the upper Midwest. But in the 1990s, the message to Covington was simple: “If you want to try and keep it up, good luck, here’s the keys.”

Henry kept it up, for years, by the skin of his teeth, and his faith. But any building that old is bound to have issues. And while the roof, which was replaced, remains sound, the walls are another story.

According to Annette, bricks are falling out, and an unused room by the back of the church is actually leaning. Doorways are not sound. And there is now a rodent problem, thanks in part to all the new construction going on in the area, which has torn down many old houses, sending rats scurrying for a new home.

Here’s how to help

Covington begged the inspector to let them have services outside. To serve the food outside. “But they told me nothing in front of the church,” she said.

They have given her only a couple days to get all important belongings out of the building. Then, until a structural engineer can be hired — and a plan presented to fix the issues — the church and all it offers will be shut down.

Covington is thinking about getting a tent to hold services in an empty lot across the street. In that way she and her departed husband are alike: fighting for their faith in a space that’s as much indoors as outdoors.

But it shouldn’t come to that. The Covingtons saved that church when nobody else wanted it. They ministered to a population that is grossly underserved. Henry used to drive through the neighborhood in his car, honking his horn for needy people to come out and collect food he distributed off his car hood.

Now, suddenly, the neighborhood is in vogue. New housing is going up. The old is being crushed and stripped away. Covington has suspicions that some folks would like to see her church fail, to fall behind in taxes or utilities to the point that she had to surrender it, so a developer could take it over and make some money.

That should never happen. The church is a landmark. It stood when the neighborhood was prosperous. It stood when the neighborhood was in decay. It should stand now, in whatever the neighborhood now becomes.

So 10 years after help was sought to fix the hole in the roof, help is being sought to keep the place standing. Money is needed to hire the engineer, and to make the structural repairs, at least enough to get back in and do the ministry, feeding and aid work that they do.

“At times, the pressures have gotten so bad, that I did think about selling it,” Annette said. “But the people we serve said, ‘Pastor, what would we do with you gone?’ ”

They faced that question when Henry died. And when Cass died. They shouldn’t have to face it again, especially for things that can be fixed. If you are inclined to help, donations can be made at aholeintheroof.orgor mailed to A Hole In The Roof Foundation, 29836 Telegraph Rd., Southfield, MI, 48034 — because, Annette said, she won’t be able to collect mail at the building until they let her back in.

A church, at its best, bolsters our souls. But this time, it’s the church that needs bolstering. We should find a way to do it. Shut down and locked out is no way for a congregation to spend a Sunday.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Theresa Ramus

    I donated today. I wish it could be more . I always wish it could be more, but I may donate again if it falls short of getting funds to do the things that need to be done. For a quick fix the tent across the street isn’t a bad idea for now. Old buildings like this should be preserved. They shouldn’t be torn down. They are landmarks from a different time. I was happy to donate before and always wanted to see that plaque on the ceiling with the names. So with your voice I know it can be done again. Perseverance


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