Rain falls on the church roof. It pours through a gaping hole and splashes onto the pews. Against the plop, plop, plop of gathering water, a pastor urges nearly 100 weary men to believe in the future. They wear old jackets or sweatshirts. They line up for chili and cornbread. They sleep on the floor, atop vinyl mattresses.
“Enjoy the meal,” the pastor tells them as they line up. “There’s a place for you here. See that man for a blanket…”
This is my hometown, Detroit, in a devastated economy, in a crumbling church, on a cold, hard floor at the bottom of the world.
And still, there is hope.
If there is any advantage to living at the epicenter of the economic crisis, where our main industry—the auto business—has imploded, where abandoned houses seem to dot every corner, where the unemployment rate is a staggering 25%, it is this: You get to see what man is made of.
What I have seen is that man is made of tough stuff. Man can rise to the occasion. One such man is the pastor of this church. His name is Henry Covington. Thirty years ago, he was in prison. He’d been a drug dealer, a drug abuser, a thief, and an armed robber. He had every excuse to see the world as hopeless.
But on a night when he truly hit bottom, hiding behind trash cans, certain he would be murdered by angry drug dealers, he promised his life to God if he lived to the morning.
He kept his promise.
These days, Pastor Covington, 52, runs the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in downtown Detroit. His huge brick building was once—more than a century ago—the largest Presbyterian church in the upper Midwest. Now, like much of Detroit, it’s been overgrown with poverty, and there are broken windows and a hole in the sanctuary roof through which the rainwater collects in buckets. Several times, this ministry has been close to folding. Local drug lords even offered the pastor money to let them use the church for their dealings.
But Henry Covington was done with that life.
Instead, he dug in. He found a way. Today, he conducts services through the cold, through the snow, even under a giant plastic tent when the gas company shuts the heat off due to unpaid bills. He takes little salary and lives with his family in a tiny, nearby home.
And yet, he says, “I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
What he means is that he is where he can make a difference. In that way, Covington is typical of many people in this economy who find new meaning in their lives despite losing jobs, homes, or status: They find it by giving to others and reconnecting with their faith.
In Detroit, we call it fighting back.
A few years ago, I spent a night at a local homeless shelter to write about the experience. As I stood in line for food, a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was who he thought I was. I told him yes.
“So,” he said, nodding sympathetically, “what happened to you?”
I never forgot that. I realized hard times can hit anyone. Now, all around our country, it is being proven true. With the mortgage crisis and the recession, even rural states like Wyoming and Montana have seen jumps in their unemployed and homeless populations. In Detroit, nearly half of the homeless are families, and more than half of those are on the streets for the first time.
“A lot of people are just a paycheck away,” Covington says. Which is why his church doubles as a shelter on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I go there often. I am always moved by how the homeless visitors, tired and hungry, sometimes holding young children, still listen carefully when Covington tells them things can get better, when he bellows, “I am somebody, because God loves me!” and they repeat his sentence, yelling even louder.
I am also impressed by how many volunteers come down from the suburbs—including other churches—some who still have their jobs and homes and some who don’t. They come to serve food, to offer a smile. “It seems the worse it gets, the more people want to help out,” Covington says. “ Maybe they have more time on their hands now. Or maybe…”
He shrugs. “Maybe it makes them feel better about things.”
Think about it. As the normal pillars of life come falling down—jobs, workplaces, bank accounts—where do we most likely turn for comfort? Not to former bosses or co-workers, who often act as if unemployment were contagious.
Many of us turn back to our communities, our neighbors, and our faith. And while there are mixed signals about actual religious-service attendance during this recession (some say up, some say flat), it’s no accident that programs such as Covington’s have increased across the nation—as have the volunteers willing to help in them.
“There is always someone who has it worse,” Covington says. “When you realize that, you don’t feel as bad for yourself. We have more people in need than ever. But we also have more people than ever wanting to help.”
So this is our silver lining. Here, in a state where General Motors employs one-tenth of the people it employed 30 years ago, we pull together. We will do with less. We will pray a little more.
And Detroit will endure, just as Covington has endured. After turning his own troubled life around, he allowed a homeless addict to sleep in his house for a year. Later, he offered shelter to a woman and her baby who were victims of abuse. Today, the former addict is clean, has a house, and is an elder of the church; the woman is now his wife, and they are raising a family.
I don’t know when the economy will turn. But I’m pretty sure these times are testing us, the way our parents or grandparents were tested in the Great Depression. And I think we’re supposed to learn something.
What we’re learning in Detroit is that when everything falls down, we still have one another. So before winter comes, we aim to fix that hole in Covington’s roof, to shut out the rain and snow. We’ll do it, because this is how our gritty old city—and how America—will get out of this mess, by having a little faith in our beliefs and in each other, and by showing it, one extended hand at a time.