Pastor’s second act – and blessed life – ends too soon

Farewell, friend. You were too young to die. I saw you just the day before. Now I won’t see you again. Not on this earth, anyhow.

Farewell, friend. We hugged at breakfast. I said “Hennnrrry,” as I usually do, and buried my head into your huge upper chest. You were dressed up. It was a big day. The sun was out in the winter sky.

Farewell, friend. If I had known it was our last meeting, the things I would have changed. We spoke as if we had forever. We talked about Christmas coming up, the programs at your church, the hungry to be fed at your shelter. We got into a car that was waiting for us, like big shots, and it drove us to a TV studio in Rockefeller Center.

You kept looking out the windows like a little kid, you kept saying, “Wow, New York has gotten really beautiful.” You were happy. That made me happy.

Farewell, friend. I keep saying, “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I sense something?” But there was nothing ominous about the day. We walked into that studio together, you twice my size, the Mutt and Jeff jokes flowing. And the fuss they made over you! Everyone seemed to know you. The hosts showed pictures of your church in Detroit, the giant hole that was once in the roof, the hole through which rain and snow fell on your congregation of poor and homeless, the hole that we finally fixed, together.

Who knew there was another hole coming?

From crime to salvation

Farewell, friend. You were a big man with a big story, big enough for two lives. The first life lasted 30 years. It began with poverty, a mother behind bars, a neighborhood full of trouble. It ended one night in Brooklyn – after years of crime, arrests and addiction – when you lay hiding behind a row of trash cans, holding a shotgun, preparing for your death.

“Save me, Jesus,” you whispered. “Save me tonight, and I’m yours tomorrow.”

You were saved that night, saved from the drug dealers out for revenge, and saved from the spiral of an empty, wasted life. Your soul began its comeback. You got clean. Stayed clean. And you kept your promise. You gave the Lord not only your devotion, but your days.

You became a churchgoer, a student, an elder, a deacon and finally, years later, Pastor Henry Covington, taking over an old, decaying church on Trumbull in Detroit. “It’s too big,” they told you. “And look at that hole in the roof!”

But you had faith. You built a ministry, one soul at a time. You called it I Am My Brother’s Keeper. You drove around Detroit’s worst neighborhoods with food on the hood of your car. You honked so that the homeless would emerge from abandoned buildings. You told those hungry people, “God loves you.”

Because you had felt that love yourself.

You never hid your past. You used your mistakes to understand others. You had been a boxer and as a pastor you fought all doubt. You ministered in your sanctuary and sometimes across the street, sitting on an old stone wall, because, as you said, “Some people just aren’t ready to come inside.”

You went where souls were broken.

Farewell, friend.

Who continues the mission?

We were as different as it gets. Different faiths, different skin color. I could fit under one of your massive arms. But we called each other “friend,” we built together, served together, did a book together, called “Have a Little Faith,” and, boy, do I need some faith now, because, Henry, I adored you. I never saw you so happy as that last day, Monday, in New York, back in your hometown. We walked to the famous skating rink and took a photo, and on the way to the airport, you asked if you could stay another day. You wanted to visit family you hadn’t seen in years. It was the holidays. You felt nostalgic.

We changed your ticket. You got a hotel room. And after a long day and night of seeing old faces, you went to sleep there.

And you died there.

Perhaps your heart could no longer carry the weight. Your second life ended after 23 years, 53 years total. Too short, Henry. We were just together. I felt your cheek against mine. Now what? What happens to your beloved church? How do the poor and homeless survive?

Farwell, friend. I know you’d say you are in a better place, but my grief is matched only by a terrible, aching emptiness. I am doubled over, as if kicked in the stomach. We fixed a hole together. How do we fix this?

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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