Repaired church misses its leader

by | Dec 23, 2012 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

The hole in the roof has been patched and plastered, the church is warm and dry.

But other holes are not so easily fixed. Two years ago this past week, the Rev. Henry Covington, the pastor who founded I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in Detroit, traveled to New York to appear on the “Today” show. He told of how people rallied to help his church, how they repaired the broken roof that hovered over the poor and sometimes homeless congregants.

He was a big hit. Even the crew wanted to shake his hand. It was sunny and brisk and on the way to the airport, Henry, 53, seemed happy. He only wished he had more time to visit. He had been raised in New York City and wanted to see his friends and family. Life had been bad when he last lived there, more than 20 years earlier, a life of crime and drugs and desperation.

But life was good now. God ruled it, and he wanted to share that news. His flight was rearranged. Henry got to stay overnight.

I was with him on that airport ride. Henry was a subject of my book, “Have a Little Faith,” and I loved him dearly. We hugged at the terminal, his huge wingspan and massive body wrapping me like a blanket. We each said, “See you Thursday,” because we had promised to get together before Christmas.

We never did.

Henry died the next morning, in a hotel room, in his sleep. A heart attack.

That hole is yet to heal.

‘He left so much of himself

Henry’s Detroit church, just off Trumbull, looks much the same today, a Gothic relic from the 1880s, brick and limestone, spires and peaks and red wooden doors.

But the soul of the church is still in mourners’ clothes. It’s funny. When Covington was there, the place had so little, but it often felt full – full of his oversize spirit and optimism. Now, the church has more than it had in the past, more visitors, more physical improvements, but there is an emptiness that cannot be denied.

“We miss his teaching and his preaching,” says his wife, Annette, “but most of all, we miss his love. You felt it in his presence.”

“We sometimes expect him to just come around the hall,” adds Anthony (Cass) Castelow, Henry’s trusty companion and an elder at the church. “He left so much of himself inside each of us.”

Henry used to handle everything from sermons to food supply; today, those tasks are spread. Four people split the preaching duties, and every fifth week, someone else is invited to the pulpit. Annette deals with many administrative decisions. Nobody has singularly taken over. In some ways, the place is in a holding pattern.

“It’s a hard spot to fill,” Annette says.

The leaders pray for guidance. But the thing they want the most – what I, too, find myself wishing for – prayer cannot provide.

Henry can’t come back.

‘You miss Henry’s bear hug

What happens when a congregation loses its founder? It is inevitable, of course. Pastors die. Priests pass on. Rabbis and imams leave this Earth, often too soon. At such moments, the assembly must heal one another. Members must repeat the leader’s lessons. Pieces must be picked up and mended.

“Pastor had so many friends,” Cass recalls, “that we didn’t even know half of our problems. People came out of the clear blue sky to help him and he’d say, ‘Well, God blessed us again this month; somebody’s gonna pay the bills.'”

The church struggles with those bills today, heat and electricity. It struggles to provide food and shelter to homeless people it sleeps at night. It struggles with repairs for the endlessly decaying, 125-year-old building. It struggles with missing the smiling giant who brought everyone together.

“More than anything, you miss Henry’s bear hug,” Cass says. “He’d look like he was ready to swallow you up.”

The congregation could use one of those hugs this Christmas – a holiday that will always echo with the news of Henry’s death. If you get a chance, pay the members a visit at 1435 Brainard or drop them a note. Detroit came together once to patch a hole in their roof. The hole in their hearts could use some tenderness, too.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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