June 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Getting into spirit of things

Religious conventions to lift up Metro Detroit economy

Spiritual gatherings to boost Metro Detroit's economy this summer

Attendees of the Jehovah's Witness convention at Ford Field sing 'Keeping on Seeking First the Kingdom' on Friday. Jehovah's Witnesses will be back for a convention in the city in July. (Photos by David Coates / The Detroit News)

While tourists stream to Michigan’s beaches, parks and other attractions during the warmer months, thousands of the faithful are flocking to Metro Detroit.

Call it the sacred season: At least eight spiritual-themed meetings, conventions and conferences involving numerous groups — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, Muslims, Lutherans and more — are scheduled through October, all but one in Detroit. More than 110,000 attendees are expected.

“It’s going to be a fantastic summer,” said Bill Bohde, the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. The bureau estimates the gatherings could have a Metro economic impact of $79 million, with conventiongoers packing hotel rooms, filling restaurants and buying tickets for tourist destinations.

The fervor doesn’t end then, either. At least three major meetings are scheduled next year — including the National Baptist Convention’s Congress of Christian Education Annual Session, attendance for which is estimated at 55,000, Bohde said.

Among the largest this summer in the city are two Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions at Ford Field — the first running through Sunday; the other July 25-27. Both are expected to attract an estimated 90,000 people total — including 5,000 attendees from 10 countries, said Donald Guinn, convention spokesman.

The free event features theatrical productions, presentations, prayers and singing underscoring this year’s theme, drawn from Matthew 6:33 — “Keep Seeking First God’s Kingdom!”

The Detroit event kicks off 94 similar Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions nationwide this summer and is the first one in Metro Detroit since 2003, when followers filled the Pontiac Silverdome, Guinn said.

The decision to pick Detroit was less about location than accommodations, he said. Church leaders needed a large venue, and Ford Field fit the bill. “It’s just an attractive place to have an event like this.”

The stadium is near restaurants and other downtown attractions — which could benefit from visitors such as Michael Gearhart. The body of elders coordinator in his Findlay, Ohio, congregation plans to attend the convention with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandkids.

When not participating in convention activities or at his hotel in Troy, Gearhart hopes to stop in at a music spot or eatery near Ford Field. “It’s a very nice area. It looks like the real heart of the downtown area. … We’re really looking forward to it. We’re happy it’s in Detroit.”

Sympathy for city's struggles

After the Jehovah’s Witnesses leave town, the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hits Cobo Center from June 14-21. Attendance estimates ranged from 5,000 to 8,000.

The gathering, considered the highest council of the church, meets every two years to set priorities, policies and budgets as well as address member concerns, officials said.

Detroit last hosted in the late 1970s, said Elder Vincent Thomas, moderator of the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly, but the city’s current selection was providential. Since its population loss and image overhaul reflect the church’s, “Detroit’s story, its struggle, is instructive for the Presbyterian Church in the struggles that we’re going through,” he said.

This year, assembly attendees are expected to tackle such hot-button issues as divesting in companies that conduct business in Israel and same-sex marriage, Thomas said. The latter has sparked disagreement among congregations nationwide and could lead some to leave the church depending on the decision, he said. “A lot of people will be watching where the church goes on that question.”

'A supportive destination'

The following month, the Lutheran Hour Ministries Outreach Conference is planned at the Renaissance Center, attracting about 1,000 people from July 24-27, while the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World Inc. 2014 International Summer Convention is Aug. 2-9 at Cobo Center, bringing an estimated 6,000, officials said.

The Islamic Society of North America’s 51st annual convention is Aug. 29 through Sept. 1 at Cobo. Themed “GenerationsRise: Elevating Muslim American Culture,” it boasts activities such as a film festival, matrimonial banquets, a health fair, a basketball tournament; even a competition anchored by reciting and memorizing the Quran.

Members visited Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other areas with significant Muslim populations as well as facilities able to house as many as 20,000 participants, said Basharat Saleem, the society’s director of conventions. But with Cobo’s size, plus the concentration of Muslims in Metro Detroit and nearby Canada, “we said, ‘We should try Detroit,’ ” he said.

Metro Detroit’s sizable, active spiritual demographic continues to net religious events, Bohde said.

“Detroit has had a great history of hosting religious conventions over the years,” he said. “It’s a testament to the strength of our religious community and the local support bringing the conventions to their hometown. … It’s just been a supportive destination to the religious market for years and years.”

Borders, boundaries bridged

Detroit’s trials and tribulations attracted one faith group to choose the city for its yearly session.

The 26th Annual North American Interfaith Network Connect Conference is Aug. 10-13, mainly at Wayne State University, inviting some 200 from Canada and elsewhere.

In 2011, NAIN officials suggested meeting in Detroit since the city “was so much in the news,” said Bob Bruttell, chairman and president of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, which is sponsoring the event.

“We saw it as an opportunity to burnish the image of Detroit,” he said. “Metropolitan Detroit is a tremendously creative and resilient community, and its interfaith groups are a unique and important example of that.”

Observing the theme of “Bridging Borders and Boundaries,” attendees can tour Dearborn to see how interfaith relations have transformed the suburb or join an “ethnic tour” of Hamtramck. They also can visit the area’s special-interest museums.

One conference workshop, “Picking up the Pieces,” features perspective from the mayors of Dearborn, Hamtramck and Warren on rebuilding community ties after segregation.

Kay Lindahl of Long Beach, Calif., who co-founded the nonprofit Women of Spirit and Faith, anticipates presenting a workshop in the city.

“I really want to see the rebirth of Detroit,” she said. “It’s always exciting to be in a place where new things are happening, people are taking responsibility, civic action, rebirthing the community. ... My sense is that’s what’s going on in Detroit. I want to be there. I want to see that.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com
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This weekend's Jehovah's Witness convention includes a variety of ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)