Eight Mile church seeks to bridge community's divide
Nearly 80 years ago, a wall was built near Eight Mile that divided Detroit’s black and white residents. But lifelong Detroiter Sherry Betty had never heard of it — until she was invited to a new church on the road.
The church, known as Arise Church, is using the wall, which still stands, as a metaphor: It is telling prospective members that it plans to tear down Detroit’s walls and bring people together, especially near Eight Mile, which is not part of the city’s heralded comeback.
The new, nondenominational Christian church is headed by two men, one white, one black, and they personify some of the most difficult issues facing the city: violence and fatherlessness. They hope to bring community members to serve the neighborhoods and rewrite the community’s future.
The church’s aspirations resonated with Betty, so she joined more than 200 others attending the church’s inaugural service Sunday inside the Bel Air Luxury Cinema on E. Eight Mile.
“They want to bring the community together, and that’s what we need to do,” said Betty, 59. “We’re all one people, so we need unity. We’ve been through so much.”
Kevin Ramsby, one of the pastors, went through hell — and almost to heaven — before launching the church that was a vision 20 years ago, when he moved with his wife and two children from Illinois to Detroit.
They began working with young people in southwest Detroit who belonged to gangs or were at risk of being recruited, and then served in two churches, including Revival Tabernacle in Highland Park.
Twelve years later, in 2009, a life-altering incident occurred: While Ramsby’s family was away visiting relatives, an intruder broke into their Highland Park home and stabbed him 37 times, leaving serious wounds all over his body but especially in his abdomen.
As he lay in the kitchen in a pool of blood expecting to die, Ramsby prayed for his wife, son and daughter and remembers being interrupted by a voice.
“They still need you,” he recalls hearing.
Ramsby made it to his neighbor’s house to call 911, then woke up in Henry Ford Hospital a week after the attack, bandaged, sedated and breathing for the first time without a tube. He remembered those words when he thought he was dying.
“I started thinking about who the ‘they’ was in ‘They still need you,’ ” said Ramsby, who’s now 45 and lives in Clinton Township. “I thought about my neighbors, the community, my church, of course my family and my city and realized that for whatever reason, God gave me another chance to live.”
While recovering, Ramsby realized there was a greater plan for his life, and a few years later he began the journey that led to the founding of Arise Church.
Around that time, Christopher Ratcliff, one of the other pastors of the church, was finishing his communication studies degree at Wayne State University, where he played wide receiver for the Warriors football team.
Ratcliff, 29, had grown up in Grand Rapids without his father, who was incarcerated. He said his dad’s absence led him to experiment with alcohol and drugs, and he hopes to help other young, fatherless African-American men in Detroit avoid the same struggle.
“I want to give hope to as many of them as I can, so we can change the future of many of them,” Ratcliff said.
He had a high school football coach who took him under his wing during senior year and helped him get an athletic scholarship to Wayne State.
Ratcliff said he was living the typical life of a jock but began feeling a calling to live up to his potential. He started going to church at Revival Tabernacle, where he met Ramsby.
The two men met shortly after Ramsby’s attack. They and their families became close friends as they spent time together, learning from and loving one another.
Ramsby left Revival Tabernacle and began writing a book about forgiving the man who attacked him. Ratcliff landed a scholarship to attend the Moody Theological Seminary in Plymouth. A dean of the seminary asked what he would do with his education.
“I said I would move into the city, I would cultivate community within my neighborhood and start a new church focusing on people taking their next steps with God,” said Ratcliff, who lives with his wife and young daughter in Detroit’s Morningside neighborhood. “I wanted to help people learn how to grow in a strong relationship with God.”
A year and a half ago, Ratcliff and Ramsby began talking more about their shared vision to start a church that welcomed everyone, rallied around Jesus Christ and served the community. Before long, they were strategizing, planning and assembling a crew to help make their dream a reality.
At Sunday’s inaugural service, many came out to support the new church. Ramsby and Ratcliff said it is unlike most other churches because few of them bring white, black and brown people together of all different denominations and walks of life.
“Sunday is known in the country as the most segregated day of the week,” said Ramsby. “People worship in the white church, they worship in the black church, they worship in the Hispanic church. We wanted to create a church where all people can come together and unite around Christ. That is our heart.”
He preached Sunday about the story of Joseph, whose father gave him a coat of many colors and made his brothers jealous.
“In our churches, communities and families, there are a lot of people without coats,” Ramsby said. “We want to see that everyone in this place had a coat. There is a great purpose in every one of our lives.”
He also said the church will not be about the institution or one person or which side of Eight Mile the person lived on, Ramsby said. It will be about serving the community. Afterward, he said the church plans to adopt a school to address unmet needs, partner with nonprofits and collaborate with neighborhood groups to reach more people.
“We’re not trying to be a church about Sunday gathering. We’re trying to be a church about Monday through Saturday,” Ramsby said. “That’s what makes us different because we’re bringing people together from all different walks not just to meet on Sunday for an hour together but to do life together throughout the week, serving in the community, engaging people and having conversations.”