Now historic, Detroit church features sanctuary, bomb shelter, underground tunnel
Detroit — A part of the city's history exists within a church with a tall white steeple at Grand River and Evergreen on the west side.
Pure Word Missionary Baptist Church recently received a historic structure designation from the city of Detroit’s City Council Historic Designation Advisory Board for its religious history.
To celebrate, Pure Word held a special worship service, with guest speakers, praise dancers, dinner and a photo shoot to commemorate the achievement.
“Beautiful structures of this type of workmanship will never be built again,” said the Rev. Samuel Stephens, pastor of Pure Word. “Future generations will be able to see the actual structures that early worship was held in.”
The building has the distinction of being the city's first church to feature air-conditioning and an amplified sound system.
The church displays a unique built-in pipe organ; the building's stones were imported from Indiana.
In addition, the church features a sanctuary, a two-story reading room, multipurpose rooms, offices and a Sunday School wing. The church also includes a bomb shelter and an underground tunnel.
“I just knew this church was a historical place just walking through,” Stephens said. “You can tell by looking at the workmanship and the stones and columns on the exterior.”
Stephens said the designation was the culmination of a two-year process working with the Detroit Historical Society.
Gerrick Landsburg, director of the historic preservation for the city of Detroit, says it’s an honor for a building to be recognized as a historic site designation.
"Citywide, we have over 100 historic districts, and it takes a lot of work to create a historic district," Landsburg said.
"To create a historic site designation, the Historic Designation Advisory Board assess the historic and architectural cultural significance of the site. After that process, a report is put together and handed off to the Detroit City Council to sign off on to make it an official historic site designation."
Historic buildings have more access to grants, tax credits and receive cultural recognition in the community, Landsburg said.
The church originally housed the Eighth Church of Christ Scientist congregation, which was founded in 1931 to serve the developing northwest Detroit community. According to Stephens, the first service for the congregation was in the Redford High School auditorium on Aug. 2, 1931.
In 1933, Horace H. Rackham, one of the original stockholders in the Ford Motor Co., died and designated his wife, Mary A. Rackham, as the trustee of his $16 million estate. Rackham, gave more than $2 million to Christian Science organizations, including a $1 million donation to Detroit churches in 1937.
This gift launched a “record-making construction program,” including new church buildings for the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth congregations on the far east and west sides as well as improvements to existing churches for the First, Second, Third and Fourth congregations.
The Eighth Church of Christ Scientist was originally built at 20011 Grand River Ave. in 1938 for approximately $195,000.
In 1990, the Eighth Church of Christ Scientist was sold to Emmanuel Grace Fellowship. Emmanuel Grace faced declining membership and dissolved in 2008.
In 2008, the church building was sold to Cedar Heights Apartments, a development entity that proposed demolishing the building for an Aldi grocery store.
Community members opposed those plans, and the building was instead bought by Pure Word on July 2008. The congregation was located at 16101 Schaefer on Detroit’s west side.
Minister Rashida Griffin of Pure Word said she has a favorite area of the church that brings a smile to her face.
“My favorite feature of the church is the lettering way above the pulpit,” she said. “It simply says, 'God is love.' No matter what message is being preached, I listened to hear it through the lens of 'God is love,' even in moments of correction or challenge.”
Stephens said in the near future, the church will offer special events to showcase the historic site.
“We have a wonderful story of faith that highlights our journey, we constantly share it with people all the time,” he said. “At some point in the future, we will have major outreach events and give tours of our site.”
Meanwhile, Pure Word continues its focus on community outreach programs with partners such as Gleaners Community Food Bank and Forgotten Harvest, feeding and clothing over 1,000 individuals a month.
The church offers a variety of community assistance programs such as donation services, tutoring, health care assistance, housing and utilities support to the community.