2 Wayne Co. churches transform old houses of worship to serve the community

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Ellyse Campbell, 31, of Shelby, center, along with other members of the choir, l raise their voices as the congregation follows during the morning service on Sunday, November 18, 2018 at Commonwealth of Faith Church in Redford Township.

In a former Redford Township congregation they acquired this year, members of Commonwealth of Faith Church are prepping for their first worship services while planning efforts to guarantee that the site becomes a resource for the surrounding neighborhood.

About a dozen miles northeast, the leaders of Soul Harvest Ministries in Highland Park have long been gathering at a former Catholic church but are hoping to raise thousands to fully renovate the property in order to host services and outreach year-round.

As the holiday giving season ramps , parishioners at both locations are hoping generous donors step up to help revitalize their sites and extend ground-level efforts to embrace others.

“We are a church that aims to be a community’s church and not just another church in the community,” said Torion Bridges, pastor of Commonwealth. 

That communal notion was a cornerstone as the 31-year-old Metro Detroit native moved to plant the church in the suburb he and his family call home.

Both Bridges and his wife, Jasmine, had frequently met with a group of like-minded spiritual devotees for prayer and studying scripture. Looking around, as the crew met at a local golf club around Memorial Day 2016, Bridges recalled, the attendees concluded: “ ‘This thing needs to be more than us. We have to do something more.’”

The Michigan State University graduate who served at several area churches soon worked with his longtime associates to create a diverse, multi-generational space. That meant incorporating both traditional and modern approaches: initially coordinating Bible studies in a backyard, basement, a coffee shop, even an unlikely spot. 

“I was kind of shocked that people were willing to go to a Coney Island to learn about the Bible,” said Yoronda Rembert, a trustee chair and charter member.

By that time, Bridges had also connected with coordinators in an initiative through the North American Mission Board, the domestic missions agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, launched in recent years to plant churches in urban and other areas across the country.

Interested parties undertake an extensive process that typically includes presenting a church plan, assessments, and working with spiritual leaders for guidance and resources, said Darryl Gaddy, pastor at Detroit’s Victory Fellowship church, which started similarly in 2006. “Our goal is to ensure these guys are effective and have the resources and support so they can be sustainable.”

Meanwhile, while driving in Redford one summer night, Torion Bridges spotted a sign showing Ambassadors of Christ Church was relocating to the Motor City. To accommodate the growing numbers of followers, he said, the site seemed the perfect spot to set down roots. 

Commonwealth is now among about 20 churches in the area preparing to launch as part of the NAMB program, following about 25 opened, said Pastor Wayne Parker, a local coordinator who leads Merriman Road Baptist Church in Garden City.

Designed to address churches moving out of urban areas, the effort centers on cementing new houses of worship in under-served locales and “where they’re desperately needed,” he said, adding that “planters” are urged to form “a neighborhood church focused on making a difference in the lives of the people who live there.”

That has long been the focus at Soul Harvest Ministries, which launched in 1994 after founder Bishop Lewis Evans drove past a Methodist church whose leader looked to sell after years of declining membership.

The Soul Harvest Ministries is  located in Highland Park in the former St. Benedict Catholic Church, which closed in 2013.  Now the congregation is trying to raise money to renovate the church and its gymnasium.

A similar chance emerged 20 years later. Evans learned the nearby St. Benedict Catholic Church, closed after a parish merger in 2013, was on the market. Having long eyed the property and its classical marble sanctuary, “I jumped on the opportunity,” he said.

Since then, attendees have welcomed weddings, funerals, and graduations there, but the site is unsuitable for worship services in winter. The gym also needs new flooring, and the electrical wiring and heating should be updated — all of which could cost more than $500,000, youth pastor Carl Fulton said.  

Securing enough donations to tackle it all would allow the church leaders to expand outreach services and offer those on a wish list, such as after-school recreation, he said.

“We’re looking to be a light in Highland Park," he said. "We have the facilities where people can come and get help. The issue really is rehabbing.”

Evans adds: “We have a lot of plans in mind. We’ve given away food, clothing, furniture. Every year for Thanksgiving we’ve given away 100-200 turkeys. We just try to give to the community because we’re in the community and it’s impoverished. … We want to do a whole lot more. Our people are suffering.”

The push to keep a house of worship viable in an urban area isn’t new..

Travis Cooper, a social anthropologist and religious studies scholar who lectures at Butler University in Indiana, has noted "what some religious insiders have described as the “missional” movement. In this paradigm, religious groups reject the migration of churches to the suburban outskirts of the city by moving into, rather than away from, the older urban interior."

Bishop Lewis Evans, senior pastor at Soul Harvest Ministries, reaches out to the community on a radio program in an effort  to raise thousands of dollars to fully renovate the church and gymnasium.  He's seen in his church offices in Highland Park.

As Commonwealth congregants celebrate officially launching early in January, they are hoping to raise money for their operations through #GivingTuesday next week to ensure the church someday can offer assistance with finding food, tutoring, jobs and more.

“Anything a person needs, every aspect of their life, we want to be able to touch that right at the corner of Plymouth,” said Jasmine Bridges, who has been heavily involved in outreach.

Last month, Commonwealth, hosted its first Harvest and Community Resource Night
Bridges and supporters knocked on hundreds of doors and mobilized to invite the public for family-friendly activities, food and a chance to connect with groups offering aid on issues such as finding health care or seeking help through The Heat and Warmth Fund.

More than 300 people participated, and some filled out information cards that church members used to follow up on prayer requests and other needs, said Stephanie Hall, the special events director/outreach coordinator. “We were showing we weren’t just trying to get them in the door for this event but we want to be there for the long run.”

The St.  Benedict gymnasium in Highland Park needs  new flooring and updates to the electrical and heating systems.

Meanwhile, the church is forging ahead with a Christmas adopt a family program. And every fifth Sunday, instead of a traditional worship service, parishioners head to help serve food at a Salvation Army in Oakland County. 

“It’s just very humbling to sit and speak with people,” said Chaunia Williams, a church trustee from Southfield.

Commonwealth also revolves around engaging in unique ways — including a social media presence and Bridges hosting recent sermons exploring sitcoms such as “Family Matters” to explore Biblical themes.

That approach has gained fans such as Jamal Jennings, 31, a firefighter from Detroit who recently started attending and noticed the welcoming atmosphere.

“It’s hard to find places that fit you or work with you," he said. "I think this is a breath of fresh air as far as churches go.”