Church's growth both blessing, curse
Dwight Roston considers Church of the Messiah a godsend.
When he first attended the Detroit landmark as a teen several years ago, community service was part of his probation after an assault conviction. A friend suggested the east-side church, which has earned renown for initiatives such as mentoring and a basement workshop.
But those might not be available much longer. The Episcopal church, which has been featured in Popular Mechanics and drawn the attention of the Obama administration, is struggling to find money to continue its mission of helping the poor.
It would take, it seems, a divine gift to make ends meet.
The church, which has stood near Belle Isle for more than 110 years, serves about 300 people a week. Membership has exploded in the past four years. Without more support from "angels," programs like bike repair and drug treatment could end.
"We always have to make hard decisions, and the one decision I don't want to make is we have to cut off all the programming," said the Rev. Barry Randolph, the church's leader since 2002.
The growing membership and outreach are a blessing and a curse, church officials say.
In recent years, they've pushed to make church teaching more appealing to the community, particularly black males ages 15-25, a demographic the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan considers the most challenging population to reach. It meant adding contemporary elements — music, storytelling — to traditional worship as well as bolstering activities focused on building relationships, developing skills and meeting community needs: opening the gym for basketball, launching a "makerspace" and more.
"It's a community church for everybody," Randolph said.
As word spread about its programs, most started in the last five years, Messiah became the fastest-growing congregation in the diocese. Since 2010, the church has ballooned from about 40 members to more than 300, officials said.
The congregation skews young: an estimated 60 percent are black males younger than 30, Randolph said. Some don't have jobs. "The needs on the church became greater and it became a greater strain. That's our reality."
Randolph said the church has taken in $80,000 this year, but the programs alone need as much as $150,000 annually.
The church has also fallen behind paying utilities and insurance. Most employees are volunteers, and the pastor took another job to help pay the light bill, which he said is now around $2,200.
"Their commitment to serve people no matter what is using up every dollar that they have, which means they're having trouble keeping their building up, supporting the ministry they have," said Jim Gettel, canon for congregational life at the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. "They're just not on a solid foundation to be able to do the incredible work."
Still, youths and others frequent the church for services such as the Mt. Elliott Makerspace, a workshop where people learn and create everything from furniture to clothing. Randolph said officials are seeking funds for it from the Kresge Foundation.
On a recent Tuesday, the church hummed with activity. In the basement, students tackled homework on tables near racks of colorful T-shirts participants designed. Surrounded by plastic cartons, wax-hewn paintings and wheelchair sections used for go-karts, makerspace director Danielle Ray-Gore showed off "bass cases" assembled from luggage. At an adjacent shop, a coach walked amid pumps, tires and parts used to build bikes.
The offerings stoked participants such as Jahdante Smith of Detroit, who said he has "learned all types of skills. It helped me get a job. It just helped me to stay on track."
Through efforts she calls "flearning" since each blends fun with education, Zwena Gray has learned T-shirt design, sewing, computer skills and crafting a silk-screened pot holder.
"A lot of things I learned here, I can teach other people," the seventh-grader said. "Without it, I would just be sad."
Thanks to the services and intensive mentoring, Roston has learned music production and woodworking skills, landed a job at the church, even modeled in Detroit Fashion Week and opened for singer KEM.
"Without this being here, I could tell you right now, I would not be here," the 20-year-old said. "I would probably be in trouble somewhere."
Randolph and the church are featured in an upcoming documentary focused on "social entrepreneurship from a grassroots community engagement level," said Tylor Norwood, creative director at California-based SkyDojo Media.
"We're just continually amazed by the sacrifices he's endured and the passion he has for the community," Norwood said. "That's the kind of spirit that really changes neighborhoods."
For now, Randolph and other members focus on serving as much as possible. "It's all about providing opportunity," he said. "One of these kids may be the next Bill Gates, the next Mozart. They need the opportunity."
Church of the Messiah
For information: www.churchofthemessiahdetroit.com or (313) 567-1158