Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Finding The Silver Lining | Parade.com

Finding The Silver Lining | Parade.com

Author Mitch Albom with Pastor Henry Covington in Detroit.

Editor's Note: Find out how you can help faith groups make repairs at a Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Rain falls on the church roof. It pours through a gaping hole and splashes onto the pews. Against the plop, plop, plop of gathering water, a pastor urges nearly 100 weary men to believe in the future. They wear old jackets or sweatshirts. They line up for chili and cornbread. They sleep on the floor, atop vinyl mattresses.

“Enjoy the meal,” the pastor tells them as they line up. “There’s a place for you here. See that man for a blanket…”


Just as the first major winter storm bears down on Detroit, acts of faith -- and author Mitch Albom's newest best seller, Have a Little Faith -- have added up to put a new roof on a crumbling downtown church that serves and shelters the homeless.

The $85,000 repair is set to be unveiled today, snow or no snow. The plan is for a joyful ceremonial removal of a great blue tarp placed where there was once a huge hole that left the church so cold people routinely prayed with their coats on. The funds came from "A Hole in the Roof Foundation" established by Albom to support churches that serve cities' poorest people can't use government money for capital repairs.

Albom, who has devoted the proceeds of earlier books such as Tuesdays with Morrie, to fund programs in the recession-shattered city, launched Have a Little Faith, a little book describing the commitment to good works of two clergyman. One was his childhood rabbi, the late Albert Lewis. The other was Henry Covington, spiritual leader of Pilgrim Church and a ministry to the homeless. A portion of the funds from book launch events went to kick off the foundation.

Detroit author Mitch Albom's newest book,
By Santa Fabio, for USA TODAY
Albom says people nationwide responded with donations from $7 -- enough to buy a roof shingle through a Twitter campaign called "Shinglebells" -- to $10,000 from a church in California.

Ten days ago, we had 100 volunteers, including the homeless people who sleep at the church, out here forming a big human line when the trucks pulled up with the supplies.

We unloaded the shingles and nails and handed the supplies up to the ladder to the professionals on the roof. Then, on the count of three, they pulled off the tarps.

Today, on the count of three, they'll do it again. They'll also unveil a plaque inside the church, replastered and repainted where the biggest hole once let rain fall in. It lists about 400 names.

The ceremony will include the church choir, singer Anita Baker and the Detroit mayor all there to celebrate the faith of strangers in a city church. Albom says there's still money coming into the Hole in the Roof fund and soon they'll pick a new church to repair.

This is my hometown, Detroit, in a devastated economy, in a crumbling church, on a cold, hard floor at the bottom of the world.

And still, there is hope.

If there is any advantage to living at the epicenter of the economic crisis, where our main industry—the auto business—has imploded, where abandoned houses seem to dot every corner, where the unemployment rate is a staggering 25%, it is this: You get to see what man is made of.

What I have seen is that man is made of tough stuff. Man can rise to the occasion. One such man is the pastor of this church. His name is Henry Covington. Thirty years ago, he was in prison. He’d been a drug dealer, a drug abuser, a thief, and an armed robber. He had every excuse to see the world as hopeless.

But on a night when he truly hit bottom, hiding behind trash cans, certain he would be murdered by angry drug dealers, he promised his life to God if he lived to the morning.

He lived.

He kept his promise.

These days, Pastor Covington, 52, runs the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in downtown Detroit. His huge brick building was once—more than a century ago—the largest Presbyterian church in the upper Midwest. Now, like much of Detroit, it’s been overgrown with poverty, and there are broken windows and a hole in the sanctuary roof through which the rainwater collects in buckets. Several times, this ministry has been close to folding. Local drug lords even offered the pastor money to let them use the church for their dealings.

But Henry Covington was done with that life.

Instead, he dug in. He found a way. Today, he conducts services through the cold, through the snow, even under a giant plastic tent when the gas company shuts the heat off due to unpaid bills. He takes little salary and lives with his family in a tiny, nearby home.

And yet, he says, “I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

What he means is that he is where he can make a difference. In that way, Covington is typical of many people in this economy who find new meaning in their lives despite losing jobs, homes, or status: They find it by giving to others and reconnecting with their faith.

In Detroit, we call it fighting back.

A few years ago, I spent a night at a local homeless shelter to write about the experience. As I stood in line for food, a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was who he thought I was. I told him yes.

“So,” he said, nodding sympathetically, “what happened to you?”

I never forgot that. I realized hard times can hit anyone. Now, all around our country, it is being proven true. With the mortgage crisis and the recession, even rural states like Wyoming and Montana have seen jumps in their unemployed and homeless populations. In Detroit, nearly half of the homeless are families, and more than half of those are on the streets for the first time.

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