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Photo: Chris Meehan
Mark Van Andel and Nate Bull
Photo by Chris Meehan

Momma T asked if they could read from the book of Galatians for the weekly Bible study at Hesed Community Church, located in a small house in Brightmoor, one of Detroit, Michigan’s poorest neighborhoods.

A frequent visitor to this newly planted Christian Reformed Church/Reformed Church in America congregation, Momma T was angry that a man, who was a boxer, had been storming into her brother’s house and abusing him, his daughter, and the daughter’s new baby. The man had apparently been the daughter’s boyfriend.

“It’s terrible what’s happening, and I can’t do anything to stop it,” she said. “I need to hear Galatians today.”

Momma T didn’t say exactly why she chose Galatians, in which  Paul rebukes his readers for abandoning the gospel he preached. But she paid close attention as Nate Bull, one of the pastors, cued a recorded version of it on his phone.

As they began, Mark Van Andel, the other pastor, said: “This is the day the Lord has made, and let us be grateful for his Word and its nourishment to us. Stir up the Holy Spirit in us today.”

Then the recording of Galatians began, and eventually they heard phrases from Galatians 6:7-8: “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption: but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”

“That’s it — the flesh!” said Momma T, indicating that the abusive man was reaping corruption. Then she said, with assurance, “God has filled me with the Holy Spirit. I’m a vessel.”

This joint church-planting, urban ministry effort by the CRC and RCA arose out of the Kingdom Enterprise Zone initiative in which the denominations worked together across the U.S. to start churches.

In some cases, these are stand-alone CRC or RCA congregations, while in other instances, as with Hesed, the church plants are joint projects.

Bull and Van Andel, who met about three years ago, decided to focus on Brightmoor to start the ministry because of the many challenges this four-square-mile area on the far west edge of Detroit continues to face.

More than 35 percent of the houses and businesses in this neighborhood, once home to a thriving community of autoworkers, are abandoned. Unemployment is high, and nearly 80 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Drug gangs and prostitutes have been active in the area, and the crime rate is substantially higher than the national average, according to police statistics.

Opening a ministry in the middle of a blighted neighborhood might not seem like a financially wise choice. Nonetheless, it is a reflection of the church stepping out from its more comfortable places and taking a chance to spread the word of Christ in an area rife with burglaries, assaults, and carjackings, said Bull, who works for the RCA in running the Urban Apostolic Network, which also has house churches in crime-battered sections of Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo, Mich.

“We are not your normal church with its programs, Sunday services, and a big building,” said Bull. “Our main aim is to find out how we can care for people.”

Until recently Hesed had no Sunday services at all; now they hold one once a month in a rented building, filling the time with stories and testimonies, prayers and praise and music.

Bringing together other house churches, they seek to offer a traditional message in ways that seem to work best for those living in the midst of a city that is crawling out from hard times, including the near-collapse of the auto industry, the Great Recession, and the 2013 Detroit bankruptcy.

“We feel it is our call to be working here and to wrestle in faith for the people in Brightmoor until they are brought out of their addictions,” said Bull, referring to the reality that many of those with whom they minister are trapped by drugs and/or alcohol. “We fight for them until they are free to make decisions on their own on how they want to live.”

Hesed, named after the Hebrew word describing  God’s covenantal love for his people, is open seven days a week, and someone is there most of the time, at all hours, to minister to the needs of people coming in the door.

Besides Bible study, visitors stop by for a weekly discipleship program, meals, and free toiletries. The house church also provides a shower for those who need it, and a washer and dryer for people to wash their clothes. Young people also regularly drop in to use the free wifi.

“Many of the people around here have no electricity or water,” said Van Andel. “This is an area with so many needs in a city that is still grieving from undergoing so many losses.”

Recently, he added, Hesed did a survey of the immediate neighborhood and found that about 20 percent of the people owned their own homes, another 20 percent rented, and the rest were squatters — and these include families — living in abandoned homes.

Take a drive down the streets of Brightmoor, and you see homes boarded up and decorated by graffiti, some of it pleasant images painted by church groups that come in to clean up the area.

A few homes are sturdy-looking, but some bear the scars of arson and others looked bombed-out. It’s hard to imagine people staying in houses — whether they are owners, renters, or squatters — with crumbling roofs, sagging foundations, and collapsed porches.

But that is how things are — and Hesed is there to provide attributes of a home for those who need them. Hesed wants to bring stability back into this area in which, along the main roads leading from the suburbs to downtown Detroit, many of the businesses are closed. Only bars, a party store or two, and other churches show signs of life.

“Our goal is to start a neighborhood-focused ministry, beginning here and branching out in partnership with other mission-minded people who want to make disciples of native Detroiters,” said Van Andel, who worked for a few years with Rev. Harvey Carey at the Citadel of Faith in Detroit before getting involved in neighborhood ministry. He is currently a southeastern Michigan leader for Resonate Global Mission.

“We want to be in this small home because it doesn’t carry the baggage of a church facility. When they come here, that kind of catches some people off guard.”

The home has a large front window with a couple of bullet holes; it also has a new floor they put in; two bedrooms, a bathroom, a meeting area and kitchen, and a breezeway where the washer and dryer are located. Paintings by Bull hang on the walls — one shows a man in a baseball hat, wearing sunglasses and speaking into a microphone. It’s titled “Preacher Man.”

Outside, in the back yard, are a couple of plastic chairs. People from the neighborhood often drift by to sit down, relax, smoke a cigarette, check their phone, and talk.

Out there on a recent afternoon was Josh Cook, who is now the house supervisor. He explained that he met and became friends with Van Andel about 10 years ago. At the time, Josh was in his mid-teens and homeless. He wasn’t in school.

“Mark has been my mentor. He’s helped me out of a lot of situations,” Josh said.

God has been there for him as well, Josh said. He recalled a time when someone was shooting at him and the bullets kept missing. “I realized God was real after that, and my faith really started to grow.”

Through the ups and downs of his life, Cook said, he and Van Andel have stayed connected: “Mark helped change my life over from what it was. Really, he’s had a massive impact on me. No one from my past, from the ’hood where I grew up, ever expected me to be where I am today.”

On Tuesdays, about 15 people from the area come to Hesed, and Cook said he talks to them “about God and how it should be. I give it to them in ways they can understand. I want to show the genuine power of the love of God for people who are hurt and broken.”

As for himself, Cook is still adapting into this new life and his new role of house supervisor and teacher. “God has brought me this far — and that is pretty good,” he said.

Van Andel said he and Bull are hoping to raise up leaders such as Cook from the local area to run house churches. Typical seminary training isn’t necessarily on the agenda for them.

“We want to work with them where they are and bring them along at their own pace,” said Van Andel. “We see ourselves meeting tangible needs as a way to raise up disciples.”

The church planters see Christ in everyone and see their role as tapping into that, bringing it forth so that people can be transformed and show others the same love for God that they have come to experience, said Bull.

As the afternoon wore on, Momma T got busy sweeping the kitchen and front room, where they had held the Bible study.

She said she met Mark and Nate about two years ago while they were prayer-walking the streets as a way to meet people. As they walked, they would drag a wagon full of cold soda pop along behind them and hand it out to thirsty folks, some of whom agreed to let them pray for them.

Such was the case with Momma T, a lifelong Detroit resident whose past is filled with abuse and violence, poverty and suffering, and yet an ongoing closeness to God.

“I come here almost every day,” she said, taking a break from sweeping. “They really show genuine love to you, regardless of who you are. I’m a believer and a saint, and I love this type of ministry.”