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The Detroit Free Press:  Aug, 2023

East side church highlights young activists during Detroit Neighborhoods Day 

Aurora Sousanis

The Rev. Barry Randolph stands in the Church of the Messiah in the lower east side of Detroit, greeting each arrival with a warm handshake and smile as a small crowd gathers for a news conference in the church’s basement. As different speakers take the stage to talk about their individual organizations and the work they’ve done throughout the city, they echo a unifying message: 

“I am peace. I am Detroit.” 

The meeting was one of more than 100 events featured at the annual Detroit Neighborhoods Day. Since it began in 2007, Neighborhoods Day has promoted, marketed and supported more than 2,800 community improvement events and service projects such as volunteer projects, art and music festivals, resource fairs, and school supply giveaways according to the news release from ARISE! Detroit.

At its Neighborhoods Day event this year, the Church of the Messiah highlighted the peace the congregation’s community work has brought to the surrounding Islandview neighborhood. 

Each year, the Church of the Messiah organizes Silence the Violence, one of the largest anti-gun violence marches in the country and honors gun violence victims in a Christmas event called Fallen Angels. Additionally, after someone stole a 6-foot-tall green tinted Jesus off the side of the church, Randolph co-founded Citizens United for Safety (C.U.F.S.). The grassroots organization brings together local government, law enforcement, business leaders, religious organizations, and average citizens to combat crime and foster pride in the neighborhoods and has been recognized in the city and suburbs for crime prevention. 

The church on East Grand Boulevard, two blocks north of the entrance to Belle Isle, runs more than 213 affordable housing units and is the largest developer in the neighborhood, according to Randolph, known to his congregation as Pastor Barry.

It also offers medical services, free internet access and solar-powered charging stations to residents who wouldn’t otherwise have access, all while working to support neighborhood residents’ ideas, teaching them how to be successful entrepreneurs and serving as a business incubation center. Randolph said these are the most impactful programs when it comes to lowering crime rates in the area.

“Violence, especially gun violence, is virtually nonexistent in this area because we provide people with the things they need,” Randolph told the Free Press. “You can be a convicted felon, but we’ll help you find a job, you can get the internet for free, you can get affordable housing, we’ve got workforce development. We will meet you where you are and you will never have to consider the alternative. We just need to eradicate the alternative.”

Recently, the community has gotten the attention of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for how programs and efforts have decreased rates of violence in a city with a crime rate 130% greater than the national average. According to Randolph, the CDC is working on a case study of the neighborhood to see whether Islandview’s results can be imitated in other areas dealing with high crime rates. 

On the church’s front steps, Randolph points to one young man leaving the building: “This was the neighborhood drug dealer. Now he’s doing great things at the church.”

“Now he’s the neighborhood good boy!” shouts a friend, laughing and patting him on the back.

Despite progress, the community is aware there is always more work to be done. At just 26 years old, Ragine Head wears many hats for both the church and her broader community, but, as the youth director for as the youth director for the Peace and Prosperity Youth Action Movement (part of One Love Global, a Black-led community organization, centering racial equity and youth organizing for social change), she says that the youth group’s main 2022-23 goal was to not have any gun-related youth deaths in the community. 

“Out of everything we’re going through, the youth are at the heart of it,” Head said. “We are intentional on investing in our youth and building them up to be the best versions of themselves from their own perspectives, not how the world sees them or how society molds them to be.”

Jerjuan Howard, 25, was one of four guest speakers at the news conference. He is the founder of Umoja Debate Team, a nonprofit organization that uses debate as a vehicle to teach self expression, critical thinking, and conflict resolution skills to kids in Detroit’s inner-city schools.

Howard connected with the church a little more than a year ago when Randolph heard about the debate team and asked him to speak to the congregation about his work. During that speech, Howard said, he quoted an African proverb that continues to resonate with Randolph and himself.

“I told them, ‘A child who does not feel the warmth of his community will burn it down to feel its warmth.’ These kids are just craving love, craving affection. They don’t get that and then they rebel against the community and wreak havoc. So Pastor Barry and I stay connected and share ideas in regards to gun violence reduction and community engagement and so on.”

Howard is just one of many young Black Detroiters who inspire and have been inspired by Randolph and the Church of the Messiah. 

Paul Jones, 22, has been a member of the church since 2021 and hosted the church’s radio show for more than a year. Searching for a way to make money to put himself through school after his mother passed away a few years ago, he taught himself the ins and outs of the real estate market. He became so knowledgeable that by 17, he began advising homeowners on their next purchases. Now a student at Wayne State University, he visits high schools, advocating for the importance of financial literacy and working with inner-city kids as a mentor.

For Jones, the church offers him unwavering support in his endeavors as well as connections to a group of like-minded young people, driven by a desire to create change and help their community.

“It’s incredible, it’s all I ever wanted. In my high school, I didn’t really have anything like that.”

Like Jones and Howard, the Church of the Messiah is a major advocate for education. In addition to its workforce program, the church has helped create the F.I.R.E. (Forever Illustrating Real Entertainment) marching band and cheerleading team, founded in 2009 by Joey Donaldson. Not only does it provide inner-city youths and adults with an arts program they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to participate in, but the organization also doubles as a literacy program. 

“At this point, we’ve helped over 300 to 400 kids get scholarships to different colleges. Kids that wouldn’t even think that they were graduating from high school or making it out of the ‘hood and they’ll get these scholarships. We work with anyone. Anyone who wants to be part of the band, anyone who wants to be part of music, arts, and we help with the literacy part, too.”

Kevin Dunn and Rafeal White, both 33, are also activists within the church. Along with three others, they created the nonprofit Flowanthropy and work to provide basic needs such as clothing, water, food and school supplies to at-risk communities. They also host a weekly radio program through the church’s media production service, I AM, working to “provide information that is accessible to all.”

“It’s about opportunity, said Randolph. “Giving these kids opportunity they ordinally wouldn’t get and to give them the same opportunity as kids in the suburbs or upper income, they’re gonna get the exact same thing. We’re gonna make sure that happens.”

After the news conference, Randolph took the group on a tour of the neighborhood, stopping at a brick building next to the church.

“Way back in 1978, the church bought this building,” he explains. “The building was run-down, it had caught fire, and we decided we would rehab this building … and the put the community in (it).”

The 24-unit building was sold to its residents in 1996 and has functioned as a co-op ever since.

“If you live in this building … if you ever get an apartment in this building, you’re one of the owners in the building. If you move out the building, you no longer have ownership. But if you move in, you have ownership, you decide what the rent is, you are the management company, you do the landscaping. The people in this building own this building. That was the mindset that the church put into the community: The people in the community have to own everything. We believe you can’t gentrify the neighborhood if you own it.”

As the day wrapped up, Randolph (who declined to be photographed without his “legacy” by his side) steps back to watch as the young activists and advocates he invited to the event shake hands, exchange numbers, and remind each other not to hesitate to reach out for support at their next event.

“I am not worried about the future,” said Randolph looking out at the scene. “I am confident that by the time I retire, we in good hands. This is the young people’s church. This is their platform. This is their neighborhood. This was their press conference. And I think that’s just wonderful.”