Christianity Today Article – Faith in a Fallen Empire

There is a section of Woodward Avenue—the spinal street of Detroit that runs 27 miles up to Pontiac, Michigan—that looks like a patch of quilt stitched in from Europe. Rows of neo-Gothic churches glisten in the dappled October sun, their limestone stairs and multicolored glass panes reflecting the prosperity of former times. There’s Metropolitan United Methodist, built in 1926 in ochre granite imported from Massachusetts. There’s the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, finished in 1930 to seat the archdiocese of Detroit, its wrought-iron gates preserving the church’s gleam over the past century. St. John’s (formerly North Woodward Congregational) boasts an unusual Gothic red-and-white brick design, as well as the honor of being the first black church on Woodward Avenue. Together these and other churches earned this stretch of Woodward the name Piety Hill. It’s a neighborhood that once pulsed with spiritual vibrancy and stability in a city rocked by economic and social upheaval.

“See that church?” says Piety Hill resident Lisa Johanon. She points to a Gothic beauty whose blood-red doors promise life inside. “For $125,000, it’s yours.”

Like many churches on this street, Woodward Avenue Presbyterian (later Abyssinia) watched its upper-middle-class members, both black and white, leave the city of Detroit starting in the 1950s. After a series of mergers, expensive repairs, and a pastor’s death in 2005, the church got locked in court battles. Its leaky roof ate away its wooden floors, and vandals scrapped its pipe organ in 2009. While it served as the set of a recent Tyler Perry movie, it is foreclosed and in ruins.

Johanon knows Abyssinia and the other churches well. Her nonprofit emerged from a partnership between seven of them 18 years ago. Central Detroit Christian (CDC) Community Development Group was launched to serve the poor in the Boston-Edison Historic District, the onetime neighborhood of Henry Ford. But all the founding pastors have left; two of the churches have closed. “We’ve just faced such random, massive abandonment that it’s unreal,” says Johanon.

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