I am My Brother's Keeper, Detroit
Project info

I am My Brother's Keeper is a tale about survival and redemption in a city better known for abandonment and loss.

The Victorian Gothic church built in 1886 towers over a mostly vacant stretch of the Woodbridge neighborhood in Detroit. Like the neighboring houses, it exists with an outdated electric and heating mechanism. The church property includes a small adjoining gymnasium and the charred remains of a beautiful turn-of-the-century carriage house across the street.

Surrounded by a few homes whose better days go back decades, the church sits among the empty liquor bottles and weeds that dot Detroit's landscape.

I am My Brother's Keeper serves as a homeless shelter on Tuesday and Thursday nights in addition to providing hot meals and a place for prayer. The winter months are the busiest, but this week there were more than 50 men and women taking advantage of the opportunity to stay the night on the floor of the gymnasium. The church has a worship service every Sunday.

Some of the original stained glass has been stolen or vandalized. The church has survived more than 100 Michigan winters and witnessed the turmoil of race riots and economic recessions that decimated its transient congregation. The membership at the original church called Trumbull Avenue Presbyterian included prominent Detroit businessmen James Scripps (Evening News founder) and George Booth (founder of the Booth newspaper chain). More recently, I am My Brother's Keeper gained national notoriety as the beneficiary of public support to repair a large hole in the roof back in 2009. The effort was led by Detroit Free Press writer and author Mitch Albom.

This story told through pictures is best understood by knowing a little bit about the man who lived the creed for which the church was named - I am My Brother's Keeper.

The heart and soul of this church is the late pastor Henry Covington, a giant of a man who was rescued from a life of crime before reaching out to help those most in need. He began his ministry in Detroit in 1992 and although he died unexpectedly at age 53 in 2010, his legacy will live for generations among those serving and being served in one of the world’s toughest cities. I met one of those volunteers who told me how the man changed his life. Now this volunteer continues to help others and my chance meeting with him and a couple hours touring the church property led to this photo-essay.

Pastor Covington's own journey followed a jagged path from New York to the Motor City. Before he was making his contribution to helping Detroit’s 20,000 homeless men and women, Covington was part of a street culture where people looked out for themselves, not strangers. He grew up in a ghetto where he was drinking beer and using heroin before his tenth birthday. By age 16 a string of car thefts, burglaries and armed robberies eventually landed him in prison. Once he was out, he says he became a drug dealer addicted to crack and heroin.

Before long, he found God and together they came to Detroit. Covington's influence in Detroit is well documented as is the charitable work that takes place as part of the ministry serving one of the poorest cities in the United States.

These photographs are intended to shed light on the fact that many great things rise from imperfect and humble beginnings. And many great things can easily go unnoticed when we fail to look a little deeper. The church as a structure has its flaws, but there is no denying that it is a place that was born to serve others. By focusing my photography on the tired and worn building, it became clear to me that the narrative is also about reserving judgement. Maybe that judgement is the reason why I drove by the church a few dozen times over the years and thought to myself, “What a shame” assuming it was just another one of Detroit’s victims. The church and its faithful servants do not need our pity. Rather, they deserve our praise. This photo essay is my way of expressing a debt of gratitude to people who help the neediest among us without a desire for praise.

I have chosen not to disclose the name of the man who provided me the tour of the church, but his story is not unlike many others. He shared a tale of his redemption, implying he owns a checkered past wrought with indiscretion and regret. Here we were leaning against adjacent pews in a fragile church that is structurally just a shell of its glorious beginnings and all I kept thinking was that the man and the church were both alive and giving whatever they have left to others.

I am grateful a stranger invited me in to see the place so I could share this story with you.

(The web site, Iammybrotherskeeper.org was a source of information)