"Sometimes you have to deal with the physical, the emotional, and the mental before you can get to the spiritual," says pastor George Waddles of Second Baptist Church. "The ultimate goal of churches is to make disciples for Jesus Christ, but you touch your community in order to do that. Jesus didn’t ignore the physical, mental, and emotional needs of people while he ministered to them spiritually."
Second Baptist, 301 S. Hamilton St. in Ypsi, is just one of several Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township churches that offer a variety of unique community services. Their leadership opens their churches up to provide basic needs, offer programming, award college scholarships to local students, and offer space for other organizations.
"We realize it’s hard to talk to somebody about eternity when they can’t focus on that because they’re worried about today," Waddles says.
Second Baptist and Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Brown Chapel AME), 1043 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi, offer free clothing, food distribution, and other services to all members of the community, even if they're not parishioners. Brown Chapel AME pastor Jerry Hatter says he tries to to assist people who are experiencing temporary setbacks by providing them with a safety net of resources.
"We consider ourselves a comfort station … a center where hearts and minds and spirits are lifted," Hatter says.
Before pastor Linda Johnson and bishop Roger Johnson founded Christian Faith Church, 2885 Ellis Rd. in Ypsi Township, in 1990, they did community outreach in prisons and on the streets. They've continued to focus on serving formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. The couple has helped people find housing and pay rent, and they've even taken in people who needed a place to sleep or shower. When they built their current building, they installed showers to be used by anyone who needed them.
Young people represent another focus area for Christian Faith. Roger Johnson thinks the community needs to invest more in its younger residents. He enjoys taking kids fishing for the first time because he thinks it can instill a lot of positive qualities in them. He hopes to eventually build a compound on the church's property where he would teach young people vocational skills like machine repair.
Pastor Mike Desotell of St. Matthew's United Methodist Church, 1344 Borgstrom Ave. in Ypsi Township, believes churches should "always be looking outward to the community and the world looking for opportunities to serve in meaningful ways." He's hoping to help end injustice by creating a space where people with differing viewpoints can learn how to communicate better, and by allowing oppressed people the chance to be heard.
"On a local level St. Matthew’s seeks to create a safe space for conversation outside the echo chamber," Desotell says. "Part of the way St. Matthew’s does this is by simply opening its doors to the community as a meeting place."
St. Matthew's has been seeking to become the community center for the surrounding Gault Village neighborhood. The church hosts neighborhood watch and Boy Scouts meetings, Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley events, and a yearly comic con. It has also served as a temporary home for other churches without a physical space.
Pastor Jason Robinson established Reach Church, 401 S. Adams St. in Ypsi, in 2014 so he could cater to Eastern Michigan University students who had been traveling to attend church in Canton, as well as people who generally don't attend church. He intentionally removed overtly religious aspects from the church's offerings so everybody who comes through the door can feel comfortable.
Robinson thinks pastors need to get out into the community to talk to residents and determine which of their needs aren't being met. He saw a need for mental health counseling from a Christian perspective because of the stigma that exists around the issue, so he's launching an initiative to provide emotional and spiritual support, which he hopes will become the "hallmark" of Reach Church.
Reach Church also provides a platform for parishioners to openly discuss romantic relationships. The church hosted a weekly educational series last fall called "Sex, Love, and Relationships." The men's ministry tends to talk about those topics frequently, especially since Reach's congregation includes so many young adults.
Robinson is starting a community development corporation to stimulate economic growth in the community. He plans to offer entrepreneurial courses to individuals who want to start businesses in Ypsi and then provide them with small business scholarships when they complete the courses.
When Reach Church outgrows its current building, Robinson hopes to move into a multipurpose facility with a gym and other spaces for activities. He wants the church to become more of a community center where worship services just happen to be held on Sundays.
Cooperation, not competition
Several local church leaders express concerns about a sense of competition between churches and a desire for a more collaborative approach. Robinson believes local churches compete by default when they're unaware of how other churches are contributing to the community. He thinks it's helpful for pastors to communicate so they can ensure they're not repeating something that's already being done by another local church. He's formed relationships with other pastors, including Waddles of Second Baptist, located right next to Reach Church.
“I’m not from here, so it was very important for me to really make connections with other pastors to make sure that what we were doing wasn’t duplicating services, but we were actually complementing what other churches and also community organizations were doing in the community," Robinson says.
Last summer, when Robinson gave away backpacks filled with school supplies at Parkridge Summer Festival and Joe Dulin Community Day, he was already aware of Second Baptist's annual backpack giveaway. He asked Waddles what kinds of school supplies Second Baptist was including in its backpacks, so he could put different items in Reach Church's backpacks.
Waddles agrees that communication and camaraderie are key. He shares information with his congregation about what other churches are doing. The community announcements section in Second Baptist's weekly bulletin promotes other churches' events too.
"One of the things we have to realize is that churches are not in competition. They’re in cooperation," Waddles says. "There are enough people that need Christ and community for every church to be full if we reach outside of our walls."
Linda Johnson agrees that Ypsi and Ypsi Township churches could have even greater impact working as a collaborative group.
“When we can get on one accord and realize that we are working for the same paymaster and sharing the gospel that was sent to all of us, I think we can become a powerhouse," Linda Johnson says. "We could present that gospel and ourselves in a spirit of unity and oneness."
Robinson predicts a "renaissance" in Ypsi within three to five years if community members can all work together without concern for who gets the credit. Having lived in Kalamazoo, Indianapolis, and Gary, Ind., before he came to Ypsi, he believes local residents understand the importance of getting involved and doing their part to better the community.
"Honestly, I’ve never seen so many churches (that are) involved in the community and uniquely care about the community," Robinson says.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.