There’s just one person in the pews on the Sunday before Christmas at Triumph Church’s north campus. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Churches say they have bolstered their message to stay healthy during this Christmas season. 

That means celebrating the holidays in ways many had never imagined: through services held online, or, in parking lots, or indoors among pews that are mainly empty due to social distancing. 

The holidays will be a test for many Detroiters at a time when the coronavirus rages in nearby cities and counties. But data shows Detroit residents continue to take the steps recommended  by health officials to prevent a surge in the city. Religious leaders aim to praise those methods during the holidays. 

“All of us have fatigue by now,” said Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple on the city’s west side.  “I continue to emphasize that there are some storms you just got to wait out. Detroit took such a big hit,” during the early months of the pandemic, he said. 

 “We are in much better shape now,” to heed the lessons of staying safe, Ellis said. “People are much wiser.”

Like Ecclesiastes 1:18 says, with wisdom comes sorrow. 

Bishop Bonnie Perry and the Rev. Barry Randolph of Church of the Messiah and Detroit police have “stretched” their understanding of community this year. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

Detroit on a different COVID path

It’s been nine months since Michigan had its first stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus. More than 487,000 Michiganders have been infected with COVID-19. It has killed 11,801 Michiganders, including more than 1,650 Detroiters, as of Dec. 18, according to state and city data.  

It’s spreading like wildfire again in some parts of the state and nation. December is Michigan’s  third deadliest month, with over 1,500 deaths, according to data released Thursday by the state.

Detroit has been on a different path. In the early months, the city had one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the nation. The city suffered big losses: 214 died in March, 1,063 in April, and another 248 in May. The deaths occurred throughout the city, across demographics and socioeconomic status. In April alone, an average of over 30 Detroiters died every day. 

But recently, Detroit has had some of the lowest levels of positive tests, cases and deaths in the state. Experts attribute to Detroiters’ vigilance with masks and social distancing, hard-won lessons from the city’s earlier pain.

City and state officials routinely credit the cooperation it has received from many businesses and religious institutions for helping enforce social distance measures. Faith leaders say they intend to use the lessons learned in the past months to keep its members safe during the holidays.

The Rev. Solomon Kinloch Jr., pastor of Triumph Church, has held more services to combat loneliness and isolation during the holiday season. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

New alliances

“Christmas will be a big test, but many Detroiters will rise to that challenge, too,” said the Rev. Barry Randolph of the Church of Messiah in the Islandview neighborhood. “The community has been stressed for almost a year now. But the pain and threat of the coronavirus has not been forgotten.” 

The church has not held an indoor service since March. Like many religious centers, it offers a broad range of social services ranging from job training, affordable housing and even supports a marching band. All of that continues online. 

Early on, some of its members who are health professionals began to reach out to other members to help deal with growing anxiety.  Instead of losing members, the various new online efforts may have gained the church new members and new community partners, Randolph said.

“We have become more of a community than ever before and we’ve stretched out the definition of what is our community,’ he said. 

An example of those new alliances is Sunday’s “COVID Christmas” event in the Church of Messiah parking lot. The church has invited more than 50 low-income families who will drive up  in vehicles and receive gift cards, food and toys. Among those handing out the gifts are Motown artist Icewear Vizzo; the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, the Rev. Bonnie A. Perry and the chief of police for Grosse Pointe Park.

“That’s how COVID has brought strange bedfellows together,” Randolph said.  “We can still feel connected and part of a community through all of this.”

The Church of the Messiah held a COVID Christmas event in the parking lot Sunday and gave away toys and food. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

‘In the darkest moments, there is always the glimmer of hope.’

Detroit-based Triumph Church has seven campuses, including ones in Southfield and Flint. Its congregation serves more than 35,000 families. The church has held more than 100 funerals since the pandemic began, though, not all of the deaths were due to the virus, said the Rev. Solomon Kinloch Jr.  Still, that’s about five times the number of funerals the church would usually have in nine months, he said. 

There have been no baptisms since March. “I really look forward to the day when I can be part of a baptism again,” Kinloch said. He still baptizes every new member, he said. 

“I’m worn out. I’m accustomed to seeing so many people,” Kinloch said. Like most churches, it depends on tithes and offerings from members. Like most churches, donations are down since the pandemic.  Kinloch is grateful the church has not laid off any staff.

Despite the financial loss, the church has focused most of its fundraising efforts on meeting the basic needs of its members during the pandemic. The church shifted its requests for donations to help out with such things as food drives, and the giving away of 10,000 tablets to families with children who need to keep up online for school. And for those efforts, donations have increased, Kinloch said. 

This Sunday, the church gave away 1,600 baked hams.

To help combat isolation during the holiday, the church has increased the number of outdoor services it holds in the parking lots of their campuses this month.

Kinloch’s Christmas message: “The founder of our faith makes it obvious. Even in the darkest moments, there is always the glimmer of hope that we can tenaciously hang on to.”

The valuable lesson in the Temptation of Christ

The Rev. Steven Bennett Jr. became the lead pastor of  House of Prayer and Praise weeks before the pandemic began. 

Before the pandemic, the small westside church had virtually no online presence. Bennett had to learn quickly on how to hold services online and keep in touch with members. He used his and his wife’s phone and a tablet to hold his first online service. The church is now on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. It also relies heavily on texting and Zoom, to keep in touch with  members. 

In addition, Bennett and his wife, a teacher, were expecting their fourth child when the pandemic began. “The importance of keeping people safe has been very clear since the beginning,” of the pandemic, Bennett said. 

As for the challenge of Christmas during COVID,  Bennett likes to tell the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert: “Satan gives him the temptation, ‘Jump off the mountain, the angels will catch you.’ Jesus himself says, ‘You should not tempt the Lord. I know I can do it, but I  should not put myself in harm’s way and then call upon the name of God to save me.’.”

He applies that lesson to keeping church doors closed and remaining online during Christmas.

“More than a building, people need the word of God.”  

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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