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My DetroitChurch of the Messiah

Pastor Barry Randolph is a transformational leader. He has taken a church that was on the verge of closing its doors and made it into a vital community enterprise that is changing lives and building futures on the Lower East Side of Detroit. The congregation of the Church of the Messiah went from 40 members with an average age of 56 in 2008 to 300 members, 60 percent of them black men under the age of 30, in 2016. 

Pastor Barry is as unconventional an Episcopalian priest as you are likely to find, and he came to the priesthood in an unconventional way. He grew up on Detroit’s Lower East Side, graduated from Martin Luther King High School, and attended Wayne State University. In the years before he got called to the ministry, he co-owned a distribution company, a health food store, and a restaurant. He had gotten fed up with the church and stopped going, but then he heard about the Church of the Messiah. Since the late 1970s, the church had been running a housing corporation to address the deterioration of the Islandview neighborhood and to provide decent housing for people. “They believed in helping people,” says Pastor Barry, “and that’s what I believed in.”

He began attending services at the church in 1991—“Had no intention of being a priest,” he says. But he felt the call in 1998 and received his training through a program called Total Ministry that trains laypeople to take on the responsibilities of parish priests. He was ordained in 2002 and remembers saying to the bishop, “You might want to take this collar back. I have no intention of following any of those rules now that I got this.” 

Q. What happened between 2002 and 2008?

By 2008, we were down to 40 members, and I knew something had to change. But the board of directors didn’t want to change anything. So I just kind of nicely asked them to step down and do something else. I had some new ideas, and those new ideas helped the church to grow.

Q. How did those new ideas come to you?

I gotta give all credit to God. Actually, it was before 2008. He told me to go and get his young people. And to go and get his young people, I had to do some things differently. The church is 142 years old. It’s an Episcopal church. It was never really 100 percent traditional, but we were traditional enough that we did not allow people in the community to feel a part. So we just kind of did away with the traditions. I probably broke every rule and regulation as to what a church is supposed to be. The people in the community, what they wanted was a relationship with God. They weren’t interested in the church service. We were good at giving you a church service. We weren’t good at giving you an experience. So the Lord told me, “Give them an experience. They want to know who I am. They don’t reject God. They just reject the package that the church put God in.”

Q. How do you see your role as a minister?

The role of the preacher is to serve, not to be served, and we take that from Jesus who constantly served. He didn’t send people out to go do it, he was out there doing it. And they just followed him and did the same thing. I don’t have time to wear a suit because the thing about it is, you can’t work in a garden in some raised beds with a suit on. You’ve got to have on jeans and a hoodie in order to do that. It’s more comfortable. And then people find you more approachable because you look just like them. I live in the church. I’m not getting into a car and driving away from it. If it affects you, it affects me. We’re all in this together.

Q. What are some of the ministries of the Church of the Messiah?

One of our biggest ministries is our housing corporation, which has 213 units with about 400 residents. We have our marching band, which is one of the ministries that I love more than anything. One of our members came to me a few years ago and he said, “You know what? I’d like to start a marching band.” I think he just had a couple of instruments and hope. And I said, “Go with what you got!” And a year later, there were 84 members in this marching band with a drum line and cheerleaders. And 60 of those 84 members got scholarships to colleges all over the country.

The Lord said, “Give them an experience. They don’t reject God. They just reject the package that the church put God in.”

We have the Aim High mentoring program, which is for young males, 9 to 19.  We have a bike shop where anybody can come and learn how to fix bikes, and when they graduate from the program, they get their own set of tools to take with them. We have New Work Leather where we make shoes, wristbands, belts, anything made of leather. We also have the Harambee Center, which includes our computer lab where kids can do their homework. We have the Share Network, which is for employment. We can get anybody a job. You can be a convicted felon. We will find you a job. Oh, and we have the Garden of Eatin, which is my pride and joy, in which we grow our own produce. 

I Am Productions is our media-production team started by four young men. They all came in trouble. One was homeless, one was abused as a child, one is schizophrenic, one was a criminal—he used to steal cars. They make videos about people being true to themselves.

We’ve got the Repeat Boutique. That is our thrift store, and it’s run by three young men between the ages of 9 and 13 who are learning to run their own business. Some of these people came to us as criminals, or high school dropouts, or whatever. They came in trouble. 

Education is important here, so we help to get you back in school. We help you find a job. We help you to reconcile with your family. And all of this is coming from a church. The advantage of this coming from a church is we don’t have to apologize to anybody. We’re not bought or sold by nobody. We don’t even get paid. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t wait for the right circumstances. We do it. God will provide the right circumstances and the right people.

Q. How do you get the resources for all of these programs?

We just put it out there. I asked for soil. I said, “I need some more soil for these raised beds,” and then somebody said, “I’d like to help out. How about I bring some soil?” So we got the raised beds filled. Just put it out there. It’s all possible. We don’t wait for the right circumstances. We don’t wait for the money. We don’t wait for the government. We don’t wait for the police. We don’t wait for whatever. We’re gonna do it. What we teach people here is the greatness of God is inside of you. So start with you. And for his toughest battles, God sends his toughest soldiers. So we must be some tough son-of- a-guns to be able to just go ahead and do it. And once you do it, God will provide the resources. So we just need to start, and the next thing you know, all the resources, all the people that you need, come.