Alturo is in his mid-30s. He’s wearing an unbuttoned ultra-light yellow PVC rain suit over a thick canvas work jacket and pants. Outside, it’s dark and snowing heavily.
Alturo shifts relentlessly in the church pew and likes to ask what it is like where you live, reaching out with his arm and hooking the air with his index finger each time he asks. He spent 10 years in Michigan prisons, serving time for armed robbery and assault and battery, something he regrets. He has a daughter he didn’t see during his 10 years of incarceration and another child with another woman after he got out in 2012. For work, he’ll do anything—rake leaves, sweep floors or repair porches—anything to make a dollar, quickly spent on heroin. Alturo offers a cigarette, then pleasantly excuses himself. He’s also homeless.
In fact, everybody who attends Family of God (FOG), Detroit, is either homeless, transient or living in buildings with little to no utilities. Moreover, every single person who walks through the church doors is affected by drug addiction—either personally or in their family.
Take Alexander and Ross, for example. Two boys under 12 who live in toxic, unstable homes near FOG. Alexander’s father died of an overdose when he was 32. Ross has older brothers who have children with different women and are mixed up in gangs and crime. The boys’ futures are bleak.
A pier into the stormy sea
For women, the situation is no better. Fourteen-year-old Isabella waits at a folding table set out by the Luke 52 Project, a prenatal clinic operating out of FOG. From 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. two nights a month, the clinic sets up two exam rooms, tables for consultations and offers a range of services from pregnancy testing to ultrasounds to lab work—entirely free.
According to Rev. Brad Garrison, director of the Luke 52 Project, health care is abundantly available in Detroit. However, Detroit’s inner-city underprivileged mistrust the local medical establishment, causing expectant mothers not to seek the prenatal care they need. The consequences are bad: Infant mortality rates for the inner-city poor are three times as high as their suburban neighbors. The clinic intends to fight those statistics by building trust with pregnant mothers. “The clinic,” Garrison says, “is a pier we built into the sea that allows us to love and care for these women in the name of Christ. It allows us to be fishers of men.”
This insight is not uncommon at FOG. Those who come to FOG would normally never step foot in a church. Their shame is too much.
“The law isn’t a problem here,” says Tyler Cronkright, the vicar at FOG. “Everyone who comes here understands they did something wrong. They are often very quick to tell you what they did, with the implication they could never be forgiven. What we struggle with here is getting people to understand they are loved— by God and by us.”
A special mission project for FOG
FOG started in 1999 as a Bible study by Sue Hatcher, a Salvation Army counselor for drug addicts. In 2000, Hatcher invited Rev. James Hill, who at the time was a deacon, to join her.
These days the church meets six nights a week, feeding anywhere from 60 to 100 people a night. After dinner, FOG hosts worship around Word and Sacrament. Rev. Hill, a quiet retired Army officer, is now the pastor of FOG.
For the last several years, dinner and divine service have been held in the fellowship hall of the church. Thanks to Laborers For Christ (LFC), that’s no longer the case. In late January, four LFC members—project manager Gary Trombley, Dave Rohlf, John Hardy and John Strasen—traveled to Detroit to provide much-needed construction help.
Given that FOG’s building was a former Presbyterian church, the first order of business was to retool the sanctuary for a proper Lutheran service.
“We focused on the altar area,” said Trombley. A crew of volunteers tore out the old stage before the laborers arrived. “We built it back up, put in a chancel area, new rail.” The laborers also repainted the whole sanctuary, moved 9-foot, 100-year-old pews out of the balcony and built a wall for storage.
The storage area serves as a care closet for Benjamin’s Closet, an organization operating out of FOG to provide clothes and essentials for infants. The women who keep their appointments with the prenatal clinic get to shop for free.
Suburban church support for the poor
Rev. Dean Davenport, the senior pastor of Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, Lavonia, Mich., brought Rev. Hill on board at his church, and then deployed him to FOG. “Many people from our congregation used to live in the area and they have a sense of ownership for the neighborhood and the people of Family of God,” Davenport said. He says their involvement with FOG has given many members a renewed sense of mission. This is equally true for the members of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Northville, Mich., who served the night’s meal. Our Savior and St. Paul are two of 11 churches who partner with FOG.
Evening cleanup usually falls to local volunteers and FOG members like Tina and Karen, who both live nearby. Both women never miss a night at FOG, if they can help it. When asked why the ministry was so important to them, both women said it was the people. You get a sense that the name of the church—Family of God—means exactly what it says. This is a family, no matter how broken it is.
The raw challenges of FOG
Not long ago, Alturo collapsed from a heroin overdose as he made his way through the food line. Cronkright said this is not uncommon. He’s found people collapsed from heroin overdoses on the toilet or behind the church.
For Amanda Becker, FOG director of youth development, it’s easy to feel like you are a drop of hope in a sea of hopelessness. “Being down there you see brokenness in a new way. They are not any more broken than the rest of us,” she said, “but you see it in a new way and see how bad and broken the world really is.”
A field hospital where the wounded can escape the struggle for an evening is how Rev. Hill describes FOG. All FOG staff point to the Bible story of the thief on the cross as the best way to fight hopelessness. To Jesus, the thief said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Cronkright explains that many FOG members are like that thief on the cross. They will struggle with their addictions until the day they die, with Jesus waiting to offer the comfort and assurance of forgiveness and new life.
For laborer Dave Rohlf, being at Family of God was a touching experience. “Wow, so much need there,” he said. “But [Family of God] seems to be reaching the community. It was a great pleasure to be there and help them move their ministry on.”
Blessing Family of God
There was something else unique about the Labors For Christ project. LFC usually charges a 4% administrative fee to cover their overhead costs. For Family of God, however, the fee was waived. This was made possible by legacy gifts given by organizations who have continued to support LFC after their own projects were completed.
To Rev. Hill, this meant a lot. “When you work in ministry like this, it’s easy to identify our problems, but it’s not as easy to accomplish and fix those problems. To get our sanctuary done by Laborers For Christ is humbling,” he said.
Join us as we pray for the leadership, staff and community of FOG. We pray that our heavenly Father would make us all mindful of His care through the works of mercy in His name on behalf of His Church.