Interview of Reverend Barry Randolph
Pastor, Church of the Messiah, Detroit, Michigan
Interviewed by Steve Dubb, Research Director, The Democracy Collaborative
Reverend Barry Randolph is pastor of Church of the Messiah, a Detroit church that has developed four social enterprises to date, one of which is a private community-based business and three of which are owned by the Church directly. The Church has also sponsored a CDC for the past 35 years. In addition to being a pastor, Rev. Randolph is also a leader in the community having joined other groups in coalitions, including church consortia and a public safety group. Barry is also on the board of the Center for Community Based Enterprises (C2BE). [Full disclosure: the interviewer is also on the Board of C2BE]. The Church, founded more than a century ago, found itself on hard times a decade ago, but under Rev. Randolph’s leadership, the Church has grown rapidly, becoming a leading community group in Detroit revitalization work.
Could you talk about your background in small business and how you came to be pastor of the Church of the Messiah?
I was born and raised in Detroit. I was already interested in business. That was actually my career goal, to do that. I did that. It was working. Let’s just say, what got me to Messiah was that I was interested in the community work that the Church of the Messiah was doing, so I wound up coming here. I had no intention to becoming a priest or pastor. In 2002, I became pastor of Church of the Messiah. The problem was the church then had 40 people showing up on Sundays, no money, and the building was too big. So I came up with a plan to rebuild the community and the church. It worked. Currently we have between 250-300 people showing up on Sunday. Now the building is so full of activity that it is too small. So the plan worked. So my business is bringing the good news of the gospel to the community while building the community. Primarily the congregation is young people. Sixty percent are African- American males under thirty. The vast majority of the congregation is under thirty, which is unusual.
Could you talk about the process of rebuilding the church and the community?
Messiah has a long history of working in the community. Because the church was in the decline, few people realized how much it did. Part of what I did was let the community know the church was alive and kicking. We became more political, working with Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES) and the city. We started a crime and safety group, Citizens United for Safety. That made us more politically active. That started us working with young people with anti-crime measures. Often the young are the victims but they are also often the perpetrators of the crimes. We started working with young people for conflict resolution. That also led to job training, working with the judicial system, working with the police, and working with families rebuilding the community. It also led to working on more housing projects, doing a feeding program and a community garden. It also led to nutrition projects. Oddly enough, it also led to entrepreneurship. There are four viable businesses started by people inside the church. We worked on changing the mindset. Let people know we were alive and kicking and a force to be reckoned with. It also gave us the opportunity to evangelize at the same time.
Could you talk about the concept of ministry and how it informs the Church’s community- wealth building work?
Ministry is community building. The Gospels mean the Good News. We are to go out and spread Good News. But we are also to be good news. The way we are good news is supporting, rebuilding the community, and changing the mindset of the community by making the world a better place. That is what ministry is to us. Ministry is not a religious concept as much as it is about changing mindsets.
Could you describe the four social enterprises of the Church of the Messiah?
The biggest is Nikki’s Ginger Tea. It was started by a single mother in the church who was raising her daughter and decided that she didn’t want to be on general assistance of any type. She decided instead to be a business owner. She came up with a concept that she loved – experimenting with the herb ginger. She came up with an incredible concept for her business. She has six flavors of teas and is in 40 stores across the state of Michigan. All of her employees, 10 people, are young people from the community. The tea is made in the church’s commercial kitchen. It was founded 17 years ago, but it has really taken off in the last seven or eight years. Some of the stores she is in are Whole Foods, Schiller’s Market, Public Town Market, and a whole bunch of other independent stores, like health food stores.
Another one is called Basic Black. That is a t-shirt and design company. That was started last year. That is a community-based business inside the church: It is run by people who are in the community, who have an interest in manufacturing clothing and who are interested in art design. It employs about seven people right now.
Lawn King: It is a landscaping company, started earlier this spring. It is a community-based enterprise run by people in the church. It employs seven people right now.
The fourth one is called the Repeat Boutique. It is a thrift store, which is run by the people in the church. It is also a community-based business. The proceeds go back into the ministry of the church and it is used primarily for job training. It employs six people right now.
They contribute earned income to the church and are used for job training. They are open to anybody. We use them for people who are usually unemployable or hard to employ – a convicted felon who wants to start their life over or a single mom with limited job education and training. They can use the job as a stepping-stone so they can get back to the workforce.
Who owns the businesses?
Monique owns Nikki’s Ginger Tea. The other three were started through the efforts of people in the church and are owned by the church.
Could you talk about the Mount Elliott Maker Space project? How did it develop?
Mount Elliott Maker Space started about two years ago. They have a connection to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the Kresge Foundation. The Mount Elliott Maker Space was created to allow people in the community to get hands on training at reinvention, learning about technology, computers, and alternative transportation. It is because of the Mount Elliott Maker Space that the t-shirt business came to be. It is through the Mount Elliott Maker Space that the entrepreneurship happened. It provides a space for creativity, hands-on training for different things. It is also linked to our woodshop. We have a fully functional woodshop that is going to be concentrated on making furniture.
Right now, they have four employees. They’ve hired interns throughout the summer to work on different projects. They’ve done that for the past two years. Most of these people are from the community or from the Church.
The other asset of the Maker Space, because of the type of things they do – they do a lot pertaining to education at so many different levels. A lot has to do with a Maker Fair in Dearborn – they help bring people form outside of our community into our community because everybody is interested in the type of programming that takes place at the Maker Space. The Maker Space operates inside of the Church. It started the t-shirt business and woodshop.
What has been the history of the Church of the Messiah Housing Corporation?
The Housing Corporation was started 36 years ago. It is one of the oldest CDCs in the country. It was started by members of the Church who were alarmed about the decline of the neighborhood and who wanted to do something to rebuild it. They started with one apartment building that was across the street from the Church – that was in 1978. Now, we have 213 units of property and through our partners we have invested about $48 million in the neighborhood. Some are renovated properties and some are from the ground up. And all of them are rental properties. The Church of the Messiah is a separate 501(c)(3) from the Church. It has its own executive director and employees. It is also located inside the church. At one point, our building was gigantic – now we are running out of space.
You mentioned once that the Church owns 123 vacant lots in a city with more than 70,000 vacant lots. What is the strategy for using them?
We have fewer lots today, but we still own a large number of vacant lots. We intend to build on those lots. Right now, the economy is bad. We can’t get financing. One of the things we are looking at is partnering with other organizations in our area to come up with ideas of what do we do with the land once the economy recovers. Do we want to put something on that land? Do more community farming? Some degree of land repurposing that may not necessarily be housing? Possibly put a greenhouse or hoop house – feed more people and use that as a possible business that also serves for job training.
It is interesting because the city of Detroit is currently a hot commodity right now. They are running out of land in midtown and downtown. We know they will come this way. We intend to be a major stakeholder in our community when that happens.
Could you discuss some of the major challenges you face and how you address them?
This work is not for the timid or the weak. It takes guts and vision and heart in order to do it. You don’t do it for ambition, fame, or money. You have got to do it because it is the right thing to do.
I grew up here. I like it here. There are a lot of good people here. When you love your community and you watch it fall from its glory days almost to its demise, it is hard to sit back and watch that without doing something. My motivation – if we don’t do it, if the people who live here don’t do it, no one else will. We have to rescue ourselves.As a stakeholder, I have a vested interest. I want to see it prosper. We don’t need to look back to the Big 3. But we can be better than we were.We need innovation and collaboration. That’s why we are interested in community-based enterprises. These are community-based business. GM (General Motors) and the big corporations— all of that is gone. There has to be a new way of thinking and living. Doing it from the point of view of the community—that’s my motivation.
Do you see other churches in Detroit emulating the Church of the Messiah?
Yes. This last Friday (September 27), I was in a closed-door meeting with clergy of Detroit talking to members of the White House.When President Obama came, I was in one of those meetings. I was talking about community development from the point of view of place-based – redevelop the community, it wasn’t just about faith-based – but they wanted faith-based leaders who were doing things in their community. That was a good meeting.There are other churches that are trying to rebuild their community. A lot of them are not on the scale of the Church of the Messiah. We’re on the forefront. There are groups that are working together. We are part RECI (Riverfront East Congregational Initiative). It is a group of 18 churches in the Riverpark area, District 5, near downtown Detroit. We are working together as a collaborative to try to rebuild the community.Has the city’s filing for bankruptcy affected the church or church members. If so, how?
The only impact is psychological. You stop and think about what’s going to happen to the future of Detroit. As a church we concentrate on the good news. We don’t deny the bad news. We do defy it. We use it to motivate us.
Could you talk about the role of foundations? How would you describe their present approach to Detroit? Are they addressing the right problems? If not, how should they be adapting their approach?
Let me say this: I can get a little angry when I think about it—and also a little motivated. All of the work that the Church of the Messiah does to rebuild the community–whether housing, entrepreneurship, growing our own food, educating our own people, teaching people about the political process and why they should be a part of that—we don’t get a lot of foundation support. Our support comes from individuals who believe in what the Church of the Messiah is doing and they help make that happen. We have done some things that have been funded, like Kresge funding the Maker Space. We have had some degree of support from the Community Foundation, which was helping us as we were creating the “villages,” but for the most part we have not had a lot of foundation support.Let me combine that with what I was telling the Obama administration when we were talking about getting funds to projects that need to be funded. Cut out the bureaucracy and red tape of getting the funds. All of the funneling through city government takes too long. If there were some kind of process that would fund it directly without going through the red tape, that would be wonderful. It should not be that hard when you have results.We do a lot more than that. We have a harder time getting this money, a lot of times too with a lot of foundations. I like what they do, but sometimes they don’t fund important things that we are doing. A lot of times they want money to go into programming, when what we really need it for is operations. When you look at the Church of the Messiah, with the exception of things like entrepreneurship – the money generated helps to pay the people. The church is an all-volunteer operation, including me. The Church doesn’t pay me. And the Church staff members are all volunteers. We are all volunteers working to make it happen.
What organizations do you ally with? Since you’re on the board of the Center of Community-Based Enterprises (C2BE), could you comment on what role you see C2BE playing in Detroit?
One of the major organizations we work with right now is MOSES. MOSES is an organization that primarily works through religious organizations that help the community–they are helping us with getting the word out about the upcoming election and helping galvanize people to become active in their communities to make it a better place to be. It is primarily through community organizing. We are working with the Riverside Congregation Alliance through the Michigan Roundtable. We also work with the villages, which came about through the Community Foundation. We work with Genesis Hope, which is another CDC that does some of the same things we are working on. A lot of good things are happening right now.As for C2BE, I became involved about two years ago. I was interested in that organization because of the fact that it helps to build the community, creating a new community economy, which is something that is totally different, especially for Detroit – we are known for manufacturing, automobiles, working for corporations. This is a different concept – it is community-based. It is about the community taking ownership of the economy and business. That’s why I am interested in it. That’s why I believe C2BE is going to be a major part of the future of the city of Detroit. I really do believe that.Are there specific areas where Detroit community organizations need to focus their efforts to improve their capacity to accomplish their goals?
All community organizations should be working toward helping to change the mindset. Until we change the mindset of the people of the city of Detroit, you can forget everybody else. You have to change the mindset. People of Detroit feel like second-class citizens – they feel neglected, dejected, rejected. You can bring in all of the business and money, but the mindset has to be changed – that people feel they are worthy of being a first class city.There is such a break down of the community—you don’t just become violent. You take out the tax base, decimate the schools—you can’t just build and expect the mindset to change over night.The mindset needs to be changed. Forty-seven percent of Detroit is illiterate. When you look at forty-seven percent illiteracy, you don’t have an educated workforce ready to take jobs. So it has to be worked at in the community–job readiness, literacy, rebuild the neighborhoods.We focus so much at the top we’ve forgotten about the bottom. There are two cities of Detroit – it is seen as “us and them”–we’ve got to get rid of that mindset too.The capacity building has to be to bring up the people at the bottom, change the mindset and school system.There are so many things that need to change. In order to do this, the groups need to look from the bottom up, not the top down. New resources. They need to be brought up to that. Until that happens, the problems will persist in Detroit.People want parks, trees planted, bike trails. But what happens is that when these things are done, the way it is done makes it seems like none of this is for them. You have to change that mindset. That’s why you need organizations like Church of the Messiah. We don’t ignore the fact that there are people who are unemployable. Until you make them employable, you can’t change the community. We are a church. We are about reconciliation. We can do that. We can work to do that. That’s why we have the Makers Space, affordable housing, grow our food. We do that so the people’s mindset can be changed. We don’t have an ulterior motive. We are here. We are not going anywhere. The resources are here. We are a safe place. Come. We will raise your mindset. You will vote. You will be part of this process. You need to know what’s happening with the emergency manager and the election. You do have a voice and you do have a place. That’s why we do this. The money is out there. They don’t get to us. Maybe we don’t try hard enough. Sometimes when the funding is not there, we do it anyway. A lot of times we are the pretty girl who can’t get to the prom, everyone thinks someone else already ask you because you’re so beautiful.They see the workshops, they the see the housing, they see the businesses, they think we have money and we don’t.
As you know, there has been a long-standing debate regarding how to balance development and organizing and these goals are often seen as contradictory. How does Church of the Messiah achieve this balance?
Part of it is that we don’t compromise in terms of what we believe in terms of the gospel. We don’t think about leaving our community or abandoning things. We refuse to sell out. It is a degree of freedom to say it as it is. We’re not in anybody’s pocket. No one can tell us what to say because they funded certain things. We don’t have to do that. We say it is. We hope if the organizations and funders are right, we do it. We’re going to do the right thing. We do have a pretty good relationship with city government. We do have a good relationship with the community groups. We take our money and put it back into the community for us to be able to do what we do. With our housing, so many times the church has little money – landscaping – sometimes money is not there. It’s a catch twenty-two. Because the economy is bad, people don’t pay their rent. We too, have to do our stuff based on deficits and we do it the best we can. Funding is extremely difficult and hard to find. We help to change the mindset of the people in the neighborhood. That’s one of the reasons to change the mindset. You’re not trying to get anything out of it, except to rebuild the community to be the place it would be. I wish the funders and foundations would see this. I hope they are in this work for the right reasons. It is community based. We all have a vested interest in how the neighborhood looks, that lights are on, and that our neighborhoods are clean and safe. We have town halls on a regular basis. We don’t bitch about the lights, about where are the police. We understand that the city has no money. The majority of the population is gone. We know there are certain things we need to do. We will do our own garbage. We have our community groups. We get our own lawn mowers and cut the lawn ourselves. We keep the community looking better. When your neighborhoods see you out there, they will be out there. And then they know we can count on each other. Sometimes you have to do what you’re going to.
If you had to highlight a few key accomplishments of the Church of the Messiah’s work to date that you are most proud of, what would they be?
We have a church that is filled with young people. The majority of our congregation is African American male under 30. We are changing the mindset of some of the most vulnerable. hese were the gang bangers, car thieves. Now they are working in the landscaping, ginger tea, thinking they can be entrepreneurs. They have been given a second chance.Teach the greatness inside of you – you were not created to steal cars. Who are you? We have an opportunity to teach them who they are.The same ones who were stealing the cars are watching the parking lot. They have legitimate jobs. Their mindset has changed. They have a place in the future of Detroit. That is our greatest accomplishment.Some of the same ones who used to destroy the neighborhood are now community organizers workingwith MOSES. Change the community and mindset. They are changing the mindset of people who thought they didn’t deserve to benefit.They are becoming community organizers; they are now owning their own businesses. That’s incredible.How do you support yourself?
My family – my brothers and sisters contribute – it is what it is. There is a 2-bedorom apartment. When I decided to do this full time, I left my house and came here.The theory – I remember telling God – if this doesn’t work, I’ll be unemployed, homeless, and churchless. I believe in it as long as I have the necessities of life. I’m trying to be effective. It is about being effective and changing the mindset.
Where do you see the potential for cooperatives in Detroit?
It is incredible. We know we can’t do business as usual. The days of working for the corporation are limited and gone. We know those days are gone. Co-op brings together the opportunity for community development, employment and entrepreneurship. It creates the type of community where every individual has a stake and a voice. It gives the average person a voice.
That’s why cooperatives are so important to the city of Detroit. It is also about changing the mindset – people are cynical – when you create the opportunity in a co-op, everyone has a stake and vested interest. That’s so important in a city that is neglected. It actually brings about empowerment. It makes everybody equal.
You’ve referred at times to Detroit as being a blank slate. What do you see as the potential for Detroit?
I see the Detroit being the model for the rest of the country. Because we’ve been at the bottom, we had to reinvent ourselves out of necessity. We now know what don’t work. The whole world is watching to see what happens in the city of Detroit. We’re not afraid to experiment.It is like someone who has a terminal illness and all of the conventional treatments didn’t work. You don’t have anything to lose. You’ll die anyway.It is an opportunity to experiment and see what works and people can learn from Detroit what will work. This is as wonderful time to live in the city of Detroit.You have the option to try something new and different. Everybody knows what didn’t work.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Let me just say this. I look at the city of Detroit – recreated similar to the church. In 2008, we almost closed. We had no members, no money, and the building was too big.Since we were on the verge of closing, it made sense to try something different. We are a part of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church, like the Catholic Church, is steeped in tradition.When we were on the verge of closing, we knew we had to try something else. We kept our beliefs, but we experimented, got out in the community, brought in young people, and started some businesses. We took a chance, and it worked. Now we are being looked at as a beacon of hope within the church. We took a chance at doing something different. And it worked.Rebuild the community. Change the mindset. The same thing can happen for the city of Detroit – you have to have the courage. Just do it. Stop waiting for something to save you. Just do it. That’s our work. And that’s the part that I like.
For more information on Church of the Messiah, please see: http://www.churchofthemessiahdetroit.com/