One block from Covenant Community Church in Muskegon Heights, Pastor Mark Bush is walking across a grass lawn with his hands outstretched to Paula Addison, who peers over a wooden fence from her backyard. It is a reunion of celebration.
“I see you have your track!” Mark says, as he gestures toward a paved path that zig zags Paula’s backyard daycare area. Mark is tall, broad-shouldered, with a neatly-trimmed beard of gray. His mustache still has the toothy crimson hairs that reveals he was once a redhead. The one word that describes him: warmth.
Paula lights up as she discusses her new bike path, and both her and Mark chuckle when a small child takes a corner too fast and falls gently into the grass. “You’re going to get a ticket!” Paula tells the young child. She proceeds to explain to Mark that the kids at Paula’s Playhouse are thrilled at the prospect of tending a patch of land in the urban garden that Mark’s church has created adjacent to their parking lot.
Paula is not a member of Covenant. She’s a member of the community. She’s someone getting things done. She’s a neighbor. Mark and Covenant measure their church by “households served” rather than traditional membership. They gauge their success by how many members of the neighborhood will talk to them across the backyard fence.
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In sixteen months, Covenant Community Church will celebrate their 100th anniversary. For more than a third of that time, Mark and his wife Miriam have been pastors or co-pastors of the church. They arrived in Muskegon Heights in the summer of 1984, fresh out of seminary in Holland. At that time the community was reeling from high unemployment. The pastor who served the church when the Bush’s arrived was one of the few black clergy in the Reformed Church in America. The three church leaders jokingly called themselves “The Mod Squad” after the popular television crime show from the 1970s that featured two white crime fighters and one black. Most everyone calls Miriam “Mimi” and she retired from her position in 2009, but Mark has shouldered on.
The membership rolls of Covenant once included many white Americans of central and northern European descent. The population of the neighborhoods exploded between 1920 and 1930, Covenant opened in ‘20. People flooded to Muskegon for jobs in factories and the many retail shops that blossomed to serve the growing family base. The Muskegon Heights Public High School became one of the most admired in the state. Boelkins Grocery less than two blocks from Covenant was one of the first in Michigan to sell meat, vegetables and fruit under one roof.
At its peak, the roughly three square miles of Muskegon Heights was home to close to 20,000 people. Covenant has always been an outward-looking church, sensitive to the homes, the families, the people of their neighborhood. This is a building that serves however it needs to. But the 1960s and 1970s were difficult: thousands of people bolted during “white flight” as the neighborhoods changed, with more African American families moving into the Heights. Jobs became scarce too. Covenant pivoted. They reached out, they welcomed, they changed to the needs of their neighbors.
“We are a high-commitment congregation,” Mark says. “You need to know why you go to church to worship here.” As the blend of the membership changed in the 1970s and 1980s (80 to 90 percent of Muskegon Heights is African American today), those who stayed maintained the heritage of the church mission.
In the 1990s, the lot across the street from the church was transformed into a recreation program with several basketball hoops and space for other programs. At the peak of activity it served more than 150 kids per day.
“This church was put here for the neighbors,” Mimi says.
Not all of those neighbors come to Covenant on Sunday for worship services, but the church is there, doing what it’s always done. The basketball courts are empty now, the rec program was discontinued, but Covenant has pivoted again. An afterschool program helps children with homework and provides snacks. Another ministry offers a hygiene pantry. The church serves Aldea Coffee because they support the direct trade model that helps the farmers in Honduras. Covenant believes this: neighbors are around the corner, they’re across town, they might be across the world.
The church has a reusable mug with each church-goers' name on it, as well as many visitor mugs with smiley faces.
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Martin Luther King Elementary School closed about ten years ago. The loss was devastating to the neighborhood. Most families in the area do not own an automobile. Driving their children or having them bussed to another district was not an option. Because home ownership was low, many families simply left. Practically overnight, the neighborhood drew quiet. Where once there had been children playing in yards, there were now empty homes. Where there had been families walking together down the sidewalks to school in the morning, there was a shuttered elementary. Some churches closed. Covenant remained.
“We believe in long-term ministries,” Mark says, “it’s great for a community.”
Many of the roads surrounding the church are turning back into dirt roads.
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It’s called “radical hospitality.” It’s what Mark is practicing as he and Paula talk over her fence at her daycare a block away from Covenant Community Church. It’s what the church is demonstrating when it purchases vacant lots that dot the neighborhood. One lot has become an urban garden, another will be transformed into a picnic pavilion. Young saplings may be planted on yet another. Mark dreams that a large corner lot will become a park. As these changes have started to materialize, others in the neighborhood have responded. Yards have been cleaned up, abandoned cars have been towed, blight has become beauty.
Mark and Mimi have a list. It’s a list of the three things that have kept them going at Covenant Community Church. This is the list:
- A journey inward
- A journey outward
- A journey to community
The foundation is the journey inward, Mimi explains. The journey outward are the many ministries and programs the church hosts. The journey to community are the results of the first two. It’s the smile on Mark’s face when he sees Paula Addison explain her vision for her daycare. When she motions to a felled tree that the city has yet to remove from the sidewalk. “I’ve called the city, they haven’t done anything,” she says. “I have a guy who says he’ll chop it up and take it away.” She’s getting things done. The neighborhood is getting things done. The journey to community marches on. Mark’s there helping, he’s been doing it for nearly 35 years. Covenant has been doing it for nearly a century.
“What happens outside the walls [of the church] has been done well, and it’s kept our heart pumping,” Mark says.