Church Reviving a City, One House at a Time

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HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. - High crime and unemployment are driving people away from Highland Park, Mich., and its troubled finances forced the state to take control eight years ago.

However a local church is on a mission to pull the city out of crisis -- one house at a time.

Higland Park is three square miles in the middle of metro Detroit and like the "Motor City," it makes headlines for its troubles.

Unemployment is more than 30 percent, the population is dropping and more than half of the people there earn below the poverty level.

"The city in the 1940s was the cleanest city in America, number two school district in Americam" explained Tim Dilena of Revival Tabernacle Church.

He left a life of corporate finance in New York City in 1982 and ended up in Highland Park with a heart to change the city.

"I kind of have a degree that should put me on Wall Street, and I am [instead] on Woodward Avenue in a pornographic district," he said.

Dilena purchased Krim Theater -- the city's biggest X-rated movie house -- for $55,000, shut it down and started Revival Tabernacle, where he is pastor.

That was 20 years ago, but Dilena still remembers the church's early years with a smile.

"In the beginning I would have men come in and ask me when do the movies start and I would tell them Sundays, 10 and six," Dilena recalled.

He moved his family to the struggling city, which is more than 90 percent black. Highland Park leaders call Dilena "an uncommon resident" for many reasons.

"In a mile in a half square, there are 38 churches and this what they said, 'We want to bring all the pastors together that lived in highland park,'" he said. "And then they found out of the 38 churches, only one person lived here, and that was me -- the white guy that lives in Highland Park."

"We felt like we needed to make a commitment," Dilena added.

Commitment is more than Tuesday night prayer meeting and Sunday morning worship. Pastor Dilena encouraged his congregation of young professionals to move to Highland Park and offered them assistance with the down payment on a home.

So far, about 75 of the church's 400 members have taken him up on that offer.

Jeffrey and Dana O'Farrell live two-and-a-half miles from the church.

"I have volunteered in soup kitchens. I have done all the door-to-door, taking prayer requests," Dana O'Farrell said. "Your heart begins to have a place for the city and that is what happened in our heart.

"We had a house on the west side of Detroit, but we could move anywhere," Jeffrey O'Farrell added. "We decided we wanted to be here. And then coming into the city, a lot people were like, and 'Are you scared?' I said, 'no.' People are people."

"There is good and bad in everybody," he continued. "And we just want to share the gospel and be a witness here on Rhode Island [Street]."

The O'Farrell's home was featured in the hit film "Gran Torino" with Clint Eastwood. The move was a high point for Highland Park and the Revival Tabernacle congregation.

But there were also low points.

The church's executive pastor Kevin Ramsby was home alone when a robber broke in and savagely stabbed him 37 times, leaving him to die.

"The miracle is that of 37 stabbings, not one of them hit a vital organ," Dilena said.

Ramsby moved his family to Highland Park less than a year ago. His faith in God, his church and his community remained strong, even as the victim of one the city's most violent crimes.

"I began to then pray for my son and I wanted my son Noah to never blame God for this," he said.

Ramsby is now on the road to recovery with the help of his family and his prayers are for Highland Park.

"We love it here. Our kids can walk down the streets. And we play," he said. "We know our neighbors. We will cook out with them. We will have them over. It's a great place to live."

Ramsby is a living reflection of Revival Tabernacle, a church committed to making Highland Park greater, one house at time.

"You can be anointed and never touch a city," Dilena said. "I would just tell you we are here for the rest of our lives. We're not going anywhere."

*Original Broadcast Date: October 23, 2009.

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Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.