The Congregation in Detroit Perseveres Through a Pandemic

By: Aaron B. Cohen | February 17, 2021
The Congregation Detroit Coffee Shop

Photo courtesy of The Congregation.

On March 5, 2020, The Congregation opened to the Detroit public. Coffee. Café. Cocktails. Community. The first new business in Detroit’s Boston-Edison District in more than 20 years. For exactly 11 days, it seemed like a four-year struggle to get this coffee shop off the ground was beginning to pay off. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit Michigan…

“It all started as a dream and curiosity… and here we are today.”

The dream was omnipresent. For two couples – longtime residents of Detroit’s historic Boston-Edison District – the goal of opening the neighborhood’s first new business in decades floated around like the leaf on a perfectly-foamed latte. They envisioned a space that provided sustenance and a creative outlet to their community. With deep, multi-generational roots in Detroit’s service industry, it was just a matter of finding and seizing the right opportunity.

The curiosity was inspired by a building. Vacant for years, the church at the corner of Rosa Parks and Atkinson was constructed in 1924 by Spier and Gehrke Architects. It wasn’t the first church on the property – the first one burned down in 1917. Unity English Lutheran Church thrived for nearly a century, unscathed amidst the riots of ’67 which originated mere blocks from the building. But in 2013, the church was boarded up and vacated; another remnant of the Detroit that once was.

Amy Peterson knew it all too well. Every day since moving to Boston-Edison, she drove by that abandoned, yet uniquely inspiring church. In the spring of 2016, on her usual commute past the building, she noticed that for the first time, the doors were open. She parked the car and ventured inside to address her years-old curiosity. There, she found a realtor making final preparations to list the property. She picked up the phone and dialed her longtime friend, Betsy Murdoch.

“She called me almost immediately and said, ‘Look, they’re selling this building. I think we should jump on it,’” Betsy recalled.  So, they did.

Out of respect for the community, they proceeded with due diligence. “Before jumping feet first, we wanted to gauge what the community thought of the project,” Murdoch said. “We started reaching out to the Boston-Edison Association and also Atkinson – the street we’re on the corner of – we started flyer-ing their homes, trying to get people engaged to have a conversation with us and see what they would think. And one hundred percent, everyone was like, ‘We want it. We need it.’  It was fall of 2016 when we finalized the deal and bought the building.”

The Congregation, located in the Boston-Edison District of Detroit on the corner of Rosa Parks and Atkinson, is housed in a renovated church. Photo courtesy of The Congregation.

It took three years to complete the process of rezoning and property tax litigation before the four partners could “even touch the building.” Once they made it to the other side, the real work began.

For a full year, the team worked tirelessly to restore the church’s most beautiful, yet recently neglected features including the original maple flooring and all original stained-glass double-hung windows. Between the ‘50s and ‘60s, the original stained glass feature window was boarded up, but in early 2020 a new stainless-steel piece was installed by Detroit’s own Nordin Brothers. According to the owners, “the goal when restoring and renovating the structure was to install a modern interpretation of what once was there.”

Perhaps the most prominent feature, however, is the 150-year-old organ (built in 1870), that still stands tall in the Northwest corner of the main room. “Very early on, the organ became a passion project,” said Murdoch. “What we gather from conversations with locals is that the organ hasn’t worked for about 20 years.”

Restoring an antique instrument of such physical stature is no small feat. “There’s a lot of components that go into making a church organ operable,” she explained. “Once you get into it, it can be a few thousand dollars to repair…or a few hundred thousand dollars. We are actually in the process of getting a grant proposal together because it is a historic piece of musical equipment.”

Long-term goals are key to the success of any business. But after four years of non-stop preparation, the team was eager to begin serving the community. On March 5, 2020, The Congregation opened to the Detroit public. Coffee. Café. Cocktails. Community.

“The place was packed,” Murdoch reminisced. “Wall to wall people. We had the mayor here. A bunch of people from the city. Media. It was a frenzy. People were really excited to have something in our community. We haven’t had a new business open around here in twenty-plus years, let alone a retail/restaurant-type business. People were really excited.”

And for a moment – or rather, 11 days – it seemed like a four-year, uphill climb was beginning to pay off.

“It felt really good to finally be open and serving the community we promised we were working diligently on for so long. And then March 16th rolled around.”

Coronavirus. Lockdown.  At this point, let’s spare ourselves the full recap. Like every adult in the United States, Betsy Murdoch found herself at an impasse:

“That evening we sat around – myself, my husband and my partners – and we asked, ‘Now what do we do?’ We had no idea. That first shutdown was only supposed to last two or three weeks. It just kept getting extended and extended.”

Photo courtesy of The Congregation.

A nightmare for any business. Let alone one that opened less than two weeks prior to an economic apocalypse. But after four years of struggle, The Congregation was no stranger to adversity. It was time for the former church to take on new faith; dig deeper into that Detroit grit.

“We stayed open,” proclaimed Murdoch, proudly. “I was here by myself, hustling – just making coffee, making sandwiches, doing what I could to keep going, keep the momentum alive. Keep people feeling hopeful that we’re gonna survive this. Gonna get through it.”

And they did. When the lockdown was lifted in late June, The Congregation seized the opportunity to build a community in Detroit in new, safe ways.

“We already knew that we wanted to have artistic, creative energy around us. Especially with so many creatives in the city. We did tons of live concerts outside. House music every Thursday. Complimentary yoga put on by one of our neighbors every Saturday. We were doing what we could outdoors. Just giving people somewhere to go and something to do in a time when there aren’t really many options.”

As a particularly beautiful Michigan summer rolled into the colder months, the owners of The Congregation in Detroit continued to adapt. Propane heaters were an obvious step. Maybe not-so-obvious was the addition of fire pits to their green space for night-time bonfires and s’mores. 

“Crazy how many people were so excited about the s’mores idea,” Murdoch chuckled. “I thought it would be a cute, fun idea…but we were getting media attention because of the s’mores. Again, it goes back to giving people a purpose and allowing them to forget they’re standing in 20-degree weather.”

There have been many lessons learned over the course of the last year. Murdoch said it best: “they don’t train you for a pandemic in business school.”

But perhaps more significant than the business insight gleaned from 2020’s challenges are the big-picture takeaways: 

“The possibilities are endless.” And that’s one thing I’ve learned…patience and being open to change. You have to be flexible. The number one thing we found is that we just need to provide people with a place to go to get them out of their house. Give them a reason to wake up in the morning and get moving. Still be able to enjoy life.”

Surely, the challenges of 2020 haven’t disappeared entirely. But with the lifting of Michigan’s second shutdown and the rollout of an effective vaccine, Detroiters are beginning to see the light. As we inch closer to some type of normal, The Congregation continues to serve as a hub of optimism, creativity and purpose for the Detroit community.

“When the pandemic goes away, running the business is going to be a breeze,” joked Murdoch.  “The future can only go up from here.”