Featured / Fellowship! Magazine / Pastoral Care

Young pastor in Flint, Michigan, focuses on mental health amid pandemic and ongoing water crisis

by Andrew Nash

It is always hard to take on a new role as a senior pastor in your 20s, but there is an added degree of difficulty when doing so during a global pandemic. There’s even more of a challenge doing so in Flint, Mich., site of a water crisis that has had lasting effects. 

And that’s exactly what the Rev. DeVontae Powell has had to do in the last year at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church.

“Coming in during the pandemic was challenging. I officially began on May 16, 2020, but I started coming to the church as pulpit supply in March,” Powell said. “I’ve worshiped with the congregation fully in person only two times. It was difficult navigating how to reach the members who have not been to church to even meet me, but who were also in need of pastoral care. At first, it was a struggle figuring out how to do outreach; but there’s been real-time strategy-building. We’ve had to be strategic about the challenge.”

One way Rising Star reached out in a time when people have largely stayed in was through a program throughout the summer of 2020 called Wellness Check Wednesdays. The program involved bringing in speakers, therapists and other mental health professionals to help with some of the challenges of isolation, education at home, mindfulness and more. 

“I was preaching on Sundays that there was a real need for the care of mental health to take priority at our church,” Powell said. “We decided to take our normal gathering time on Wednesdays for Bible Study and invest in parishioners’ and community members’ mental health. While the church does a good job with spiritual health, as Christians, it’s also important that we consider mental health—especially in trying times like these.”

In late March 2021, Powell was formally installed as the fourth pastor at Rising Star. At just 26 years old, he is the youngest pastor in the church’s history, and also the youngest senior pastor in Flint, Mich.

He spent most of his youth in Kankakee, Ill., before moving to Flint while in high school. His parents were born and raised in Flint, where Powell eventually was connected to the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church of Flint. His grandparents and other family members also live or have lived in Flint.

Powell began preaching at age 16 and later attended Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

“I knew it was my call to serve. God continued to confirm it,” Powell said. “When you have a push from God to be a senior pastor, God shows you the need. God will give your heart the undeniable and unshakable desire to pastor. When you see the need, it feels like God put something inside you to serve as the solution, and you can’t run away from that. That is called ‘purpose.’”

On a national scale, Flint is well-known as the epicenter of a water crisis involving lead contamination that first came to light in 2014. Powell said his grandfather passed away in the midst of the water crisis, leading some in the family to question whether the contaminated water played a role in his death. So many people, Powell noted, used the water for so long before the problems were discovered that a whole generation of children were exposed to lead poisoning. The community had to develop its own resources to deal with that crisis. 

“Some debate whether the situation is now good or whether it is barely getting better. You can definitely see the effects of lead poisoning on the community. It affects education, mental health and functionality. The north side of Flint was hit really hard. A lot of people think everything is okay and Flint is back and moving and that is not so. Flint will always survive, but it’s a daily struggle.”

And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

As needs mounted in the community during quarantine, Powell opted to provide mental health resources through Rising Star. Therapists, educators, counselors and more were invited into the conversation about mental health. 

“I felt a need as a church to make mental health a priority that we addressed realistically,” Powell said. “As pastor, I’ve even had to maintain my own mental health with counseling and self-care. If we can raise awareness of these issues, we can really change the stigma associated with mental health in urban communities. It’s okay to seek therapy and group sessions. It’s okay to need help. You don’t have to do it alone. God created us as relational beings, so we aren’t meant to bear life’s struggles alone.”

Each week can tackle a different topic or a different resource. In several sessions, the church worked on furthering children’s education, including healthy eating and supporting parents as teachers. Other sessions included therapists talking about self-calming techniques. 

“Often as a church we can spend so much time being inwardly focused,” Powell said. “We must take after the church in Acts to be the community. The Church was never supposed to be segregated from the communities’ pain. It was supposed to be a way of life, support and fellowship. We want to offer things that don’t just meet the needs of the membership, but that also meet the needs of the community.”

After a season of rest during the winter, Wellness Check Wednesdays are ramping up again for 2021. The launching of Wellness Check Wednesdays last year was boosted by a social media push that drew eyes from outside Flint. 

“We had people tuning in from Illinois, Georgia, Ohio, Nevada, New York and more. It’s amazing to see it grow beyond our little community at Rising Star,” Powell said.
As the quarantine and pandemic restrictions begin to lift, Powell sees further opportunity for Rising Star. He recently unveiled plans for a capital campaign to renovate the church’s administrative offices in community partnership space and also to turn the basement into a calming transitional community meeting space. “We want to have house therapists there for individuals to come in and meet,” Powell said. “I’m happy we have a church willing to follow its new, young pastor. There is an excitement to changing the use of our assets from simply being a meeting house on Sundays to becoming a seven-days-a-week facility for our community.” 

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe at www.cbf.net/fellowship.

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