Flint, MI—When Aaron Dunigan sought out a place of worship after a stint in prison, he wanted to find the church that was just right for him, he said. 

“I wanted to, you know, get out, kind of get a feel for churches,” he said.

Dunigan got out of prison in 2008 and heard about Joy Tabernacle Church, a church in Flint’s Civic Park neighborhood, through his family, who were members there. It was the first church he visited and after meeting Joy Tabernacle’s pastor, Robert McCathern, he joined that day. A few months later, Dunigan became a supervisor in the church’s workforce development program, working “one of my first real jobs,” he said. 

“Pastor McCathern saw something in me,” Dunigan said. “And if you know Pastor McCathern, he’ll push you into those spots, whether you think you’re ready or not.”

Now, more than a decade later, the Urban Renaissance Center, Joy Tabernacle’s community outreach arm, is honoring Dunigan in its first ever Ubuntu Awards, celebrating his graduation from the center’s job placement program. Dunigan will be presented with the award during a ceremony at the Urban Renaissance Center on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. 

Aaron Dunigan poses for a portrait in the Joy Tabernacle Church sanctuary in the Civic Park neighborhood of Flint, Mich. on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

“It’s the first time that I’ve ever got an award for anything so, you know, that all in itself just feels kind of surreal,” Dunigan said. “To be acknowledged for participating and going through and doing some things that… when you were doing it, you weren’t doing it for any recognition. It was a part of the community, something that I wanted to do, and I needed to make money.”

The Urban Renaissance Center will honor six others with Ubuntu Awards in various categories, recognizing the contributions these honorees have made to the Civic park community.

On that same day, the center will host an open house and debut its African Safari Exhibition, a collection of about 37 hand sculpted animals made by local artist Martin Turner. 

Martin Turner works on a hand-sculpted animal he created for the African Safari Exhibition at Joy Tabernacle Church in Flint’s Civic park neighborhood on March 25, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)
Martin Turner rinses off his paint brush while working on hand-sculpted animal he created for the African Safari Exhibition at Joy Tabernacle Church in Flint’s Civic park neighborhood on March 25, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)
Some of the hand-sculpted animals Martin Turner created for Joy Tabernacle Church’s African Safari Exhibition rest in the basement of the church in Flint’s Civic park neighborhood on March 25, 2022. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The Urban Renaissance Center grew out of the community outreach programs that Joy Tabernacle started nearly two decades ago. McCathern said, they kicked things off with a partnership with New Paths, an organization that offers rehabilitative programs as an alternative to jail time. The church opened a computer center for New Paths’ clients to work on their resumes and search for jobs, but McCathern wanted to take a more direct approach, he said. 

“We can’t be in church with our hands raised to God,” McCathern said. “They need to be extended out to the community.” 

So McCathern and other church leaders founded the Urban Renaissance Center on that philosophy, which has its roots in South African proverbs. He sums it up with the Nguni/Ndebele term “Ubuntu,” which is commonly understood to mean, “I am because you are.” 

Robert McCathern, pastor of Joy Tabernacle Church, poses for a portrait in the Urban Renaissance Center’s meeting room on Wednesday, June 29, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

After Joy Tabernacle moved to its current home on Chevrolet Avenue in Flint’s Civic Park neighborhood a little more than a decade ago, the Urban Renaissance Center’s early members began beautifying the blocks around the church. They helped board up and tear down some of the neighborhood’s abandoned houses in partnership with the Genesee County Land Bank. They mowed vacant lots and planted flowers and trees to create small parks for the community. They built wooden fences and a stage for concerts, events and theatrical performances about six years ago. This area of Civic Park is now known to some as the “Ubuntu Village.”

“The needs of the community were so great,” McCathern said. “The suffering of the community was so great. One of my first encounters was a young man walking down the street saying he’s gonna kill himself. That was one of my first Saturdays here, and I invited him to church, and he came.”

Just as the neighborhood around Joy Tabernacle was changing, so too was the church itself, McCathern said. The church’s budding reputation as an “urban, hip” church came about because of its focus on community engagement, he said, and some more old-fashioned parishioners didn’t agree with that new direction. 

“It stretched the church and the membership, which was also young, unemployed, not a lot of skills,” McCathern said. “By then, the transformation in this church had become: Most church people didn’t want to go to church with urban people. We experienced that. We lost a lot of the traditional church people.”

But McCathern’s approach to the faith was exactly what Dunigan was looking for when he sought out a church back in 2008. He felt like society saw him and many of his peers as “the least of,” he said.

“To have an organization come and say, ‘Nah, that’s who we want to love on. That’s who we want to embrace. That’s who we want to be a part of our family and our circle,’ was not like nothing I had ever seen before,” Dunigan said. 

Shortly after joining, Dunigan became a supervisor in the Urban Renaissance Center’s Earn and Learn program, a job placement initiative for young, unemployed men in partnership with Baker College and Career Alliance. He started off doing “odds and ends” jobs like landscaping and construction, but soon became a supervisor in the program, giving him the first opportunity in his life to be a leader, he said. 

That was the second job Dunigan landed after getting out of prison.

“Nobody wanted to give me an opportunity,” he said, adding that he’d sent out dozens of job applications. After getting started at the Urban Renaissance Center, he said more opportunities came his way. He now works at Forge Flint, an organization that, among other programs, provides heavily discounted car repairs to people who need them.

The Urban Renaissance Center’s hands-on approach has garnered support from the Ruth Mott Foundation, who awarded the center a $315,000, 24-month grant in April 2022. The Ruth Mott Foundation has been lending financial support to the Urban Renaissance Center since 2016, said Raquel Thueme, the foundation’s president. 

“We believe very strongly in what we call shoe-leather philanthropy, which is walking among, talking with, listening to, learning from and sharing with the people we’re serving,” Thueme said.  “We initially supported them because it was clear they had forged these personal relationships. They were very connected with the community.”

Jaddai, a Flint-based musician and founding member of Flint Renaissance Era, hangs out at Joy Tabernacle Church on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Looking ahead, McCathern said the Urban Renaissance Center is refining a more holistic approach to uplifting the young people of Civic Park. While the center’s workforce development initiative began with training young men in landscaping and construction, it’s been steadily expanding into the arts. The center built a music studio on its third floor about six years ago. 

Earlier this summer, a group of young artists, music directors, writers and performers came together at the Urban Renaissance Center, creating a loose collective of creatives called the Flint Renaissance Era. The center’s meeting room and outdoor stage also served as home base for a performing arts training program called the Harvest Theater Co. throughout this summer as young actors prepared for their performance of “Othello, the Remix” in late July. 

Although the Urban Renaissance Center’s programs may evolve and change to meet different needs, it all comes back to Ubuntu, McCathern said.

“You can’t have a community without strong neighborhoods,” he said. “Neighborhoods are what make the community.”

Michael is Flint Beat’s multimedia journalist. He joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered...