Detroit church wants black men as leaders for youth

The Detroit News
Marshall Johnson, 67, leads the procession of 200 men into worship service at St. Stephen A.M.E. Church on Father's Day on Sunday, June,17, 2018,  in Detroit.

Detroit — Father's Day service started a bit differently than a regular service would Sunday at St. Stephen A.M.E. on Detroit's west side.

A stream of black men of all ages and stations in life walked the right side aisle in a line, then filled in, pew by pew, the entire middle section of the church as women sat in the sections to the right and left.

The service, called 200 Men in Worship, was intended not as an event, said the Rev. Darryl Williams, leader of the congregation, but as the start of a movement. 

Williams, who became the church's pastor in October, said he was approached recently and asked why he doesn't participate in the men's ministry. His response: I can have coffee at home.

By which Williams meant he had little interest in a social club that discussed its city's problems but did nothing to solve them. 

That's the movement Sunday's service hopes to begin: enlisting black men in Detroit to wrap their arms around the youth.

"I have a vision that we will see black men become leaders, step up to the plate," Williams said early in the service. "We're calling attention to the plight of African-American men and seeking to be part of the solution."

"I have a vision that we will see black men become leaders, step up to the plate," said the Rev. Darryl Williams, pastor of St. Stephen AME Church. "We're calling attention to the plight of African-American men and seeking to be part of the solution.

The threats facing black men are legion, as one church member said during a prayer: heart attacks, strokes, broken families, joblessness, hopelessness and violence. 

The hope and belief is that the more experienced men would be there to guide youth through the same challenges they once faced. The youth will have sounding boards and will be free to travel the path others have laid out.

Williams pondered forming an initiative shortly after arriving in Detroit from Milwaukee last year to become the church’s 13th leader. The Chicago native noted the blighted and vacant homes that now surround its ornate red brick structure, visible signs of the economic decline. He also became acquainted with sobering statistics that underscore life for those who live there: a poverty rate the U.S. Census reports hovers near 40 percent, high school graduations in the district falling below the state and national average, and enough homicides to justify the FBI previously ranking Detroit the nation’s most violent large city.

Williams, a third-generation preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, wondered about the impact on the boys in a city that is predominantly black. That led to discussions with his flock and an idea to form a men’s group that differed from those meeting weekly at other churches, focusing on branching out and tackling the most pressing needs.

“We want to take those issues and really try to achieve some goals and set some strategies so we are making a difference,” Williams said in an earlier interview. “We don’t want a men’s club. We want a community men’s ministry that is actively engaged. ...This is a fight for the soul of the city.”

Plans are still taking shape, but the church is working to find ways to connect youths with others in the community who can help them learn trades, further their education or simply shadow successful professionals. 

Michael Russell, an attorney who has attended St. Stephen for about 35 years, wants to explore ways to boost literacy. He welcomes the chance to start an effort rooted in community outreach.

“I think it’s essential when you have a city like Detroit that has had pockets of development but other areas that seem to go unattended and unaddressed with significant assistance and resources,” the Wayne State University graduate said. “We’re just trying to provide some level of aid and assistance to a community that seems to need it.”

To prepare for Sunday’s event, Russell and other participants have been reaching out to their contacts — fraternity brothers, business partners, classmates.

Russell said that in the 1940s and '50s, the neighborhood surrounding the church was stable and black. People mowed their lawns and washed their cars. Men worked. Back then, the people of the neighborhood poured into the church.

A lifetime later, the people who grew up in the neighborhood have moved. A lifetime later, it's the neighborhood that needs the church, Russell said.

"You can't get to the church without going through the neighborhood," Russell said. 

Keith Williams, a lifelong church member who has worked in health care management and consulting, believes an impressive field of professionals will fill the pews and serve as models for youngsters to emulate.

“There are a lot of people that are dropping through the cracks because they didn’t have an opportunity. Nobody gave them that tutoring or extra effort to get them to where they needed to be or identified what was wrong to correct it,” Williams, a Detroiter, said. “Maybe we can help those individuals to be an able-bodied citizen and contribute to society.”

That, too, has a spiritual purpose. Though Christians have sometimes “separated saving a person’s spirit from addressing their physical concerns and the tangible concerns in the community, no such duality exists,”Williams said. “If we don’t address or have a holistic view of what humanity is, then we have failed in being faithful to the command of God … So I see us addressing these issues as being faithful to the doctrine of Jesus and the Bible that we preach from.”

Sunday's sermon was delivered by Rochelle Riley, a Detroit Free Press columnist and author of "The Burden," published through Wayne State University Press, on the ongoing impact of slavery on black people. 

Riley's message to the men embarking on lifting up young men: "Be the best you — that will teach them to be the best them. And the best them will knock America's socks off."

Ken Cockrel Jr., Detroit's former interim mayor and executive director of Habitat for Humanity Detroit, was one of the 200 men in attendance. The church and the organization are trying to determine if it there's an opportunity for the two to collaborate to help the challenged neighborhood, which Cockrel represented once as a Wayne County commissioner. 

 "I used to be up through this neighborhood all the time," Cockrel said. It's changed a lot, and not necessarily for the better."

The next step comes at 10 a.m. Saturday, Russell said.

Interested men will meet to determine what skills and connections they bring to the effort.

"It won't be about sipping coffee, and it won't be about 'LeBron versus (Michael Jordan), who's better?'" Russell said. "It'll be about what we can do for these kids."