'The one who came back': Ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick returns to Detroit to preach at Historic Little Rock Baptist Church

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Correction: The name of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's son, Jonas, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Detroit — Speaking at his most visible appearance in the city he once governed after spending more than seven years in prison, Kwame Kilpatrick stressed to Detroiters on Sunday the importance of second chances.

“How can you be born again and be the same person?” the former mayor, who was convicted in 2013 in a racketeering and bribery scheme, asked congregants at Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit.

One of the city’s most controversial figures, Kilpatrick was back to preach. He took the pulpit to shouts of “Kwame!” and “We love you, Kwame!” and delivered a sermon that drew standing ovations. He thanked churchgoers for praying for him.

“God said you’re the one who came back,” he said.

Kilpatrick, 51, who served more than seven years of a 28-year prison sentence before being released early from federal prison in January at the direction of President Donald Trump, said his experience changed him.

“Let (God) expose you! I ain’t trying to liberate nobody. I ain’t trying to cheat nobody. The light is on. The light is on.”

Corey Pope, a Hamtramck resident, was struck by the message of second chances.

“It was about deliverance,” Pope said following the service. “Those given second chances do it better than they did the first time around.”

Kilpatrick’s sermon was based in scripture, and he titled it “It’s Not Time to Die.”

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick speaks at Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, on June 13, 2021.

Pope said he liked that Kilpatrick stuck to biblical references in delivering his sermon because it showed his commitment to his faith.

“I think he’s already a phenomenal pastor,” Pope said.

Detroiter Gwen Greenlee agreed.

“(Kilpatrick) did a blessed sermon,” Greenlee said. “He used the Bible. He is a changed person.”

Greenlee said what resonated with her in Kilpatrick’s preaching was his comments that you have to believe in the word of God before you can have a relationship with him.

Evangelist Rosemary Washington-White said she believes the former mayor is “born again,” and it showed with his knowledge of scripture and his application to his own life.

“He did an awesome job,” said Washington-White as she left Little Rock Baptist Church Sunday. “He’s a changed man.”

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick preaches at Historic Little Rock Baptist Church.

Kilpatrick said he turned to his faith to protect himself as COVID-19 spread in the unit of the low-security federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, where he was housed. He said the illness claimed the lives of nine inmates there.

He said he had a conversation with God about surviving the virus saying, “You told me I was leaving this prison. I ain’t leaving in a body bag. ... I’m walking out.”

Kilpatrick said he told his son, Jonas, that he was only going to be incarcerated for seven years and that God was going to release him.

The former mayor wrapped up his debut Sunday as a preacher by calling on others to recommit to their faith.

Local pastors and politicians were among those who came out to pack Historic Little Rock Baptist Church where the Rev. James Holley, senior pastor, has led the congregation for 49 years.

Holley said the church holds 800. An overflow crowd Sunday for Kilpatrick’s appearance left only seats in the balcony available and most of those filled quickly.

Holley said he met with Kilpatrick when the former mayor visited Detroit several months ago and discussed having the former politician speak at the church.

Holley said he appreciated that Kilpatrick delivered his sermon, one of his first since being released from prison, at his church, saying there were many others the former mayor could have chosen.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick at Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, on June 13, 2021.

Kilpatrick also pre-recorded a sermon for the YouTube channel of Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God In Christ where Presiding Bishop J. Drew Sheard heads the congregation.

Kilpatrick told the church his ministry was ordained by God.

“I would like to thank God for this moment … a manifestation of what this miracle is. The last time I was here at this podium, I was on my way to prison and the world told me I would be there for 28 years,” Kilpatrick said in the Sunday address.

“The angel of this house told that that was not true. That God was sending me into a process and at the end of this process I would become who he always intended for me to be. I thought (Bishop J. Drew Sheard) was crazy. I thought he absolutely lost his mind but one night in a solitary confinement cell his words came back to me.”

Kilpatrick said he got off the floor and “the bed of depression.”

“I asked God to show me, talk to me, tell me who who I am,” Kilpatrick said. “And from that day forward he changed not only my heart but he changed my life.”

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick preached at Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, on June 13, 2021.

Kilpatrick plans to remarry and study for the ministry, according to an interview he gave to Deadline Detroit. He is divorced from his first wife, Carlita.

Trump commuted Kilpatrick’s prison sentence in one of his final acts as president in January. Kilpatrick's 28-year sentence, the longest on a conviction for public corruption, ended a chapter in Detroit’s history. The city plunged into the largest municipal bankruptcy in America’s history in July 2013 partly because of financial decisions made by Kilpatrick.

The former mayor was convicted of racketeering conspiracy in March 2013 on 24 federal felony counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud and racketeering. Seven months later, Kilpatrick was sentenced to federal prison by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.

“One sad thing about this case is that a man with the charisma and ability of Mr. Kilpatrick chose to waste his talents on personal aggrandizement and enrichment when he had the potential to do so much for the city,” Edmunds told Kilpatrick before sentencing him to 28 years in prison nearly eight years ago.

As part of Trump’s commutation, Kilpatrick’s prison sentence was reduced but his 24 felony convictions remain. The former mayor has to pay $1.5 million to Detroit's water department and more than $854,000 in restitution to the city stemming from the text-message scandal that ended his political career.

Kilpatrick currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, has lived in a home 39 miles south of Atlanta since June 2019.

The scion of a once powerful and politically connected family, Kilpatrick served as a state lawmaker in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1997 to 2002. He became the youngest person elected as mayor of Detroit when he was elected in November 2001.

Kilpatrick served as mayor from 2002 to 2008 before resigning in September 2008 after being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Kilpatrick's friend, Bobby Ferguson, 52, was released from federal prison on compassionate grounds in April after he served only eight years of a 21-year sentence for his part in helping Kilpatrick turn City Hall into a criminal enterprise.