By Violet Ikonomova and Allan Lengel
A charismatic ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick stood before a receptive Sunday congregation at the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church on Woodward in Detroit and showed his gratitude and fiery penchant for preaching.
"I just want to thank all of you ... for praying for me," Kilpatrick said at the outset of his sermon, his first public event since being released from prison in January. "During my time in prison I spent over six, seven months in solitary confinement. Ya'll wasn’t there and it was a good thing because the entire time God was there. And many of you moved the throne of heaven on my behalf."
He then got into the theme of his sermon: "It's not time to die" — an appeal to live a life of purpose even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
"I know someone in here is facing 30 years in prison. I know they're after you. I know you think it's all over with. But I'm here to tell you, it's not time to die."
"I know many of you have lost children, you've lost thousands, you’ve lost your parents. This has been a horrible 18 months. But I’m here to tell you, it’s not time to die."
It still wasn't time to die when Kilpatrick says he himself contracted Covid, which killed nine as it ripped through his Louisiana prison.
"God said, 'get up,'" and Kilpatrick said he did.
"I ain't leaving in a body bag. I’m walking out of this joint. I’m not letting death have reign over me."
Many in the pews appeared moved as the ex-mayor, dressed in a powder blue sport coat and open-collared white shirt, preached about scripture. Others applauded him in comments of a YouTube livestream.
The mask of one woman was visibly wet with tears. Another woman kept shouting her praise of the ex-mayor from the balcony, loud enough for him to hear: “That’s right Kwame!”
The church limited the crowd to 800, and it appeared that it reached that capacity.
Sheila Johnson, a 69-year-old Detroiter who came specifically to see Kilpatrick, said she was happy to see he’d "persevered" and come out of prison a "better man.”
She found his sermon particularly touching because she recently lost a lifelong friend.
“Sometimes you get in a place of complacency or despair and that sermon, it lifted my heart, it gave me encouragement. It gave me a feeling of strength to go on," she said. Knowing what he’s gone through and his head is lifted up and he’s strong and he can inspire others? I got a lot from it.”
Christina Pierce, of Southfield, was moved by Kilpatrick’s story of personal redemption.
“Sometimes you have to get broken down in order to know that there’s better out there for you,” she said, adding that she has faith in the ex-mayor despite his past failings. “We have to forgive others and that’s the only way to show true godly love.”
Kilpatrick said he told his son Jonas in his third year in prison that God told him he would get out of prison in his seventh. He was released Jan. 20, short of eight years, after President Donald Trump commuted his sentence to time served.
He said "something changed" after he accepted Jesus as his savior.
"Before he started to build me up, he took things away. 'I need you to stop talking to that girl, I need you to not call this person anymore.' And I said, 'aye ye, I’m in prison, I need this.' He said 'no, get rid of that. I need you to stop cussing.' That was hard.
'I need you to stop watching TV. I got to take this out of your life. Because you got a problem with lust.'
The New Center community where he preached also got a shoutout. Kilpatrick recalled learning to swim and getting robbed in the area as a youngster.
"I’m from Detroit for real," he said. "I’m from here. I’m from this city, the real Detroit. When I got to prison people said, 'where you from, Bloomfield Hills?'"
The sermon was a warm-up for Kilpatrick's second act as a reverend. He shared plans to join the ministry and leave politics behind in an interview with Deadline Detroit last week, his first since being released from prison in January. He plans to attend divinity school at Columbia University, a weekend media release from the Little Rock church said.