An interview with Sonny Smith, lead pastor of Detroit Church
By David Dummitt
In a February 1957 message for the National Council of Churches’ observance of Race Relations Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote,
Racial segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. Segregation is a tragic evil that is utterly un-Christian. . . . Every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the Christian Churches.
King’s bold words speak to churches today as clearly as they did 60 years ago. Racial division and polarization is a serious problem continuing to plague churches, and it is mission critical that we intentionally combat such issues with courage and humility.
Detroit is arguably one of the most impoverished, oppressed, and racially divided cities in the United States. Once a booming metropolis, the Motor City has experienced tremendous loss over the last several decades. From race riots and violence to becoming the largest U.S. city ever to declare bankruptcy, Detroit has been hit hard, and healing is a long road.
We serve a big God, and his church is the hope of the world. He has called all of us to live as citizens of his kingdom, and as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5, he has given us the message of reconciliation—to himself, and to one another.
Sonny Smith is a friend and fellow pastor. Two years ago, Sonny launched Detroit Church in midtown. In two short years, Sonny has been a catalyst for starting hard and healing conversations tackling racial tensions head-on. I recently sat down with Sonny for an honest conversation about the current state of racial reconciliation within the church.
You grew up in Detroit. Your father was a pastor in Detroit. From your perspective, what is the current state of racial reconciliation in the church, or Detroit in general?
Racial tension and the need for reconciliation are big issues that need Holy Spirit power moving through God’s people to bring hope and healing. The reality is we’re all prejudiced in some way. Regardless of our individual skin color, we all have real problems to face, real challenges to overcome in our thinking and beliefs.
At Detroit Church, we’ve been going through the book of Acts. We see Peter dealing with his own prejudice in his heart. Like Peter, we have to wrestle through our own prejudice, both what we have been taught through how we were raised, but also with the reality that we are sinful people prone to prejudice because of our sin nature. Like Peter, even when we’ve heard from God on the issue of racism, we have to confront our deep-seated prejudices time and time again.
How has God called you to serve in the midst of that climate in Detroit?
God has called me to be very raw and unafraid to confront and deal with our mess—to expose it, highlight it, and make sure the gospel is central to any real reconciliation efforts. I know we don’t have it all figured out, but God has called all of us to be willing to ask the difficult questions with the goal of reconciliation in mind.
We are called to affirm the God-given dignity of every person. We didn’t give it to them. We did not create it. We simply recognize it . . . that the God that made me made them.
What are some of the things Detroit Church has done to address the need for racial reconciliation?
We opened our doors two years ago. In that short time, we have worked hard to create intentional environments to have real, raw conversations about racial issues.
Not long ago we held a conversation series called “Black, White, and Blue” dealing with some of the traumatic police shooting situations that were happening. We unpacked hard questions like, “Is white privilege a real thing?” Talk about uncomfortable! But that’s the call—we have to be willing to get raw about the real issues if we stand any chance of being conduits of healing.
In June of this year we held a live online event called “The Prejudice Sin-drome,” where people could text in their questions to be discussed online.
It’s an ongoing conversation. Detroit Church is 40 percent black, 40 percent white, and 20 percent “other.” I’ve had white people come up to me with hard questions and concerns; I’ve had black people come up to me with hard questions and concerns. Those are the dynamics, and I can’t reject what people are saying. I have a responsibility to listen. We all do.
What are some of the biggest hang-ups and blind spots to Christ followers overcoming racial tensions?
Christians have to overcome insensitivity and defensiveness. We need to pursue humility and be willing to admit when we don’t have a clue. We need to be willing to come alongside one another to ask questions, learn, and understand different perspectives.
A black couple told me recently that they checked out a life group and . . . were blatantly ignored by other people in the group. I ended up speaking from the pulpit about it. People came up to me after the service in tears, realizing that maybe they haven’t done everything they could. That’s encouraging—like scales falling from eyes. But it is incredibly difficult.
If I’m really honest, many of the white Christians I know don’t have much of a struggle helping poor, uneducated black people. They don’t have an issue helping the homeless. But I have seen prejudice and suspicion arise with educated black people who can communicate at high levels and have the intellectual capacity to challenge them; that’s when the walls go up.
What are your thoughts on the idea of “privilege”?
Privilege itself is neither good nor bad, but we need to learn to recognize it. There are real factors that impact a person’s or a community’s ability to get ahead. Some people say, “Pick yourself up by the bootstraps,” but the reality is that some people don’t have boots at all! We need to be aware of privileges, not to be ashamed of them, but instead to learn to model Christ by laying down our personal rights, comforts, and privileges to love and serve others.
One of my white friends helped me understand the idea of privilege in light of Philippians 2. Paul uses the word kenosis, the notion of emptying oneself for the benefit of another. Christ held the highest privilege and comforts as the Son of God, and he emptied himself to relate to us, to be with us. If Christ left everything to become like us, humbled himself to be with us, then we as Christians ought to acknowledge the ways we are privileged and be willing to lay it all down for the sake of one another, regardless of skin color.
One of the things I like to say at Detroit Church is that we don’t have the luxury of being here without being impacted by the difficult realities of the city. Our church has been displaced seven times in two years, not because of anything we have done, but because that is a reality in the city. Rent increases beyond sustainability. Lead was found in water fountains. Our community faces these things all the time, and we have to be willing to step into that reality with our people.
How important is it to have different races represented on a church leadership team, teaching team, or other influential positions?
Representing diversity in leadership and influential positions within a church is of first importance. The church should be reflective of the community; the pulpit should reflect the community. That’s a tangible demonstration of moving beyond talk and into action—building a family on mission together that transcends the barriers built by prejudice.
What does “winning” in this area look like? At what point will you say, “We’re good at this; we can help others with this”?
When we are making disciples across racial barriers who then go on to make more disciples across barriers . . . that’s when I’ll be able to say we are winning. When we’re able to acknowledge the implicit bias that each of us has, deal with it, and aren’t defensive about it—whether it’s race, age, class, gender, education—when we have an environment where people all across the spectrum know that they belong and don’t feel the need to hold back.
Let’s talk about the suburbs and rural areas. What do you say to people in those areas who are asking, “What am I supposed to do?” How does a suburban, predominantly white community, or a rural community, address the issue of racial reconciliation in the church?
Regardless of our geography, we all need to be asking ourselves hard questions, addressing our personal prejudices, and aligning our attitudes and actions with God’s desire for unity and real reconciliation.
We need to establish the reality of the truth that the church is the hope of the world, and that God’s first plan for discipleship is within our families—how we raise our children. Would we let our child marry someone of another race? Support them having a grandchild that is black? We can be agents of reconciliation starting within our homes.
I am so grateful for leaders who are leading the charge for racial reconciliation within the church in Detroit—like my friend and fellow pastor Sonny Smith—and throughout the entire world. Let us emulate their leadership to have bold, humble, and honest conversations, and to love across all barriers.
David Dummitt is the lead pastor and planter of 2|42 Community Church in Michigan, one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He is also on the lead team of NewThing, a catalyst for reproducing churches worldwide.