Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick Shares How He Came to Faith in Christ While in Prison, Plans to Attend Seminary and Preach, His Regrets, and Why He is Staying Away from Politics in First Interview Since Release

Kilpatrick with his sons (left to right) Jelani, Jonas and Jalil. (Courtesy photo)

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who came down from the mountain head-first, is back on his feet and ready to move on.

Released from federal prison in January in a last-minute commutation by President Trump, Kilpatrick is living in the Atlanta area, changing careers to the ministry, and engaged to be married to a Detroit woman. He says he’s done with politics.

“I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said of his religious path, which will include attending theological seminary school at Columbia University in the fall. “I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life.”

Speaking publicly for the first time since his release in a lengthy phone interview with Deadline Detroit, the conversation ranged from Jesus to his many regrets, his family and his enduring love for Detroit.

Kilpatrick, mayor from 2002-08, was convicted of 24 federal felony counts and sentenced in 2013 to 28 years in prison. Trump commuted his sentence to time served, nearly eight years.

In September 2020, he said he suffered a cardiac arrest that hospitalized him for seven days. Today, he says “I’m healthy. It’s been a miraculous turnaround.”

Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence was one of the longest ever given for public corruption. The U.S. Attorney’s Office sentencing memo was brutal: “He rigged bids and took bribes. [Kilpatrick] did it all in a city where poverty, crime and lack of basic services made it one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas in the nation. The scale of his corruption was astonishing. The impact on the region was devastating.”

Kilpatrick, who turned 51 today, says he prefers not to dwell on the past. He denies being involved in bid rigging, but admits to some wrongdoing without getting specific. “I’m really in a position now where I just hope that people see the fruit of my repentance from that.”

He credits many individuals, including politicians and religious leaders, for helping him get released, but says it was businessman Pete Karmanos Jr., a friend, who really opened people’s eyes to his cause and influenced people in Washington. (Karmanos is an investor in Deadline Detroit.)

As part of his comeback, Kilpatrick will preach at two Detroit churches this Sunday. The first one at 8:30 a.m. will be pre-recorded.

“So it’s going to be my hometown debut,” he says. “This is the first time that I’ve done anything public since getting out of prison.”

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

DD: You’re talking about being a minister?

KK: In 2014, I had an experience in prison through volunteers who came every week. There was a guy named Bruce Smith, he was from Yukon, Okla. He asked me a question: Did I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? And I told him I did not.

I was really depressed during that period of time, and angry, and he took the time to talk to me about it. And through that experience of talking with him, I know that I truly received the gift of freedom of liberty and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Where was that, what prison?

That was in the back of a prison chapel in El Reno, Oklahoma. And we’re sitting in this back pew, and he and I were just sitting there talking. There was no lightning or  thunder. I didn’t kiss the feet of Jesus, but there was a definite change in my heart and in my mindset.

How long had you been in prison when you had that conversation?

I guess about 14 or 15 months.

What were you feeling back then?

Condemned. Guilt-ridden. Angry. Depressed. Feelings of being a failure as a dad, my primary responsibility of being a husband and a father, that I let my family down. We all know the dramatic and traumatic statistics of Black men and the household and the lack thereof, the lack of involvement of so many Black fathers in their children’s lives.

And so I became something that I absolutely despise and never experienced. I had both of my grandfathers, my father. Not only were they involved in my life, they were at every graduation. Every game. My grandfathers were at my college graduations. My law school graduation. So I never had that experience. And so, to be that person, it was the most profoundly horrible thing that I’ve ever experienced. I just couldn’t rid myself of the shame and the guilt of that.

I wasn’t mad at Detroit. I wasn’t mad at the people that testified against me. I wasn’t mad at the process. I was mad at me, and that was the perfect place that I had to be for the kind of experience that I had with the spirit of God.

There was this compelling spiritual energy that what he was speaking was true. He was just a guy, a volunteer. And my spirit was humble enough to receive it. When I went back to my unit that day, I was just different and I wanted to be different.

I took that commitment that I made that day very seriously. For the last three or four years, everybody was asking me about the Bible or “Can you write a letter to my girl? Can you talk to my mother on the phone? Can you pray for him?”

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SOURCE: Deadline Detroit, Allan Lengel

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