Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Bishop Tino Smith had no plans to do much more than “chill” with his wife and spend time with his mother when he moved back to Battle Creek in 2017.
Smith had retired from a job with FedEx in Memphis, Tenn., and the church ministry in Terre Haute, Ind., that took him south in 1990. But when he came back to his hometown after the death of his father he saw that not a lot had changed in Battle Creek and there were many needs not being met.
“I had no desire to get into any of the stuff I’m doing now, but I saw a lot of needs,” Smith says. “It was the same stuff I saw when I left 30 years ago. It was different faces, but the same mentality.”
He wanted to do something to change what he was seeing. That resulted in the founding of Kingdom Builders Worldwide, a church and community hub in the Post Addition at 50 Spencer Street. The 67,000-square-foot building was the former site of Southeastern Junior High School, which was owned by the Battle Creek Public Schools.
Kara Bolden cuts a pizza at Kingdom Builders Worldwide. Pizza sales help support the work of the ministry.
Smith began leasing the building at the beginning of 2018. In May, 2018 he purchased it for $40,000 using money from his 401K.
One of the first events inside the building reinforced his decision. It was a gathering following funeral services for Joseph Bowser, a standout student and athlete at Battle Creek Central, who died in March, 2018 after sustaining a single gunshot wound to the head. Joseph Bowser was 22-years-old. His family had been attending Bible Study classes that Smith was holding at the Southwest Michigan Urban League while the Spencer Street building was being readied for Kingdom Builders to move in.
The day before Bowser was shot and killed, he and his father had been painting a room inside the building. “His family reached out to me and said we have to do something,” Smith says.
Since that time, he has maintained a focus on what he wants to accomplish.
“I wanted to make a difference and be more inclusive as it relates to race,” Smith says.
This is why he intentionally refers to himself as a Kingdom Man who happens to be Black. For this, he says he has gotten plenty of pushback from African Americans in the community.
“My peers say that I forget where I came from,” Smith says.
Kingdom Builders is located in the Post Addition, which Smith considers among the city’s most neglected parts of town, with a population that includes a high concentration of low-income White and Latinx residents.
“The Post Addition is split up from the rest of the city by railroad tracks. We are left all by ourselves out here,” Smith says.
Boonikka Herring, who represents part of the Post Addition as Ward 3 City Commissioner, agrees with Smith’s observations and says she’s always felt like the Post Addition has been “pushed off to the side.”
“It’s almost like there’s the city and (then there’s the) Post Addition. I feel like the residents there get left out of a lot of things,” she says.
Dr. Tino Smith teaches driver education/training during a class at Kingdom Builders Worldwide.
Despite this, there is a sense of community there which Herring says is supported by Kingdom Builders.
“I believe that Bishop Smith is adding opportunities to that side of town. I’ve seen a lot of good programs coming through that church and center,” Herring says. “One thing that resonates with me is his thoughts of community. He has a sense of community and wants to provide opportunities to people who may not otherwise have those opportunities.”
This includes an on-site monthly food distribution that takes place the third Wednesday of each month.
“We want to be a bridge for people across what divides them and help them to transform each other’s lives,” Bishop Smith says. “We focus on the intentional and equitable revitalization of the Post Addition.”
How he’s getting it done
The foundation of Kingdom Builders is a church with worship services held in an auditorium that can seat 800 people.
The underpinnings also include a gymnasium used by youth in the community; 16 acres of land that house a swimming pool and fields that are used for baseball and football games; a driver’s education program; pipefitter training classes; and a Hunt Brother’s pizza station.
Smith also has contracts with the State of Michigan to transport foster children and another contract with area hospitals to transport patients.
Three of the people who work with youth at Kingdom Builders Worldwide are, from left, Doug Jones, Chanel McClenney, and Adam Cusic.
The driver’s ed program, which is licensed by the state, began after a conversation he had with a young woman who told him that her foster parents wouldn’t let her take driver’s ed classes.
“I called the state of Michigan and said ‘I want to know what I have to do to start a driver’s ed school,’” Smith said. “I had to do a nine-month course and drove to Muskegon two days a week to do that.”
The majority of his driver’s ed students are from Battle Creek, Harper Creek, Lakeview, and Hastings. Very few are from the Post Addition.
Because Smith’s church and the businesses operating out of it are deemed essential, he did not have to close down under state-mandated physical distancing orders. Smith says he follows CDC guidelines and by keeping his rates low he is doing the best he can to serve future drivers whose families don’t have a lot of extra money to spend on driver’s ed.
His work with youth also includes free tutoring sessions. And he also provides financial literacy classes, employment assistance to individuals, and an apprenticeship program for those who want to work through the on-site pipefitter, carpenters, floor Installer, and Millwrights training courses offered.
Tino Smith II stands by one of vehicles used by Kingdom Builders Worldwide.
“We have a relationship with a company in Wayland that does pipefitting,” Smith says. “They allow us to train people here and once they finish training and pass a drug test they get paid to work 40 hours a week.”
Closer to home, he employs people through a lawn service business he started that is an outgrowth of the need he saw to maintain the acreage surrounding the Spencer Street building.
These opportunities enable people to break generational cycles of poverty and become self-sufficient, Smith says.
While the contracts and partnerships he’s built are keeping the lights on and paying the bills, it’s the non-paying community outreach that those businesses fund that give Smith the ability to minister and connect with those who may not share his political or social views.
A history of involvement
Long before Kingdom Builders came into being, Smith was working for positive change in the community.
Before he moved south, he served as a Calhoun County Commissioner in the late 1980’s and worked for Washington Heights Community Ministry where he wrote grants and created job development opportunities under the leadership of Rev Clifton V. Bullock. He is a lifelong member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
When he returned to Battle Creek he started a PAC (Political Action Committee) called Quid Pro Quo and is that organization’s CEO.
“You can’t really be involved with one political party, we’re going to have to listen and learn,” he says. “I began to see, living in this day and time, that you can’t be driven one way. I’ve been meeting with Tea Party members and Republicans, people nothing like me, and I’ve sought common ground.”
Smith says he’s reached a point in his life and his ministry where he’s focusing on the process of unifying a common mission. To do this, he says he’s got to be involved in the political, financial, and spiritual aspects of a person. He says he sees himself as a “non-colored guy” trying to help whoever wants to be helped.
“We are like the Wal-Mart of community hubs touching the lives of all people. I’m not the local guy. My mind is bigger than that. Now I’m dealing with worldwide issues that impact us all,” he says.
Herring says Smith has demonstrated his willingness to work across racial, social, and political lines to make an impact. Through this work, she says he has made it easier for people experiencing challenges to find and connect with the resources available to them.
“Dr. Tino has put the resources out there for you to see. I feel like he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for some of the things he’s done for this community,” she says. “I want people to reach out to him.”
“Twenty years ago I would have wanted to tell the world what I was doing,” Smith says. “I don’t feel like I have to blow my own trumpet anymore. We’re doing all of these things and not just talking about it. We’re quietly making change.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.