Take 10 is a series of occasional features on prominent local residents and the possessions dear to them.
Michael Phillips founded and leads the 3,000-member Kingdom Life Church in West Baltimore. He worked to bring Green Street Academy to the church premises. He launched community organizations to support disadvantaged students and men and revitalize West Baltimore. He applies his talents on the Maryland State School Board and the board of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
The passions behind all this: God, family, education … and sports. Those elements helped shape the Reisterstown man’s life path and are reflected in his favorite possessions.
Phillips, 42, grew up on Park Heights and Rogers avenues, the son of a third-generation preacher. But he could envision a basketball career much more easily than he could see himself as the fourth generation in ministry.
“Even though being a preacher’s kid, I couldn’t have told you the difference between the apostles and the epistles,” he says.
A car wreck at the start of his first year at West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship ended that dream. Phillips returned to Baltimore, where he became mired in the drug trade and other criminal activities — and got arrested. Phillips credits the judge in the case for effecting a major life change at age 19.
“He asked me: Do you want to go to jail, or do you want to go to school?” he says. Hours later, Phillips was flying west, to Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. Not that he immediately embraced the idea of a different life … until one day at an ORU mandatory church service.
“I hated, loathed, did not want to have anything to do with church. So, I smoked some weed and I drank some vodka -- a lot of vodka -- and I went to church in that state,” he says. “All of a sudden, something lifted. I was suddenly sober. I felt this peaceful presence I have never felt…the presence of God…I knew at that moment, my life was going to be changed forever.”
Sporadic preaching stints eventually led Phillips to leave a business career to follow the family tradition, and start his Kingdom Life Church in an old ramshackle school his father had purchased more than 20 years before. The congregation grew. But, most of the building remained boarded up, until a sports-related encounter in 2011 -- a football game on a field nearby that real estate developer Donald Manekin was attending.
“He saw the building and thought it was vacant. I’m in my office working and one of the staff people comes running to me saying, ‘There’s some white guy trying to get in the building.’ We thought maybe he was a junkie. My first thought was, let’s go find out if this guy’s s OK and if he needs some help,” says Phillips with a laugh. (Manekin's recollection: From the back, the building looked vacant; from the front, it looked "palatial.")
That old ramshackle building is what received the help. Completely renovated, it houses Green Street Academy. As for Kingdom Life Church? With a congregation that has outgrown its environs there -- a sanctuary with a capacity of 800 -- the next project on Phillips’ list is to build an elementary/middle school for boys, with a larger church attached.
A gift from his wife, Anita Graham-Phillips, coordinator of the professional counseling master’s degree program at Lancaster Bible College-Greenbelt; son Michael Jonathan Phillips, 19, a Harvard University sophomore; and daughter, Olivia, 15, Park School sophomore. Phillips says, “The reason Notre Dame is my favorite football team is it was the first football game I ever saw with my dad,” who died when Phillips was 12. “They played Navy at Memorial Stadium. This helmet [comes from] the year they went to the national championship, but then lost to Alabama.”
Pray Like a Champion
“Every time [the] Notre Dame [football team] goes out to play, they slap the sign that says ‘Play like a champion,’” Phillips says. “So, my church made me this sign that says, ‘Pray like a champion.’ I slap it every time I go out to preach.”
Fighting Irish painting his children made
“Notre Dame was having a really bad year and they wanted to cheer me up,” he says. “I think was my son was in fifth grade.”
“This is the first nice watch I ever owned,” Phillips says. “My wife and my children saved up money to buy me this watch for Christmas in 2008. Up until then, I had no watch.”
Himalayan salt block
“I love to cook. I cook all the meals at home. I love this because you can grill on it, or serve cold items on it; it’s so versatile,” he says. “I was going to show some of my favorite spices and stuff, but then I thought, nah, I don’t want to give away some of my secrets!”
Photo of his kids
Says Phillips: “This stays in my office at home, right in front of me all the time. I keep it because it’s why I do what I do. It’s why I am who I am. It’s why I give my life everyday for kids now.”
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, originally published in 1952
“This is my favorite book. This is probably my 10th copy because I keep giving them away to other young men. My son has my original copy,” he says. “This is a book [he and I] read together almost every year. We revisit it because it is just as powerful as if Ellison just wrote it.”
T-shirt given to him by his church
Phillips explains: “The 400 is a men’s group of our church that is based on the story of King David going into a cave, running from Saul. All of the 400 men that joined him in that cave were in bad situations. But when they came out of that cave, David came out a king, and they came out as his mighty men. They made me their captain of the 400. It just meant so much to me.”
“When I became a pastor, I ate horribly. I didn’t go out. I didn’t do anything. It wasn’t healthy. I had gained like 50 pounds,” he says. “A friend invited me out to play golf and I said, ‘I’m black, I don’t play no golf. Are you crazy?’ I hit one decent shot and I was hooked … Now, I’m a scratch golfer.”
Painting of his father juxtaposed with him
His mother had it made and gave it to him. “It means everything to me because it was after we redeveloped this building in a lot of the tradition of what my father wanted to do. I’ve done it,” he says. “So, it’s like he’s watching over me and proud of what I’ve done.”