Drive is a social club where people can gather to play table tennis, eat, drink and meet people. Photo courtesy of Drive

Diallo and Jameel Smith have used their entrepreneurial talent in Detroit to both plant Awakenings Movement -- a nondenominational church -- and open a table tennis social club called Drive.

Editor’s note: Please scroll down to view video of Diallo and Jameel Smith.

Diallo Smith is a businessman and entrepreneur. He’s also a pastor with an M.Div. from Southern Methodist University.

For the Detroit native, those two identities and occupations are distinct from each other. But they also merge and overlap as he pursues a central passion that underlies both: building a God-shaped community.

Since returning to their hometown eight years ago, Diallo and his wife, Jameel Smith, have started two new ventures. One is Drive, a for-profit table tennis social club that offers four pingpong tables, a small restaurant and a bar.

The other is Awakenings Movement Detroit, a nondenominational church inspired by Diallo’s experiences helping found a similar congregation in Houston.

The two enterprises use the same space but are distinct, united by the Smiths’ deep faith and their desire both to serve and to create community.

Diallo is a man on a mission to create a community -- a family -- like the one built by the 12 disciples, one that may never see the inside of a traditional church. His aim is to help everyone with whom he comes into contact learn to walk their own path and thus fulfill God’s plan.

“We started Drive to do something significant in the city of Detroit, to impact the economic status of the community, which had taken a big hit,” Diallo said.

“It also was a way to allow our church leaders to wear a different hat than clergy, so we could interface with people. We deal with regular people. This is an experiment to see how churches and church members can interact with people on a regular basis outside the walls of the church,” he said.

That’s where the symbiosis between the business and the church occurs. Drive supports the Smiths and their two children, and provides space for Awakenings Movement and its worship and ministry. In addition, the bigger the business gets, and the more people Diallo and his congregation know, the more opportunities they have to affect other lives.

“These relationships would never have developed if we weren’t small-business owners,” Diallo said.

‘I was all-in’

Drive, open now for about 18 months, recently relocated to Detroit’s 47-story Penobscot building, an international Art Deco landmark in the heart of downtown Detroit. It’s a clean, safe, welcoming street-level space with purple neon lighting and a small restaurant and bar.

For Diallo, 39, and Jameel, 36, the business is a way to give back to their hometown. Both were born in Detroit.

Diallo grew up going to Central United Methodist Church with his grandmother. But after she died, he gravitated to a fast social life.

“God and Christ were not central in my life,” he said.

Diallo and Jameel were high school sweethearts but lost touch when Diallo left to become a “big-time” fraternity partier at an AME-affiliated college in Ohio.

Diallo headed next to Houston for a job at BP Amoco, on track to get an MBA, become a Wall Street broker and eventually own his own business.

“But the social fabric of the South is different,” Diallo said. Church on Sundays was “what you did.” He told friends it was “not my thing,” but one of them still dragged him to the 16,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church, where he met Marlon Hall and Danielle Fanfair.

The church “was inspiring, uplifting, had entertainment qualities, a choir and preaching like I had never experienced before,” Diallo said. “It was the first time I really heard the gospel. I was hearing about the forgiveness of sins, holy living and embracing the idea of Christ rising from the dead.”

He saw that he could use his gifts and talents in a religious life and thought, “I’m going to try Jesus, and admit there are parts of my life and past that are contrary to the thinking of God.”

Diallo became immersed in the Bible. “I was all-in,” he said.

By then, he and Jameel had reconnected. She had earned a degree in economics and was headed for a master’s and eventual doctorate in school psychology. They married 18 months after she arrived in Houston.

“I remember feeling on a really deep level that this was a great thing for him,” Jameel said. “As the relationship matured, I found myself being inspired. It was how I wanted to live my life.”

Coming home

Diallo by this time was earning his master’s degree in divinity at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Windsor Village eventually helped Smith, Hall and Fanfair create a new campus for the church, but they wanted to reach young people who were like Diallo before he walked into Windsor Village.

With the Sunday-go-to-meeting tradition no longer a given for younger generations, “the fruit is not as low-hanging as it used to be,” Diallo said. “It’s not a safe assumption you can get them in the door.”

Convinced that young people would be receptive to the teachings of Jesus but alienated by the traditional church, the trio set out to redefine “church” by eliminating the building -- among other trappings -- and simply modeling Jesus.

They founded the nondenominational Awakenings Movement in 2005 on these principles, and the church has since launched a number of enterprises, including a restaurant, a public art project and a film company.

In 2006, the Smiths felt called home, to plant the Awakenings seed in Detroit. Diallo planned to use a business to create a community, and his mission was to meet as many people as possible whom he could subtly disciple.

Hall describes the approach as “Christ, incognito.” “The goal is not to seduce people into the business, to then seduce them into a church. It is to groom and excavate the divine possibilities in their everyday lives,” Hall said.

 

A partner in agency with God

There was a learning curve to using social entrepreneurship to spread the gospel. It had to be handled sensitively, and with integrity. After a management seminar at MOSAIC church in Los Angeles, Diallo established a means to support the family by leasing a loft for an art incubator.

Then he started asking the artists to bring their art -- a poem, a song -- to Sunday worship in the loft.

“It helped us change the perspective of what it means to be a Christ-following movement -- a church,” Diallo said. “It showed that the church is a partner in agency with God.”

In its current location, the service can include musicians, a video, a small play, Diallo’s sermon and round-table discussions. The music is modern -- often rock, original or R & B. Most members are 25 to 40, with a few young adults in the 18 to 25 range -- all of them reached through “folks we know along the way.”

Always, Jameel said, “our focus is relationships, helping people have the tools they need to help others who might not be coming in.”

Unlike many pastors, Diallo doesn’t have to be too concerned about Sunday morning attendance. Thanks to the people he meets through Drive and his congregation, the church is not his only ministry. The other encompasses everyone he meets, and everyone they meet.

Theology is presented “in a way that looks and sounds different,” Diallo said. “Christ engaged people in his culture, tried to build relationships and bring the gospel and the truth to them. This is like that first church.”

Jamie Hendrix, 38, who owns a social marketing consulting company just outside Detroit, said that’s exactly what she has found at Awakenings.

She went to high school with Diallo but had fallen away from the church. Six or seven years ago, in the middle of a tough divorce, she was looking for a church -- but didn’t want just any church. Her children’s input was paramount, and Paige, now 20, Kayla, now 17, and Robert, now 10, immediately loved Awakenings.

“It is truly an extension of our family. Everybody genuinely cares for everyone else. It’s not just a church … where it doesn’t matter who you are. Once you come through the door, you’re part of the family,” Hendrix said.

“We have a desire to reach out, not just to those inside our four walls, but to help those who may never come inside those four walls. There are churches that are focused on how big they can get, but you never see them outside of Sunday mornings. [Awakenings is] not just a Sunday-morning church,” she said.

“They encourage you to utilize what’s in you. Not for the glorification of Awakenings, but of God. When you walk in your purpose, it can be your greatest therapy. You go through painful things, but you can use your pain so others’ journey may not be as painful as yours.”

Table tennis

When it came to starting a new business, Diallo tried to be creative and nontraditional. He had seen a concept similar to Drive in New York and liked the idea because it’s socially inclusive.

An estimated 17 million Americans play pingpong, a sport in which it’s possible to have fun whether you’re an accomplished player or a complete amateur.

“It crosses age, culture and creed lines, and if I was going to do something significant in the city of Detroit, I needed to access that. And it was unique and interesting -- something the church needs,” he said.

Drive’s players can also buy sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, munchies and drinks at its cafe and full-service bar.

“Humans are designed to experience joy, play and fun,” Diallo said. “Jesus was accused of being a partier, and a drunk. At a wedding in Cana, he turned water into wine so people could enjoy themselves.”

Drive has put three formerly unemployed people to work so far, a welcome gift in an economically depressed city desperate for jobs.

Very few of Drive’s customers know that Diallo is a Christian minister, let alone that he runs a 30- to 40-member congregation out of the business space. But “this is not a recruiting station,” Diallo said, so he never evangelizes at Drive. Only a few customers have crossed the line into the church space.

But that’s no worry. It’s not the size of the congregation that matters to Diallo, even if its members put significant sweat equity into the business.

Because every one of the 1,000 people in Drive’s customer database, and each person who hears or reads about the club, represents an opportunity to quietly, unobtrusively model Christian principles.

‘Faith requires risk’

That’s what happened with Mat Riley, 29, a former Detroit cop who lives downtown and works 70-80 hours a week at Quicken Loans. He grew up playing pingpong in his Bloomfield Hills garage. So when he came across Drive in its first location about 18 months ago, he made it his favorite decompression destination.

“The social networking and growth has been incredible. I just took my fiancee, not expecting anything would be going on, but there was a beautiful live jazz band, and it was busy. I’ve seen a lot of small businesses go in and go out, but in his first year, [Diallo] grew enough to expand.”

At his fiancee’s first visit to Drive, “she was immediately greeted with a smile and a thank-you for coming in -- the last two things you’d expect at a concert/bar in Detroit,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit to the city, and me personally -- probably a larger benefit than Diallo will ever know. It’s my safe place.”

Riley discovered Drive’s alter ego by chance. Walking to work a few weeks ago, he spotted Diallo through the window, setting up for the congregation. He pitched in, and discovered that the proprietor is a pastor.

“I’m interested in knowing more about it,” he said. “Once I peeked in the door a little, I wanted to step in the door and get more involved.” He plans to attend a service in the next few weeks.

“I talk to Diallo about my personal life. But Diallo doesn’t push anything. He’s not a preacher -- he’s more of an adviser. A lot of people like to tell you what to think, but he tells you his opinion, and you take it for what you will,” Riley said.

After he discovered Awakenings, “there was no pitch,” Riley said. “He didn’t tell me too much, just issued an open invitation. That made me more interested than if he had sat down and explained it all.”

Diallo understands this well. At Drive, “we’ve learned that the most effective way for us to bear witness to Christ is to be … more aware of people’s everyday lives,” he said. “If you’re [a pastor] in a church building all day, you can get disconnected from how people live.”

When you work in a table tennis social club, on the ground floor of a downtown landmark, that’s just not an option.

Diallo’s work helps him “understand what’s going on in people’s lives, and offer words of wisdom or advice,” he said.

“In this period in which the church is trying to understand how to reach people,” Diallo said, “faith requires risk, and risk requires faith.”

Questions to consider:

  • The Smiths have one vocation with two expressions -- Drive and Awakenings. What is similar about their story and that of a traditional bi-vocational pastor? What is different?
  • Diallo’s mission to create community is expressed in the church, among Drive’s employees and customers, and in the neighborhood at the heart of a discouraged city. How many different venues provide the opportunity to cultivate your mission?
  • Many congregations struggle to support a full-time pastor. What can those concerned with the economics of congregations learn from the Smiths?
  • Who do you know who can see your community, its opportunities and its challenges, with such compassion and imagination that the person can envision the equivalent of a pingpong parlor in your area? How can you entice that person to look at your community and spark your imagination?