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A Son of Sweet Auburn

Raised in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s neighborhood, Sam Collier seeks to continue the civil rights icon's mission

Nearly a decade ago, a young Black man from downtown Atlanta visited a predominantly white megachurch based in the well-to-do northern suburbs of Alpharetta. The presentation and pizazz of the multimillion dollar operation at North Point Community Church had drawn Sam Collier to Andy Stanley’s place. But addressing the less attractive issues of fear and race in America would become the overarching impulse to keep him there.

Collier, who paraphrases Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lament how “the church is still the most segregated place in America on Sunday morning,” became a regular speaker at North Point over time, tackling race-based topics not only at church but also more recently on his nationally syndicated A Greater Story with Sam Collier podcast/TV show, one of the top 15 on Apple’s Christian charts.

Last summer, Collier’s enduring passion for racial reconciliation and his emerging status as a leader in the modern-day civil rights movement stirred Brian and Bobbie Houston, leaders of the globally renowned Hillsong Church, to select the 32-year-old preacher, and his wife, Toni, to  lead their latest venture.  

Hillsong Atlanta, tentatively scheduled to open its doors in the spring, joins around a dozen Hillsong Churches in the United States, with Collier the first African American pastor to fill such a senior role in the network.

“Because Sam is genuinely a bridge-builder, there couldn’t be a better choice for the first Black pastor of a Hillsong Church in America,” says Reggie Joiner, founder and CEO of the influential nonprofit Orange. “Sam’s heart beats people… he cares deeply to resolve so many of the issues that create disharmony and discrimination in our country.”

 

SOMETHING BIG

Hillsong’s decision  to go with the Colliers was made in the wake of the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd, which sparked calls for police reform on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement. Neither the Colliers nor the Houstons knew there would be riots in the streets when they came to meet in Los Angeles to discuss the possible launch last summer. “We sat down, listened to each other, and were like, ‘Wait a minute, I think God may be setting us both up for something new and something big,’” Collier recalls.

Two months after his Hillsong appointment, Collier released his autobiographical A Greater Story: My Rescue, Your Purpose, and Our Place in God’s Plan (Baker Books), an Amazon Books bestseller.

Collier’s story of rising influence begins in the heart of Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Historic District, a neighborhood of businesses and iconic landmarks that include Dr. King Jr.’s boyhood home, his grave and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached.

Collier’s father, who pastored a small Baptist church for several years, owned a barber shop on famous Auburn Avenue. When heroes of the civil rights movement like the late Georgia congressman John Lewis dropped in for haircuts, a young Collier sat on their laps and listened intently to their stories.

For a young Black man who grew up in the South, walking up and down Auburn was like a shot in the arm of racial pride and inspiration. It wasn’t until he was older that he realized it wasn’t normal to be around so much progress and history.

“It taught me that my color doesn’t have to be a crutch,” he says, “but an opportunity to overcome, build strength and be all that God had created me to be. It taught me that being Black was beautiful, and that I stood on the shoulders of many.”

A gifted multi-instrumentalist with soothing vocals, a teenage Collier participated in live showcases with major record labels, releasing three albums during a self-confessed quest to become the “Christian version of Usher.”

By the age of 20, however, several disappointments led him to believe he needed to shift career paths, and he became the youth choir director at Ebenezer Baptist Church. There, his first student was the daughter of Dr. Angela Farris Watkins, who was the niece of Dr. King Jr., and who accompanied her daughter to each practice.

“That was really my induction into ministry,” Collier says. “Angela believed in me, and she became a mentor of mine.”

 

A SAFE PLACE

After Ebenezer, Collier led youth praise and productions arts at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, then a 25,000-member church led by the late Bishop Eddie Long. He became good friends with Dr. Bernice King at New Birth, peppering the daughter of Dr. King Jr. with a million questions about the philosophies of her father.

“I think he was really looking for leadership, guidance, and mentorship,” says King, CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change since 2012.

Collier’s nonprofit organization, No Losing Inc., worked with King to eventually reach thousands of teens through training, live entertainment and citywide events promoting winning habits, mindsets, and lifestyles. “I got to know the real spiritual side of Sam at those events,” King says. “In ministry, he really transforms. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy. It was pretty impressive.”

While working with King, Collier says he made his first white friend—a North Point ministry leader named Chris Green who was as curious about racial issues as he was.

“We just gave each other a safe place to make mistakes and to say some crazy things to each other,” Collier says. “That’s why I always say that relationship is at the core of racial reconciliation in our country. Without relationship, we are just going based on our narratives.”

Collier, who was adopted at two months old, was emceeing events at North Point when his father one day counseled him and his twin sister, Sara, to contact NBC’s daytime talk show Steve Harvey to ask for help tracking down their biological mother. They took his advice and, almost before they knew it, were in Chicago for the show’s taping in the fall of 2013.

After a commercial break, Harvey stunned the twins by calling their birth mother to the stage.

Collier was frozen. His sister sobbed. Their adoptive parents, Lamar and Belinda Collier, cried in the front row, along with most of the audience. The riveting tear-jerker, which aired during a Mother’s Day special the following year, left the twins with feelings that counselors told them would take years to sort out.

 

A TRUE CHANCE IN LIFE

Part of the whirlwind of emotions Collier felt after that television appearance was a sense of injustice over how life was unfair. Three biological siblings he also met on the show had been left in poverty with a drug-addicted mother, often going days without food. By contrast, he grew up privileged.

But that’s partly how Collier realized the unconditional love of not just his adoptive parents but of his God as well. He did not deserve more than his siblings; but God’s story of grace made him grateful.

“I believe I have been given a true chance in life to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t ever want to take this chance for granted.”

After the show’s airing, Collier says he saw everything through a new lens. God’s intervention was unmistakable, and the premise for A Greater Story Ministries was born. High-level speaking engagements, the launch of his podcast and his first book all followed his story playing out on a national stage.

“If it wasn’t done so publicly, I don’t know that it would’ve turned into a ministry the way it did,” Collier says. “The Steve Harvey element showed how God could take a mess and turn it into a miracle.”

Collier preached his first full sermon at North Point on February 7, 2016. Later that year, he launched his podcast. Until last year’s Hillsong move, Collier had been working for North Point for nearly a decade, gaining what he calls a Harvard education from Andy Stanley’s 40,000-member church.

As pastor of the new Hillsong Atlanta, Collier says he hopes a new day dawns in the birthplace of civil rights.

“From the city of Atlanta, the whole world was changed,” he says. “We want to be that model of unity for others to see.”

 

This article was extracted from the Issue 1 of the WayMaker Journal. Sign up for your WayMaker Journal subscription at waymakerjournal.com.

 


 

This article was written by Steven Ghiringhelli

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Steve Ghiringhelli is a freelance writer and editor who has worked for newspapers, magazines and non-profit organizations. He lives in Charleston, S.C., where he and his wife have four children.

 

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