2024 Hour Detroiters: Bishop Bonnie Perry

President of End Gun Violence Michigan and the state’s first female and gay bishop with the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.
Perry, the bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, in her office at The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

In the moments before a press conference begins at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, Bonnie Perry is orchestrating the scene. The sprite-size bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan is loading a speech on to her iPad. She’s greeting and  thanking those who showed up. She’s verifying the order of operations and sharing anecdotes about her dog, an Australian shepherd named Tali. (“She’s drop-dead gorgeous.”)

Perry is president of End Gun Violence Michigan, and today its members are calling for the passage of legislative bills that would prohibit anyone convicted of domestic violence from purchasing or possessing firearms for eight years after completing their sentence. As preparations for the event continue, the person in charge of the sound system notes that the volume seems low.

“It was loud when I was using it,” the bishop calls out.

“Yeah,” comes the response. “We had to turn it down.”

Those in the room this sunny September morning chuckle, along with Perry: The self-professed extrovert has an undeniable presence that, frankly, doesn’t need to be mic’d. Sure, she’s running a serious press conference on a serious topic, but she’s going to do it while wearing purple socks dotted with images of Tali and her previous dog. She quips that she’s just glad her socks are matching.

The bishop can easily become the focal point in a room. Consider her resume. Born in San Diego, she holds a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City (where she met her wife, Susan Harlow), as well as a Doctor of Ministry. She’s headed three churches in New Jersey and, after moving to Chicago, spent 27 years as rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, co-founding the Diocese of Chicago’s Crosswalk initiative, a 4-mile procession against gun violence. She’s the first female and first openly gay bishop in Michigan, not to mention an internationally recognized sea kayak coach and guide.

“She’s relatable, kind, thoughtful — a pleasure to work with,” says the Rev. Chris Yaw, the rector from St. David’s in Southfield, one of the 77 congregations in the southeastern region of Michigan that Perry leads. “She’s a dynamo.”

She’s also the definition of an active listener. The all-female slate of speakers at the press conference includes retired Indianapolis Episcopal Bishop Cate Waynick and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow. They share their deeply personal experiences with domestic violence and death of a loved one, which could have been prevented by stricter gun laws.

Perry peppers the speeches with an emphatic “Yes!” that ripples out into the crowd of nodding heads and affirmative murmuring. And even though she’s likely heard their stories before, Perry becomes visibly moved. She gives people the space to share, helping give life to stories that will draw in and connect their audience.

This is her strength in the face of challenge: encouraging people to share their gifts, inspiring them with hope, and then watching change spring forth.

Perry hadn’t planned to focus on gun violence when she arrived in Michigan; she did not want to impose her own agenda when she was elected bishop in 2019. She wanted her congregants to let her know what would be important.

Then came the mass shooting at Oxford High School on Nov. 30, 2021.

Perry began reaching out to local leaders to see what could be done and was connected with strategic consultant Ryan Bates. The two helped spur the coalition that would become End Gun Violence Michigan, for which Bates now serves as an organizer.

But just as Perry and others were launching a ballot initiative to create gun safety laws in February 2023, a mass shooting occurred at Michigan State University. Other domestic shootings followed in the community, one of which involved Bishop Waynick’s brother, who shot and killed his wife. The couple were parishioners of Perry’s diocese.

“Each time I think that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, it keeps moving closer,” Perry says.

Some religious leaders might shy away from getting involved in such a hot-button, highly politicized movement. For Perry, the decision was obvious.

“How do we take our values and put them in action and not be limited to a confined group who are just ‘church folks’?” she asks. “I want folks who don’t hang out in faith communities to know this is part of being a believing Christian.”

In speeches, she points out that her Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, and Catholic colleagues — “We never agree on anything” — all believe that sensible gun laws are necessary. And within her own diocese, where politics can vary and even some members of her clergy own guns, there’s an acknowledgement that something needs to change.

“I think you make common ground where you can,” she says. “And for our elected officials to know that people who lead communities of faith — well, we’re with you on this and we actually want you to do this. This is what we elected you to do.”

One such politician is McMorrow, who has worked with the bishop on lobbying for gun control and emphasizes how Perry’s passion has helped drive the movement.

“She’s reaching out to people in the faith community to say, ‘We are called upon to be of service to others,’ which is very different than when I see people kind of weaponizing religion to hurt other people or to use it as an excuse to do nothing,” McMorrow says. “It’s really, really important to have somebody like her in this work.”

Perry has also empowered her clergy to step up and play an active role in the mission to end gun violence. Yaw’s congregation, for example, worked with local law enforcement to put together a gun buyback program that brought in more than 350 weapons.

“We wouldn’t have done that if Bonnie hadn’t pushed us toward thinking about gun violence,” he says. “She wanted us involved.”

Perry does not believe in sitting back and waiting for someone else to act. Driven by optimism, she always sees an opportunity either to speak out or to roll up her sleeves.

“Part of why we put together End Gun Violence Michigan is because I have hope that we can always do something,” Perry says. “As a person of faith, resurrection means there’s always something more. And that’s my theology. But I feel like my theology is sort of useless if I don’t act on it.”

While all eyes may be trained on her magnetic energy, Perry is busy asking questions and making connections. She’s endlessly curious about other people and can quickly pick up on how someone’s skills can be put into action for the greater good. It’s why her ministry could be better described as engagement rather than preaching.

“Relationships are far more likely to fuel a long-term movement than positional authority,” Perry says. “That’s the energy that fuels something: My relationship with you will fuel that. And the way you tend that is to tend to the whole person.”

Perry’s is a different type of religious leadership — or any kind of leadership, for that matter. She spends far less time on high and more time among people; she relishes her place in the crowd and wants others to feel seen and connected. And to have fun in the process: “I am convinced that if we use the gifts God has given us, then it gives us joy.”

She finds Michiganders to be dynamic, caring, and gracious. “I revel in who they are,” she says. The social diversity in the region and the tension it creates fascinates her: labor-management disputes, swing-state issues, racial divides. And long before she moved to Michigan, Perry was drawn to its geographic diversity, kayaking along the Pictured Rocks, paddling down the Detroit River, and teaching lessons around Belle Isle.

Perry likes to use the analogy of kayaking to explain faith: There’s this awe of what’s around you when you’re out on a boat, she says. Spirituality is awe. Then there’s the agency: the gifts and talent necessary to move your boat gracefully. But there’s also an acceptance of not being in control, though it’s not a passivity. And all three of those elements — awe, agency, and acceptance — work in conjunction, she explains.

“I see my role as finding out what people’s gifts are and saying, ‘Go.’ I get ideas, but none of it’s going to work if it’s just me. I can get people excited, but it’s never going to be long term if it’s not living out someone’s passions.”

This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.