I was born in Denver, Colorado. I am the middle of five children. My mom found out my father was cheating on her when he gave her an STD. She had five small kids and all her family was back in Ohio. She packed us up and moved back to Cleveland. Our dad pretty much walked out on our life.
Every kid wants to know their dad. I wanted to go to Denver and live with my father. I lived with him from fourth through seventh grade. Before I moved in with him, I had this idealized image of him in my head. He was going to play catch with me and teach me about girls. I had a rude awakening when I found out my dad was a violent alcoholic and drug addict. There were times of physical abuse. I remember he smashed a plate in my older brother’s face and then on the way to the hospital he told him not to tell what had happened or he would do it again. My stepmother also was very cruel to us kids.
My dad lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Nearly everyone was white. Whereas in Cleveland, we lived in abject poverty in the projects. I went to an inner-city school that was almost 80% African American. I struggled with identity. I didn’t fit anywhere. I grew up angry and not knowing who I was. I peed the bed until I was 12 or 13 years old because of the anxiety and the abuse.
When I moved back to Cleveland, I started getting into fights. I was angrier than ever and headed down a road of stealing and juvenile delinquent behavior. I had no direction or guidance, and no role models. I gravitated to the older kids in the neighborhood, and they were involved in gangs. I was constantly getting picked up by the police. At 15, I got picked up for stealing cars. They sent me away to a juvenile boot camp, but I escaped. It got worse. I got involved in selling drugs and doing drugs. I overdosed on LSD and two days later I was doing it again. I was hell-bent on destruction. I got involved in selling narcotics. I was taking customers from grown men who wanted to kill me. They would drive past our house with guns. It was insanity but when you live in insanity long enough, it seems normal. I was working with a man who would give me drugs to sell; then I would give him money after I sold the drugs. Once I received a large amount of crack cocaine from him, but the drugs somehow disappeared. I frantically searched for the drugs because I had to pay this guy. Three weeks go by and the guy is looking for me. He ran me off the road and I got slammed into the window. A week later he was threatening me with assault rifles. I didn’t know any way out. I was 16 years old. I thought I would have to either shoot him or he was going to shoot me. My only solution was to rob someone to get a bus ticket to get out of town. I robbed a guy who was coming out to his car. But he didn’t have any money, so we ended up going back into his house. There were other people there. The police were called, and I was arrested. I was taken to the county jail for juveniles to face five counts of kidnapping and aggravated robbery with a gun. I had a prior record and had escaped from juvenile boot camp. It was bad. I was facing 45 years in adult prison for the crimes. I was supposed to be arraigned for five felony level 1 charges. The odds were, I would be charged as an adult and receive close to a life sentence.
I spent seven months in the juvenile detention jail awaiting trial. After about three months, a corrections officer took me to the hallway. He told me my older brother, Larry, was murdered the night before. Larry was the only father figure I had. He had never been in trouble — ever. He was my hero. He had been at a club and was stabbed to death. The guilt of this overwhelmed me. Here I am involved in criminal behavior, stealing and in jail, and he is the one who got killed. Because of the severity of my crime, I couldn’t go to the funeral. There was no closure. I immediately freaked out, tried to fight everybody, smashed chairs. They stripped me down naked and put me in the box — solitary confinement — for six months.
There are different stages of grief, but being in that environment didn’t lend itself to going through these stages. I kept telling my mom I needed something that was my brother’s. Shoes are one of the few things you can bring of your own possessions to jail. My mom said the only thing they would let her bring to me was my brother’s shoes. But she said, “You don’t want his shoes. His blood is on them.” I told her I didn’t care. I cried so much there were no more tears in my tear ducts. I would fall asleep from exhaustion, then wake up thinking it was a dream.
God began to soften my heart through a 16-year-old kid who was in jail for dealing drugs. We had become friends. We talked, hung out and played cards before my brother died. When I was put in that solitary cell, he would come and lay down at the bottom of the door. He would talk to me under the door and say, “I’m so sorry about what happened to your brother. I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I haven’t forgotten you. I’m praying for you.” He flicked pieces of candy under the door for me. He did that day after day, week after week, until I had a big pile of candy. You don’t typically experience kindness like that in a juvenile detention center. Through his consistent random acts of kindness, he was showing me the love of Jesus.
I didn’t go to church growing up. I had no sense of who God was until solitary confinement. I came to the end of myself in that cell and reached the point of suicide ideation. I thought there was nothing left to live for. But then I thought about what that would do to my mom. She had already lost one son. God used that to bring about conviction about all the terrible things I had been a part of. I finally felt the full weight of everything I had done. It was a spiritual awakening. I was like Jacob wrestling with God. I didn’t want to be the person I was anymore. But I didn’t know how to be different.
The first prayer I ever said was laced with profanity. I used every foul cuss word you can imagine, but it was holy because it was raw and honest. “God where were You? Why him and not me?” There was no filter. I finally moved through the anger and then I had an encounter with Jesus. I didn’t have much knowledge of the Bible, but in that moment, I knew that Jesus was real. I said, “Jesus, I know you are real. I know you died and arose from the dead. I need You. I cannot do this on my own.” I confessed with my mouth and believed in my heart without even knowing that’s what the Bible says to do. Jesus meets people where they are. I was kneeling and the floor was cold. It was like someone came into the room with a heated blanket and put it around me. It was that supernatural. And this is coming from someone who at that point in their life had no reference point for any of this. It was so real, it startled me, and I jumped up. This completely changed me from the inside out.
Before I went before the judge, I read 1 John 2:1, where it says we have an advocate and the word advocateis used as a legal term, like a lawyer. I prayed, “Lord, I know what You have done in my heart and my mind is real. I could never deny You. Even if they give me 45 years, I will never turn my back on You.” I knew it was going to be okay. It wasn’t like Jesus was telling me I was going home, but instead that He was going to be with me whatever the outcome. I went before one of the strictest judges. She said, “I don’t know why I am doing this, but I am going to keep you in the juvenile system.” I was sentenced to “juvenile life,” which meant I was sentenced until I was 21 years old. I did the four years in the juvenile system and that was my Bible school. I went to school and got my GED and completed barber training. I started writing music and poetry.
As a part of my release, I was not allowed to go back to Cleveland. I went to Colorado to live with my dad. It was still a horrible situation, but I got to reinvent myself. Many of the friends I had made in Colorado didn’t know about the crimes I had committed. They knew me before the criminal activity began. I connected with a great church out there, and they really discipled me. They affirmed and embraced me. They didn’t judge me. They brought me up on stage in church to play my music, even though it was hip hop and not considered “religious” music at the time.
They invested in me going into a recording studio. The music I created was inspired by Jesus. The music was redemptive, and they saw the value of that. At the time, it wasn’t common at all for that kind of music to be accepted in churches. Our church was two blocks away from Columbine High School. I played my first concert there two weeks before the mass shooting. Being able to share my testimony and play my music for the kids at Columbine was very affirming for me. I felt like music was a calling I needed to pursue.
Now I am back in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. My wife and I planted a church, The Fringe, almost two years ago. We had come across a lot of people who wouldn’t fit into a typical church environment. Instead of complaining, we said, “Let’s do something about it.” We have a heart for people who haven’t connected with God for whatever reason. We have a heart for people on the outside of the church — whatever their story, whatever they look like. It has been amazing to see what God has done. We were not part of any church organization because no church really understood what we wanted to do. Our church was self-sustaining within four months. We are getting ready to launch a coffee shop that will hire people who are re-entering society and will pay a fair wage. The coffee shop will be part of a re-entry program. The program will help people get their GED and provide parenting programs. There will be free tattoo removal and a recording studio for at-risk youth in the community. It will be a holistic hub to help empower and rebuild the lives of people who have been thrown away.
In the story of Jacob wrestling with God, he was also wrestling with himself. The name Jacob meant deceiver. He was always scheming and always trying to find an angle to manipulate the situation because he believed the world was an inherently bad place. I don’t think Jacob believed that God is really good. What I have learned from my experience is that God is not like my biological father. He is good. One of my favorite verses is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” John 11:35 (NIV) Jesus was comforting the sister of one of his friends who had just died.
God is not a detached deity but a Father who weeps with us when we weep. He cares about us.
I’ve also learned that I am enough. I don’t have to earn God’s approval or love. He is not going to abandon me like my biological father did. He is a good Father.
You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done. No matter what you’ve done, God is not ashamed of you. His love has been running after you your whole life. It’s time to stop running from Him.
A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.