Growing up as a Black American male in a rough Seattle neighborhood almost doomed my future. In many ways I was marked for failure. Even a violent early death.
My mother, a nurse, worked long hours providing for my sister Angela and me after our father left us. Although he lived 10 blocks away, he was never active in our lives, financially or otherwise.
My mother loved us and disciplined us, but I needed a strong and responsible male figure in my life. None of my friends were raised in a traditional two-parent home, either.
Racial disparities surfaced early on. In my preteens I learned how differently teachers disciplined white and Black kids. They singled us out more.
Yet I never crusaded against racial injustice. It just seemed normal for our community. The police hassled us regularly for just hanging out at a bus stop or street corner. Sometimes three or four squad cars pulled up with officers jumping out, yelling and cursing, to search our pockets for no good reason.
Seduced by the streets
In elementary and middle school, I made good grades and obeyed my mom’s warnings to behave. She never allowed me to stay out late in the streets. I was more or less a loner, rarely getting into trouble.
Things changed, however, when I entered high school in 1981 after being bussed into the suburbs. I began hanging out with the wrong guys. The gang culture, drugs, and partying eventually seduced me. I loved hip-hop music and street dancing. At 16, I joined the Emerald Street Boys Rap group. We performed around the city and made an album. Then I slowly lost interest in school, skipped classes, and quit altogether, worrying my mother.
California gangs began migrating to our neighborhood, where they sold cocaine and bred more violence. I went along with the flow, succumbing to occasional hard drugs but mostly alcohol and pot.
Selling drugs came next, providing a pseudo self-worth. You gained respect if you flashed wads of cash. From my late teens into my early 30s, I earned up to thousands of dollars a week. I bought gold jewelry, expensive gear, and gaudy cars, and I enjoyed clubbing and buying rounds of drinks. I was forever seeking recognition and thirsty for something that never satisfied. Money slipped through my fingers like melting ice in a scalding heat wave.
Random police incidents added fuel to my resentment of authorities. While driving my Caucasian girlfriend on a dinner date, a squad car flashing emergency lights stopped us. Officers ordered us from the car and forced us down on our hands and knees, frisking us. I was utterly embarrassed for my girlfriend, who wore a nice dress. They found nothing illegal and let us go.
I had always known God existed from the time my grandmother brought me to Sunday school. But I viewed God through a distorted lens. I believed doing good things outweighed the bad stuff, which led me to sponsor a poor kid in a distant country through World Vision.
God dropped hints that I could be a better person. A police officer who recognized me from the gangs I ran with encouraged me to do something positive with my life. I still recall him coaxing me to straighten myself out.
Still, I kept putting myself in harm’s way, and I could have ended up dead many times. On one occasion, a friend sitting beside me in my classic Chevy Caprice whipped out his .38 caliber revolver and started shooting at guys on the sidewalk. He held the gun parallel to my face as I was trying to steer. Bullets whizzed past me out the driver’s side window, almost collapsing my eardrums.
In another close call, I was driving friends in my pickup truck to hang out in a local park when a rival gang’s car tailgated us while firing multiple rounds. Bullets penetrated the rear window, one of which grazed my girlfriend’s ear before passing through her cheek, spattering blood on the windshield. Another missed wasting my brain by millimeters.
Like other Black men in the neighborhood, I had no goals and no sense of what I could accomplish. Feeling worthless, I related to the angry pessimism many Black kids suffer from. I looked in the mirror and didn’t like who I saw. I scared my mother when I told her I didn’t expect to live beyond age 21.
Even so, I managed to earn my GED in 1985. I worked in the roofing trade while also dealing drugs. My wild lifestyle in the streets continued, punctuated by stints in jail for misdemeanors and petty assaults.
In 1998, at age 33, I was arrested for fighting with my live-in girlfriend, plus a serious weapons charge. Someone spotted her getting too friendly with other guys at a party, which whipped me into a jealous rage. A neighbor, hearing the ruckus, called the police, who found my semiautomatic Uzi and a stash of marijuana I had been dealing. All told, I was facing a five-year mandatory prison sentence.
One week after my arrest, I got out on bail and returned to roofing. Before the final sentencing date, my sister, a strong Christian, invited me to Lampstand Family Ministries, an independent Pentecostal church in Seattle.
I attended a Sunday service, if only reluctantly. Nevertheless, the pastor’s heart-wrenching sermon blew me away. It was a life-changing moment. I rushed to the altar crying. My decision to accept Christ as Savior and Lord shocked my gang-member friends. Many of them respected my decision, but others smirked, waiting for me to fall back into the old life.
Soon after, I was rearrested for communicating with my girlfriend in violation of a non-contact order. But this turned into a blessing. Locked up for two months, I devoured the Bible and several Christian books while attending chapel services. Meanwhile, a work-release program allowed me to attend services at Lampstand.
Upon returning to court for sentencing, I accepted a plea deal: a one-year sentence, reduced to eight months because of time already served. The judge said my testimony showed signs of remorse. And the court stenographer wept as she recorded the proceedings.
A new creature in Christ
Before I reported to jail, my pastor encouraged me to take courses from the Bishop A. L. Hardy Academy of Theology in Seattle. I earned a theology degree while incarcerated. Afterward, when I joined Lampstand Family Ministries, my passion for learning and teaching soared. I taught Sunday school and earned a promotion to superintendent. Four years later I joined another church, serving as an associate pastor for educational programs. By 2003, I completed a doctor of theology degree in religious education.
When another four years passed, I took a bold but tentative leap of faith. Seeing a hunger for theological training among the inner-city minority population, I founded Seattle Urban Bible College. The school was aimed at students unable to afford normal tuitions, which meant operating with lean finances. Local pastors taught courses weekday evenings in facilities volunteered by the Miracle Temple Ministries church. We trained about 100 students before dwindling resources forced us to suspend the school in 2011.
Giving up on the Bible college led me to spiritual and professional crossroads.
Praying and seeking advice from wise Christian brothers, I connected with the president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, sharing how God had dramatically changed the trajectory of my dead-end life in the streets and planted a desire to teach others in the minority community. He awarded me a presidential scholarship, and I graduated with a master’s degree in theology and culture in 2013.
After graduation I joined the homeless ministry of the Seattle-based Union Gospel Mission. Enjoying my work there, I felt a new stirring from God to start an inner-city church. Aided by fervent prayer and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, that stirring culminated in the 2016 launch of Risen Church. It is located in a South Seattle neighborhood riddled with the very drug use and gang violence that had nearly cut my life short. We are blessed with a diverse congregation—Black, white, Latino—marked by a commitment to mutual love and respect.
Despite the failures and heartaches of my past, I am a new creature in Christ. The old ways are gone. Without his mercy, I would probably be dead today, another sad statistic in the litany of inner-city tragedy. Today, I have the privilege of encouraging young Black men who feel worthless to choose the worth they have in Christ. I considered myself worthless once, but now I am serving the living God, and in him, I am the man God destined me to be.
James D. Croone is lead pastor at Seattle’s Risen Church, an adjunct professor at Northwest University, and a pastoral care and recovery supervisor at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York.