My life in Seattle street gangs was a dead end
growing as a black American man in a tough Seattle neighborhood almost doomed my future. In many ways, I have been marked for failure. Even a violent premature death.
My mother, a nurse, worked long hours to provide for us, my sister Angela and I, after our father left. 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. Neither friend of mine was raised in a traditional two-parent household.
Racial disparities appeared very early on. In my pre-teens, I learned how differently teachers discipline white and black children. They set us apart more.
Yet I have never made a crusade against racial injustice. It seemed normal for our community. The police harassed us regularly because we were hanging out right at a bus stop or around a street corner. Sometimes three or four police cars pulled up with officers jumping, screaming and cursing, to search our pockets for no good reason.
Seduced by the streets
In elementary school and middle school, I got good grades and obeyed my mother’s warnings to behave. She never allowed me to go out on the street late. I was more or less a loner, rarely got into trouble.
Things changed, however, when I entered high school in 1981 after being bused through the suburbs. I started hanging out with the wrong guys. Gang culture, drugs and partying finally won me over. I loved hip-hop music and street dancing. When I was 16, I joined the Emerald Street Boys Rap group. We played all over town and made an album. Then I slowly lost interest in school, skipped classes and quit completely, worrying my mom.
Californian gangs started to migrate to our neighborhood, where they sold cocaine and increased violence. I went with the flow, occasionally succumbing to hard drugs, but mostly alcohol and cannabis.
Drug sales came next, providing pseudo-self-esteem. You’ve earned respect if you’ve flashed wads of cash. From my late teens to early thirties, I earned up to thousands of dollars a week. I bought gold jewelry, expensive gear, and flashy cars, and loved going out to clubs and buying drink tours. I was always looking to be recognized and thirsty for something that was never satisfying. The money slipped through my fingers like melting ice in a scorching heat wave.
Random police incidents fueled my resentment towards the authorities. As I was driving my Caucasian girlfriend to a dinner party, a police car flashing hazard lights pulled us over. The officers ordered us to get out of the car and forced us to get on all fours, searching us. I was completely embarrassed for my girlfriend, who was wearing a pretty dress. They didn’t find anything illegal and let us go.
I had always known that God existed since my grandmother took me to Sunday school. But I saw God through a distorted lens. I believed that doing good things outweighed bad things, which led me to sponsor a poor child in a faraway land through World Vision.
God hinted that I could be a better person. A policeman who recognized me among the gangs I ran with encouraged me to do something positive in my life. I still remember him cuddling me to get up.
However, I kept putting myself in danger and I could have ended up dead several times. On one occasion a friend sitting next to me in my classic Chevrolet Caprice pulled out his .38 caliber revolver and started shooting guys on the sidewalk. He held the gun parallel to my face as I tried to steer. Bullets flew past me through the driver’s side window, almost crushing my eardrums.
On another close call, I was driving friends in my van to hang out in a local park when a rival gang’s car followed behind us while firing several shots. Bullets penetrated the rear window, one of which grazed my girlfriend’s ear before crossing her cheek, splashing blood onto the windshield. Another misfire wasting my brain by a few millimeters.
Like the other black men in the neighborhood, I had no goals and no idea what I could accomplish. Feeling worthless, I realized the angry pessimism that many black children suffer from. I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t like who I saw. I scared my mom when I told her I didn’t expect to live past 21.
Despite everything, I managed to get my GED in 1985. I worked in the roofing trade while selling drugs. My wild life in the street continued, punctuated by stays in prison for minor offenses and assaults.
In 1998, at the age of 33, I was arrested for a fight with my resident girlfriend, plus a serious weapons charge. Someone saw her getting too friendly with other guys at a party, which made me jealous. A neighbor, hearing the heckling, called the police, who found my semi-automatic Uzi and a stash of marijuana that I had sold. All in all, I was facing a mandatory five-year prison sentence.
A week after my arrest, I got out on bail and returned to the roof. 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. Nonetheless, the pastor’s heartbreaking 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 smiled, waiting for me to fall back into the old life.
Shortly after, I was arrested again for communicating with my girlfriend in violation of a no-contact order. But it turned into a blessing. Locked up for two months, I devoured the Bible and several Christian books while attending religious services. During this time, a work release program allowed me to attend services at Lampstand.
Back in sentencing court, I accepted a plea deal: a one-year sentence, reduced to eight months for time already served. The judge showed signs of remorse upon hearing my testimony. And the court reporter cried as she recorded the proceedings.
A new creature in Christ
Before I went to prison, my pastor encouraged me to take classes at the Bishop AL Hardy Academy of Theology in Seattle. I obtained a degree in theology during my incarceration. Subsequently, when I joined Lampstand Family Ministries, my passion for learning and teaching skyrocketed. I taught Sunday School and got promoted to Superintendent. Four years later, I joined another church, serving as an associate pastor for educational programs. In 2003, I obtained a doctorate in theology in religious education.
When four more years passed, I took a bold but hesitant leap of faith. Seeing a thirst for theological education among the inner-city minority population, I founded the Seattle Urban Bible College. The school catered to students unable to afford normal tuition fees, which meant operating on lean finances. Local pastors gave classes on weeknights at facilities offered by Miracle Temple Ministries. We trained a hundred students before the scarcity of resources forced us to suspend school in 2011.
Dropping out of Bible college brought me to a spiritual and professional crossroads.
Praying and seeking guidance from wise Christian brethren, I reached out to the president of Northwestern University in Kirkland, Washington, sharing how God had radically changed the trajectory of my dead end life on the streets and sowed the seeds of desire to teach others in the minority community. . He awarded me a presidential scholarship and I obtained an MA in Theology and Culture in 2013.
After graduating, I joined the Seattle-based Union Gospel Mission homeless ministry. Taking advantage of my work there, I felt a new impulse from God to start a church in the city center. Aided by fervent prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit, this turmoil culminated with the 2016 launch of Risen Church. It’s located in a South Seattle neighborhood plagued by drug use and gang violence that almost took my life off. We are fortunate to have a diverse congregation – Black, White, Latino – marked by a commitment to mutual love and respect.
Despite the failures and sorrows of my past, I am a new creation in Christ. The old ways are gone. Without his mercy, I would probably be dead today, another sad statistic in the litany of downtown tragedy. Today, I have the privilege of encouraging young black people who feel worthless to choose the value they have in Christ. I once considered myself worthless, but now I serve the living God, and in him I am the man God intended me to be.
James D. Croone is Senior Pastor at Risen Church in Seattle, Assistant Professor at Northwest University, and Pastoral and Restoration Supervisor at the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle. Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York.