The Power of Faith-Based Ministry

Pastor Ken Barbour mentors the men enrolled in Kingdom Life Ministries. A former drug abuser himself, he has worked in jails for 13 years."Some of them have just given up," he says. "We help them believe they can achieve." Photo credit: Style Weekly, Scott Elmquist.
Pastor Ken Barbour mentors the men enrolled in Kingdom Life Ministries. A former drug abuser himself, he has worked in jails for 13 years.”Some of them have just given up,” he says. “We help them believe they can achieve.” Photo credit: Style Weekly, Scott Elmquist.

by James A. Bacon

In my previous post replicating an article published in Style Weekly, I put a human face on the ongoing battle to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars and turn criminals into productive, contributing members of society. It is so easy for policy wonks like me to dwell in the abstract realm of tables, graphs and position papers. That article reminds us that we are talking about real flesh-and-blood people.

Karl Green, the former drug addict and street enforcer profiled in the article, grew up in Wickham Court, one of Richmond’s more notorious housing projects. He described to me how he had to fight to survive from a very tender age. Literally, fight to survive. When he was seven or eight years old, older kids would snatch him up along with other children and make them fight little kids from other neighborhoods. The older guys would lay bets on who would emerge the winner. Green learned early on that only the strong — and the canny — survive.

For a man who has led a thuggish life, Green has a keen native intelligence. He actually made it through 11th grade and maintained a B average, he says. In prison, he became an avid reader of thrillers by Robert Ludlum, Dean Koontz and others. He has a natural gift for story telling and a knack for the vivid metaphor. But the life of the street — the drugs, the women, the partying, the violence, the macho posturing and in his case, the challenge of psychologically manipulating those around him — proved too powerful an allure. As he is the first to admit, he made bad choices. He dropped out of high school, became addicted to drugs and, except for a few years early on, never had a steady job. He had few possessions and rarely had his own place to live. He made money by selling drugs, robbing stores and beating up people.

How does a man like Green turn his life around? Getting old is part of the story. The drugs and violence wore him down. He bears scars on his arm from being stabbed on one occasion and sliced with a broken jar on another. He had a toe amputated from a gunshot wound. (His life is an amazing story; one day I hope to tell it.) At 49 he got tired of it all. He realized how empty and directionless his life was. That’s where Kingdom Life Ministries (KLM), a faith-based ministry operating in the Richmond City Jail, came in. While respectable society fears and ostracizes men like Green, KLM preached that God forgives all men, and that all men are equal in his sight. KLM provides structure, discipline and a peer-based support network as an alternative to the street, and it provides convicts with an avenue to achieve respect in the community as “men of God.”

As long-time readers know, I am an atheist. But I am not one of those atheists who is hostile to religion and wants to see it expunged from the public sphere. Religion can be a powerful force for good. For men like Karl Green, Christianity  can fill the void with purpose and meaning. I may be an atheist, but I marvel at the power of faith-based ministries, be they Christian, Muslim or any other, because I’m interested in what works. And there is little question that some of these programs work. The trick is developing metrics that allow us to distinguish between the successes, the duds and the also-rans. And that’s another reason I like KLM — the organization keeps careful track of what happens to alumni from its program. All programs that aim to rehabilitate need to do the same.

The Commonwealth of Virginia spends $1 billion a year on the state corrections system, and local governments probably spend an equal amount. For too long, jails and prisons have been revolving doors, as inmates go in and out, in and out. Lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key does do one thing: It keeps criminals off the street. But it’s also incredibly expensive, and the system has done too little to equip inmates with the skills to enter productive society, which makes it doubly expensive.

Convinced that it has a winning formula, KLM is gearing up for expansion. Its transition house in north Richmond has room for only nine men. Many, many participants of KLM’s prison program have to be turned away. The organization has set a goal of setting up 15 or so houses around the state. The beauty of its  “business model” is that it costs so little. KLM rents a house for eight or nine men. The men are required to find a job within a month or two and contribute $300 a month to cover food and rent. There is an initial start-up cost for rental deposit, utilities and furnishing the house but each house is largely self-sustaining.

Supporting a mostly volunteer organization like KLM is not something that government does well. But it’s something the community does do well. I urge you to join me in supporting KLM financially. Here is KLM’s Facebook page. If you are so inclined, mail a check to:

Kingdom Life Ministry, Inc.
P.O. Box 71059
Richmond, Virginia  23255


You need to know where to get access to addiction treatment if someone you know has a problem with drugs.

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5 responses to “The Power of Faith-Based Ministry”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “There is no question in my mind that Karl Green, the former drug addict and street enforcer profiled in the article, would have turned out to be a very different man had he been raised almost anywhere other than where he was, in Wickham Court, one of Richmond’s more notorious housing projects. “.

    Why do you believe that? Are all the people who grow up under difficult circumstances destined to become career felons?

    Jay-Z grew up in Brooklyn’s Macy Housing projects but managed to avoid a lifetime in jail. Mark Wahlberg was as poor as a church mouse and something of a thug before turning his life around at 21 (not 50).

    I’ll bet that the vast majority of people growing up in Wickham Court do not become career criminals who find themselves locked up at age 50.

    Unlike many with whom he grew up Mr Green traded eventual success through hard work for instant gratification through drugs and crime.

    Your willingness to excuse Mr Green’s life of crime (until recently) based on his upbringing demeans those who grow up in equally difficult situations but do not become career criminals. You have adopted the uber-liberal belief that growing up poor consigns a person to a life of crime and addiction. People from Oprah Winfrey to Tom Ridge to Thomas Sowell prove you wrong.

    It’s great that Mr. Green is rebuilding his life. At age 52 he can look forward to many years of success and freedom. However, I will wager that Mr Green himself sees his previous life of crime as something he did to himself rather than something his upbringing did to him. At least, I hope that’s how he sees it.

    1. Once a year or so, Don, I have to concede that you’re right and I’m wrong. This is one of those time. I did not think very carefully before I wrote.

      What I should have said is that Green clearly could have done more with his life. He was not destined to be a loser. As he will be the first to admit, he made a lot of very bad choices.

      Indeed, the animating principle behind my coverage of poverty in Richmond’s inner city is that people *do* have choices and that values *do* matter. Sure, someone growing up in Wickham Court has to struggle a lot harder to make something of their life, but the choice is still their’s.

      I’ll go back and re-phrase the original post to reflect my real sentiments.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        “Once a year or so, Don, I have to concede that you’re right and I’m wrong.”.

        This column is definitely a struggle for you. First you decide you need to re-phrase some wording in the body of the post and then you mistakenly type “year” when you meant “week” in the comments section.

  2. larryg Avatar

    re: ” . You have adopted the uber-liberal belief that growing up poor consigns a person to a life of crime and addiction. People from Oprah Winfrey to Tom Ridge to Thomas Sowell prove you wrong.”

    actually, most liberals would also question why living in difficult circumstances automatically consigns one to become a felon AND they want to do something about it – as opposed to the folks who characterize such folks as “takers” and “parasites”.

  3. larryg Avatar

    yes… it’s those uber-liberals that want universal pre-K, and special instruction for at-risk kids, and free or reduced lunches, and breakfasts, daycare so Mom can work, help with a place to live and basic internet, etc.

    The Conservatives spend most of their time trying to figure out – not how to do these things better and more cost-effectively – but to kill them.

    Just the other week, in THIS Blog a blatant propaganda lie was being propagated that since Head State gains don’t “last” once the kid gets to regular school K-6 that, that “proves” that Head Start is a failure.

    In other words, it does not matter if head state does make a difference at the time kids are benefiting from it – if the gains don’t last without further help later on – it “proves” that head start is a failure and that later help is not warranted.

    this is the approach that we see from Conservatives these days – who, by the way, have absolutely no problem watching Mr. Green end up in jail at taxpayer expense and after he gets out – likely a lifetime of entitlements rather than becoming a self-sufficient taxpayer.

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