FEATURE STORIES

Kitchen Confidential


by Jeffrey Hillard
May 2009

 

From prison to employment as a respected chef to working with youth, Chris Brown was once a dead man walking. Here’s what happened.

Chris Brown is standing in a church pulpit before the congregation at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship and begins to break out into a visible sweat. The year is 2008, and he’s following through on an invitation to speak about some very dark times in his life.

For him this morning in the pulpit, it’s difficult, sensitive territory: many of his years prior to 2008 were racked with incarceration, drug use, violence, deception, shame, and a bottomless emotional yearning never close to being fulfilled.

He doesn’t take his eyes off the first few rows of people.

As he’s receiving a smattering of praise during the recounting of how his most turbulent times – prison, homelessness, running away, prison – were transformed into glowing and healthy behavior once he came to know God only on God’s terms, his sweating escalates.

Brown has let go. He’s told them so, now. He’s delivered the promise of his testimony in front of a whole gathering of witnesses, and has done so confidently, without haphazardly slinging around times and circumstances. He has struck a nerve.

Being alive with the heart of Jesus, he says, has allowed him to have a peace and delight in sharing with others that there is hope, and that there is not one person that God cannot reach. Brown says that he is the example of someone who thought he was unreachable.

“If I tried to tell you my entire story, and how far gone I was, I would be here all night,” he tells the congregation. “Because I have possibly done most all of it. All I have now in my spirit is a gift, and it just says, ‘Use me, Lord.’ I’m a living testimony. I should be dead.”

*

It’s not as if Chris Brown was ever left on the streets to survive. He was raised in a church as a youth. Throughout the years, though, Brown ran. He did not want any kind of real responsibility, especially as he grew into early adulthood. He was running from God, he says.

In order to expand his so-called freedom, he drifted to Atlanta, Georgia. The reckless lifestyle grew more reckless. “I ran the streets,” he says. “I never knew where I’d wind up. Strange, I was reading the Bible and smoking crack cocaine, because I had no other way of knowing how to really get free.”

Eventually, Brown’s mother, with whom he was still in contact, told her son that she had heard from God. The family, tired of sending him money, refused to send any more. His mother and another family member drove to Atlanta with a U-Haul and brought him back to Cincinnati.

“My mother just said, ‘You need to come home.’ She never once condemned me. All my mother had for me was Bible. I know now how important that was.”

Once he returned to Cincinnati, though, the moments of solace and comfort turned hostile and dangerous. His anxiety and drug use mounted. He had a roommate. Yet, Brown’s life was spent on the streets. He was heavy into deceiving others. His games were nearly lethal. Over a period of ten years, from 1988 to 1998, he lived mostly to find the next high or the next series of negative life choices.

And soon, in 1998, Brown was arrested, charged with, and subsequently convicted of manslaughter for an alleged act of homicide. “I had hit rock bottom,” he says. “The way I see it all now, God had finally gotten me to where he could talk to me. He had to sit me down. And that’s an understatement.”

The prosecutor had originally sought a conviction sentence of life in prison for Brown. However, he received a sentence of ten years in prison.

One afternoon during his incarceration, he walked into a t.v. room. He felt a sudden, indescribable change in his body, a softening, a mellow yet blunt feeling, he says. He was watching a church worship service on t.v., so he decided to join along in the worship. He’d quickly remembered a Bible verse in the gospel of Matthew. It was Chapter 6, verse 33. He never forgot that verse. “I grabbed a hold of that verse,” he says. “It never left my mind, even in that room. I sought God’s righteousness His way. This was it.”

Brown’s initial transformation occurred as he was worshipping with the televised church celebration. From that point on, he made positive, pro-active choices in prison. Each day, in spite of the tension created by incarceration, Brown directed his time toward setting goals and achieving them.

“God got a hold of my mind,” he says. “He talked to me all the time when I was inside. He dealt with me when I immersed myself in His word.” That contrasts, he says, with his original thinking that he would lose his life in prison.

He was transferred to numerous prisons between 1998 and 2007. Still, the unpredictability of prison life did not deter his personal goal-setting. In 2000 he received his G.E.D. He received an Associate Degree in Business Management and a Culinary Arts certificate in 2006.

*

When Brown came up the first time before the Ohio Parole Board for judicial release, he was denied. He remained incarcerated for two more years, continuing to focus on making positive choices and listening to God. “I still knew that God recognized there was more work He needed to do in me,” he says.

Eventually, upon his release from prison, the judge authorizing Brown’s release was ironically the same judged who sentenced him ten years earlier. Brown says that the judge expressed admiration for the change he saw in him. “The judge said, ‘I remember the anger you had. I don’t see it now. I see a totally different person,’” Brown says.

He was transitioned to Talbert House for six months in 2007. In an “unusual and amazing change” in his post-incarceration status, he says, because the judge recognized a pro-active change in Brown’s behavior, his parole status was immediately lifted, thus nullifying the expected 2012 date when he would be off parole.

He was still in search mode. He went from church to church. He says he asked God to “further equip” him. He soon wound up at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship, very satisfied and confident that this was the church for him.

Brown’s re-entry into society wasn’t always smooth. He also had a son with whom he wanted to reconcile. There were the barriers of loneliness, isolation, and difficulty in landing a job that he says he worked through: “I had no help early in my re-entry. There was much against me, so I had to depend totally on God.”

A break came in May 2007 when he was hired by Lazy Gourmet & Elegant Fare. Earning about $2,200 a month, he worked as a sous chef for the lead chef and operated the broiler, sauté station, and grill. Preparing diverse dishes, he helped cater corporate and private events.

Even when he was laid-off at Lazy Gourmet, along with 11 other staff workers, just after moving into a new apartment, Brown did not get discouraged. He was determined to succeed. He found a job 30 days later as lead cook and trainer at a Tumbleweed Restaurant.

*

During these past two years, other occasions that Brown can only call “real miracles” have infiltrated his life. For instance, he was suddenly healed from a life-threatening health problem. His godfather, who lives in a suburb of Cincinnati, acting also as a mentor, encouraged Brown to pursue his education. Subsequently, a pastor recommended Brown enroll as a student in Cincinnati Christian University.

Once Brown visited CCU, admissions officials realized he would be a true asset to the university. “They said they recognized my goals as a calling,” he says. “I could not have been more excited that someone else saw that in me.” He’s now concentrating on Leadership and Ministry at CCU.

Also, the mother of Brown’s son – very instrumental in his last two years of re-entry – helped him purchase a computer and other domestic needs. And recently, he began work as a chef at a new local restaurant.

Most importantly, he wants to more frequently share his story as widely as possible and especially to youth. His immediate goal is to volunteer in the Juvenile Detention Ministry at Christ Emmanuel.

“God specializes in the impossible,” Brown says. “What’s happened to me is beyond amazing. I’m capitalizing on my skills and education now. I’m looking for the next level. I’m on a search for God’s direction, for His level. I say, ‘What is it, God? What do you require?’ My failures are what made me who I am today – very positive and willing to accomplish. Everything begins in God. He gives you everything you need.”

 

Chris Brown

Chris Brown