Ex-addict helps others turn on to God, and sobriety

January 08, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Those who know former convict Kenneth Griffey Jr. say he's replaced the cocaine he once injected into his veins with religion, letting it guide his life.

"He's a new person, a new man," said his pastor, the Rev. Joseph Kiplan Smith of Bethany Lane Baptist Church in Ellicott City. "When God entered Kenny's heart through Jesus Christ, he . . . transformed Kenny Griffey."

Every Monday night, Mr. Griffey, a 29-year-old born-again Christian, tries to show drug addicts and alcoholics in the Howard County Detention Center that they also can change their lives.

That's when he takes part in the jail's Christian 12-Step Recovery Program, an hour-long program begun last year and run by jail chaplain Walt Smith. The program is modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step program, but emphasizes Christianity.

During the meetings, the men, usually about a dozen of them, pray, read from the Bible and share assignments in a book about recovering from addiction. They also share stories about their addictions and lives on the streets, all of which are familiar to Mr. Griffey.

"I think God is making a difference in their lives and he is using me," Mr. Griffey said. "Without the Lord, without Jesus Christ, I believe I'd be dead today."

Some of the new members of the group think "you've never been there before," Mr. Griffey acknowledged. "Then, I'll bring up a small point when I was on the streets."

Mr. Griffey, who lives in Columbia with his wife, Olga, and four children, led a crime- and drug-filled life on the streets of his native Chicago. He was the second-oldest of five children of an alcoholic mother.

"At 13, we moved to a different neighborhood, and I just turned wild. I started running away. I got involved with gangs," he recalled. "After that I got involved with drugs."

He dropped out of high school his freshman year and at 14 was sent to an Illinois juvenile facility after 40 arrests, including one for car theft. Nine months later he ran away. "It was like I was addicted to the streets. I couldn't get away from it."

Already using PCP and marijuana, he began using cocaine at 18, free-basing and then injecting the drug, he said. Soon thereafter, he was convicted as an adult of burglary and a probation violation. He served three years in a juvenile facility and a minimum-security prison in Illinois.

While in prison he tried to study the Bible and go to church and get his high school equivalency diploma. "I said I'm going to make something of myself while I'm here."

But when he was released in 1989, he hit the streets again. "God's spirit was draining out of me," he recalled.

He began to drink and use cocaine again and was unable to keep a job. "I'd do crazy things that a cocaine addict does for drugs," he said. "I started getting into trouble again."

His wife, frustrated, moved to Columbia in July 1990 to escape Mr. Griffey's self-destruction. She asked him to follow if he wanted to turn his life around. He followed her a month later and changed his behavior -- for a while.

But he soon lapsed, writing bad checks and stealing from his wife to support his cocaine habit, which cost as much as $500 a month.

One night in September 1991, police officers awakened Mr. Griffey as he slept in a car in a drug-infested neighborhood in Baltimore City, he said. Though they found a knife and a needle in the car, they let him go.

"I was at my bottom," Mr. Griffey said. "I hated the way I was living. I didn't like myself."

Ready for a change, he began to attend AA meetings, but stopped because "I wanted to fly through it. . . . I had a rude `` awakening. They told me I'd be an addict all of my life."

One day, while driving, he passed Bethany Lane Baptist Church. "Something said to me: 'Ken, if you don't do it [stop] now, you never will.' " He went inside. He would later ask the pastor if he could volunteer at the church.

"When I first met Kenny, you could look at him and see here's a person who lives on the streets; he had a hardened look," Mr. Smith said. "Kenny wasn't sure if he could trust you or not. In coming to know a God who loves him, it has softened his heart."

Mr. Griffey began attending a Bible study class. "It was powerful. I'd hug people. It was just a joy overflowing," he said. "I told God: 'I don't know what it is, but whatever it is don't let it stop.' "

In March 1992, Mr. Griffey was baptized, joining the Bethany Lane church, where his family attends services regularly. He got a job installing sprinkler heads through someone at the church.

The close relationship to his church helped him when a state trooper pulled him over later that year and found that Mr. Griffey was wanted for writing bad checks. Mr. Griffey's pastor wrote a letter in his defense, describing how he had changed his life. Instead of serving 15 years, Mr. Griffey said, he was given two years' probation on six counts of writing bad checks.

His turnaround pleases his wife of four years. "If he didn't [change], I wouldn't be here right now," she said.

And Mr. Griffey remains humble that he no longer is using drugs. He still doesn't trust himself to resist the temptation of drugs and alcohol, he said. "But if it's God's will, I'll never go back to using again," he said.

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