Pray for Kabeer, Chapter I: The School Play, the Minister of Defense and the Fall of a Hero

Over two decades, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a Black man who was raised Muslim in Los Angeles, found his place in the predominantly white and overwhelmingly Christian suburbs of Wisconsin. In the first installment of our Serial Longform series, we delve into the former Packers star’s theological evolution, his discovery of a new religious movement, his transformation from revered to feared and why he feels he—and his ministry—are misunderstood.
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Families dressed in their Christmas bests file into the church sanctuary. Ron Jung stands at the doors that open onto the center aisle, just behind the tall Christmas tree in the foyer. As headmaster of a small private Christian school in Green Bay, he’s busy greeting the parents, grandparents and siblings arriving for Providence Academy’s annual Christmas program, dispensing countless handshakes, hugs and Merry Christmases.

The pews are nearly full now. Parents chitchat and leaf through the white paper program promoting this year’s traditional theme, “O Children Come.” Jung is in the middle of a conversation when two young men walk past him down the aisle. They’re both pale and wiry, with close-cropped blond hair and similar black jackets. They quietly take seats near the front, six rows back from the stage. There they sit, unnaturally still as everyone around them is in motion, bouncing toddlers on their laps, saying hi to neighbors and friends. A mother in the crowd watches the men closely—they’re too young to have kids at the school, likely too old to be siblings, and they’re clearly isolated from the rest of the crowd. She approaches Jung, whispers her concern and points them out. Jung whips around. He knows exactly who they are.

He hurries to their pew and asks them to leave. The family sitting in front of them shifts uncomfortably as they overhear the conversation. The men refuse to cooperate, so Jung takes out his phone and taps 9-1-1.

Sports Illustrated Daily Cover: Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila

CHAPTER 2: The Pastor, the ‘Cult’ and Its Troubled Past | CHAPTER 3: The Followers, the Courtroom Drama and the Next Chapter

“This is Ron Jung, I am the headmaster at Providence Academy. I called earlier about the ... uh, our uh, Christmas program?” Jung can’t help it; even as panic sets in, he is still doing that Midwestern nice thing. “So there are two guys that are here that I know are associated—not with our school at all, but with, uh, the gentleman that we had talked about. So, I, you know, I expect, uh, I am asking—I would like them to leave.”

“O.K., and what are they doing that you want them to leave?” the 9-1-1 operator asks.

“Well, they don’t—they’re not parents. They’re not anything,” Jung says. “I know it is a public event, but we had some concern of a video that Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila had posted, and we’re worried that they are going to do something. I don’t know—”

“They took the video?”

“Kabeer did, and these are two of his followers.”

“Who is the person?”

“Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.”

This is not Jung’s first 9-1-1 call of the day; he’d called earlier to forewarn police about this exact situation. He’d had a volatile conversation with Gbaja-Biamila, the former Packers star and divorced father of three Providence students who will perform tonight, the one who hasn’t seen his kids in nearly two years but still doesn’t want them to be part of a Christmas program. “You don’t need to worry about me,” Gbaja-Biamila had told Jung. “Black people don't shoot up schools. White people do.”

Jung is now exasperated. He looks toward the foyer where a hundred school children are gathering in lines. Some are dressed as angels, another as Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, and others in white choir robes with rich purple stoles. “Well, I have no idea why they are here,” Jung tells the 9-1-1 operator. “They have no reason to be here other than to … you know ...”

Within a few minutes, police arrive. They remove the two men, Ryan Desmith and Jordan Salmi, from the sanctuary and search them. Each is carrying a loaded semiautomatic pistol hidden in their waistbands. One has an extra magazine of ammunition and a nine-inch knife. Neither has a permit to carry a gun.

Soon, Gbaja-Biamila himself arrives. As Desmith and Salmi are put in the back of a squad car, he is ranting, arguing their rights. At one point, police threatened to arrest him. He’s allowed to go free, driving off as the Christmas play goes on. The night will only get stranger.

Gbaja-Biamila bristles at the perception that he or anyone in his ministry is dangerous. He says it’s common practice for members of the Providence Academy community to carry guns. He says that he sent Desmith and Salmi to the church that night only to record his kids as proof that they were participating in the program despite his objections, that he would have gone himself but didn’t want to cause a scene, and that if he had known the whole program was on Facebook he never would have done so. And as for the Black people don’t shoot up schools. White people do line, he says it was blurted out in the heat of an argument, and well before he considered sending Salmi and Desmith (who are white).

He played his entire nine-season NFL career for the Packers. “KGB” became a local hero—a Packers Hall of Famer and the storied franchise’s all-time sacks leader. When his career ended after the 2008 season, he chose to stay in Green Bay and raise his growing family. He was married at age 24, and he and wife Eileen had eight kids. He served on the board for a local homeless shelter and for Providence Academy, where he became friends with Jung. He donated significant time and money to local food pantry ministries. He was the rare Black player to stay in Green Bay after retirement, and, despite the fact that few in the community looked like him, he blended in seamlessly, building a reputation as a good Christian and a family man.

That reputation crumbled the night of the Providence Academy Christmas program. But his relationship with Green Bay was fraying well before a 9-1-1 call on a cold December night. Three years ago, his seemingly unending search for truth intersected with a charismatic pastor, insatiable curiosity mutating into all-out indoctrination. He joined a new religious movement, one marked by an unbendingly literal interpretation of the Old Testament and a tendency to challenge any other form of government or laws, and one that inspired him to cultivate a YouTube presence that has come to be defined by indignant rants, most often on the subject of Christianity, his ex-wife or women in general. Many who were once close to him fear that the insular ministry he’s now a part of is a cult.

Providence Academy’s winter break started the day after the Christmas program, two days early because of the disturbance, and when the students returned in January they were met with a police presence. Parents spent the winter grappling with what-if scenarios; Packers kicker Mason Crosby and his wife, Molly, were one of a handful of families who pulled their children out of Providence after that incident. The Green Bay Police Department is monitoring KGB. He says the FBI is watching him. Packers security is also on alert. Providence Academy and a former employer have active restraining orders against him. He’s been tased in open court. The community that was once so proud to have him make his permanent home in Green Bay is now fearful that he lives so close. And Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is having a tough time understanding why.

* * *

Father Jim had his own row on flights. Easily distinguishable by his Roman collar, he would typically settle into the aisle seat and work on his homily for the next mass during the trip home from a Packers road game. His overhead light was the only one shining in the back half of the airplane; most of the players sitting in the rows behind him were asleep.

Then he heard the footsteps coming up the aisle. As KGB folded his 6' 4", 250-pound frame into the empty window seat next to the priest, Father Jim knew what was coming.

Father Jim, You're such a nice guy. You’ve got a lot of authority. People really love you in this organization. But from the bottom of my heart, I pray to God that you will become a Christian.

KGB’s earnest voice and Father Jim’s quiet upper-Midwestern accent had once again broken the mid-flight silence. Other players and staff stirred. They knew this part of the postgame ritual.

Jim Baraniak’s job as the Packers’ Catholic chaplain from 1997 to 2018 was to be accessible whenever the players or staff needed him. Some needed him more than others. Kabeer needed him the most.

KGB was a devout Protestant, and he often engaged Father Jim in conversations about the differences in their faiths. His questions started out as innocent curiosity, but over time his intent shifted and the discussions became interrogations. The one-sided arguments had become so routine and so off-putting for the rest of the passengers that, Baraniak says, then Packers president Bob Harlan offered Father Jim a seat in the executive section of the plane, where KGB would not be able to reach him. Father Jim declined, insisting he be available.

This time, KGB pushed Baraniak to identify who on the plane would be saved, arguing that the gate is narrow and one must accept Jesus to make it to heaven. Baraniak countered that such a decision was up to God, not him. As part of his argument, Baraniak brought up two Jewish members of the Packers’ organization, both good men, and said he would not play KGB’s game and determine that they would go to hell because of their religion. “Father Jim,” Baraniak remembers KGB saying, loudly, “What are you going to do to save their souls? They will go to hell, and you are complicit in this if you do not save them.”

KGB had a naivete that could be endearing, like the time he boasted to coach Mike Sherman that he’d trained his dog, Nala, to line up in formation and run routes like a receiver to catch a Frisbee. Sherman told KGB to bring his dog to practice one day to show off, but instead of obeying KGB’s commands, Nala peed on the G logo in the middle of Lambeau Field.

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila lines up for a play against the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.

Gbaja-Biamila made a Pro Bowl and retired as the Packers' all time leader in sacks.

But his unabashed curiosity meant he had no filter. KGB’s parents were Nigerian-born; his mother was Christian and his father Muslim. He says he was raised primarily in the Muslim faith, but he converted to Christianity during his rookie season in Green Bay. He was first challenged to rethink Christianity by a friend of Gill Byrd, then the team’s executive director of player programs. Soon after, Byrd and KGB’s then-girlfriend, Eileen, began mentoring him in the faith. Pursuing that faith became an obsession. Looking back now, KGB describes himself as having been an “Old Testament Christian.” He’d get into debates on the meaning of certain biblical passages and ask uncomfortable questions.

Sherman and KGB both arrived in Green Bay for the 2000 season, and they shared a close relationship. Sherman is Catholic, and he says KGB sometimes sat on the couch in his office and quizzed him, like he did with Father Jim. Sherman was always willing to participate in the lengthy discussions because he knew KGB cared deeply, that his intentions were good. On one occasion, the two had a conversation that lasted well past midnight. “One more question, one more question,” KGB would keep repeating.

On the night before Packers games, KGB could usually be found in linebacker Brady Poppinga’s hotel room, spouting anti-Mormon ideas while Poppinga, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, patiently listened. “He and I had a religious discussion going on for years, almost our whole time there,” Poppinga says. “It kept going on and on and on and on. He always took a stance of very literal religious beliefs.”

Fellow Christian teammates weren’t spared from judgment. KGB didn’t drink or do drugs or even swear, and he believed in the sanctity of marriage—teammates going through divorces were an easy target. “The blood is on your head,” he’d say to the sinners.

“I genuinely loved my teammates,” KGB says now. “But I had a hard time going to work, patting them on the butt and not telling them what I believed to be the truth. I knew they made jokes about that. It was, Oh, Kabeer’s got you! every time I talked to somebody in the locker room. I would get clowned.

“Some guys talked about the girls that they slept with, or the club they went to. I just wanted to talk about Jesus. That was my love, Jesus.”

He counted Ryan Pickett, Samkon Gado and Aaron Rodgers among Bible study peers. He says that when he was demoted from the starting lineup before the 2007 season, the silver lining was that he had more time to talk about the Bible. At one point, he bought subscriptions to Think magazine, a socially conservative Christian publication, for everyone in the organization. His teammates knew that he cared about them. But “not a lot of guys wanted to hang out with him,” says former Packers running back Ahman Green, a long-time friend of KGB’s who remains close to him. “He was so in love with Christianity, but what he was so unaware of is that you can’t force guys to want to love Christianity as much as you do.”

One summer night, a heated debate broke out in the courtyard at St. Norbert College, where the Packers held training camp. KGB remembers Rodgers, irritated, telling everyone to go to bed. Moments later, the argument reached a boiling point and KGB proclaimed, If the locker room blew up, 99 percent of you guys would go to hell. Teammates erupted in anger. After that “most of the Christians turned on me,” Kabeer says. “I remember Aaron Rodgers turned on me, [he said,] If this is what a Christian looks like, I don’t want anything to do with it. ... I don’t hate him and I don’t think he hates me, but our relationship has never been the same.”

Father Jim says KGB could quote scripture better than he could, but, “Kabeer, lovingly, often took an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he says. “And the Pharisees in all scripture, they always followed the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law. Sometimes those are in conflict with each other. Today we’re not going to have slaves. Today we’re not going to involve any number of practices in our lives, but can we go deeper to see why this was of value? Kabeer did not always make that connection.”

KGB was one of a handful of players on the Packers’ short list for community appearances because he always said yes. Nearly every year during his playing career, he visited St. Norbert College to speak to the junior class and their families for parents weekend. He was engaging and energetic, hooking the audience with behind-the-scenes stories from his football career. Then he’d inevitably veer off into a serious and out-of-touch sermon. Wives, submit to your husbands, as unto the Lord.

“It was almost a precursor,” says Father Jim. “You can map this out and you start to think, Why didn’t we say something? Why didn't we try to get help?”

* * *

Kabeer and Eileen’s first six children were all boys, and Kabeer was extremely proud of his large brood of sons. Their seventh child, born in 2014, broke the streak, the couple’s first daughter, Sufiya. He says now he never wanted to have a daughter; he didn’t want to think about a “woman’s role” or deal with “girl issues.” Some close to Kabeer say that this is when he started to change. He explored the biblical differences between men and women. He says that in May 2017 he came across a chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 11 that he interpreted as: Women are not created in the image of God.

7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

Kabeer was online researching those verses and looking for teachings on head coverings for women that he could use to persuade Eileen to wear one. That particular internet rabbit hole is what led him to the Straitway Truth Ministry and Pastor Charles Dowell’s library of YouTube videos that reinforced KGB’s male-dominant interpretation of the Bible.

Straitway has 13 affiliated ministries, including ones in Tennessee; Houston; Georgia; Indiana; and New York. When KGB got involved with Straitway, Desmith, Salmi and others who had been fellowshipping in small groups in Illinois and Wisconsin, migrated to his property, which became the home base for the Green Bay ministry. He also holds events there. Straitway encourages homesteading, though KGB will not say whether anyone besides him and his father (who does not participate in Straitway) are living on his property, which includes three apartment-style suites separate from his house.

Dowell considers his group “Hebrew Israelites.” Black Hebrew Israelism is a belief that Black people are the true Hebrews of the Old Testament, God’s chosen people. Black Hebrew Israelism is the most popular term to describe that ideology, though many adherents and group leaders bristle at that descriptor, because they want to clarify they include all ethnicities. (The ideology is also called “Black Israelism” in academic circles.) Groups that appeal to this ideology differ widely; some include other races in their definition of the 12 tribes of Israel, like Native Americans and Latinx people, and some believe that white people can also be Israelites in spirit (Straitway, for instance, has white members). But all Black Hebrew Israelite groups have one thing in common: Black Americans are the flagship. Some groups that appeal to Black Israelism are rife with misogyny, anti-LGBTQ sentiment and prejudice against Jewish people.

Straitway’s literal interpretation of the Bible as law and Dowell’s tendency to spread even thoroughly disproved conspiracy theories as part of their truth often ends up in messaging that is out of touch, or sometimes outright hateful. Dowell preaches that homosexuality is, “an abomination and it will get you to burn for all of eternity,” and that using pharmaceutical drugs is “sorcery.” He championed the thoroughly debunked conspiracy that 5G technology is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and preached that “a lot of female troubles come” from wearing earrings.

Dowell’s forceful delivery—a deep Southern drawl, muscular arms, loud claps and power stances, assault-style weapons displayed prominently behind him—help to draw in men who feel lost after leaving more masculine sects of society. That often means ex-military (like Dowell, who says he is an Army veteran). Sometimes it means ex-NFL players—KGB is one of at least three in Straitway.

“He talks like a coach. I like that,” KGB says. “I feel like I am talking to a man’s man, who follows and loves Jesus while not coming from an effeminate, soft place. [Growing up practicing faith] at a mosque, the men are in the front and women are in the back; it’s led by men. I saw the contrast immediately when I went from Islam to Christianity, which is very blended and effeminate. You get brainwashed that it is the norm. It was good to see a man’s man.”

Former Packers player Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila makes a video with Straitway Ministry leader Charles Dowell

KGB (left) and Dowell.

KGB watched one video of Dowell after another after another, getting hooked on the pastor’s “uncomfortable truths.” KGB says on his YouTube channel that he really started taking Dowell seriously when he heard him preach about polygyny, the practice of men having multiple wives (Dowell has one legal wife, though on YouTube the PastorDowell account left a comment saying he has three “Ishshah’s,” the Hebrew word for woman or wife). It wasn’t necessarily because KGB wanted to have multiple wives himself, but because Dowell wasn’t afraid to preach that controversial idea.

KGB wanted the women of his house to wear head coverings and for his family to observe the Sabbath, which meant no activities except eating, studying the Bible and worshiping from Friday night to Saturday night, another part of Dowell’s message. Kabeer already taught his kids Bible lessons every Saturday morning, but says Eileen was not in agreement with observing the Sabbath. Kabeer demanded that his toddler daughter cover her head, so Sufiya started coming to Living Hope Church with her head draped in a veil each Sunday. Eileen did not cover her head. “I did feel ashamed [that Eileen wouldn’t wear a head covering],” KGB says, “because the Bible says I should feel ashamed.” At one point, KGB watched a video of Dowell’s first and only legally recognized wife, “Mother Carol,” explaining the difference between a modern wife and a biblical wife. Eileen was certainly a modern wife.

As the summer of 2017 approached, KGB grew increasingly controlling over what his kids were exposed to. In early July, he says he called Straitway to ask for permission to visit their community to see how they honor the Sabbath. Dowell approved, and Kabeer says he told Eileen that they would be going as a family to Tennessee for the summer. He wanted his kids to work on the land there and spend time learning from Dowell. KGB had always been extremely protective of his kids, paranoid to the point where he wouldn’t even let them go to the homes of close family friends. To those who know him, his immediate trust for Dowell and his willingness to bring his kids into that environment seemed totally out of character.

Kabeer says Eileen was hesitant about visiting Tennessee and tried to stall for as much time as she could. Family friends and pastors tried to talk Kabeer out of it, but he would not budge. He says he had a dream that convinced him that he needed to follow the Commandments, convincing him that Straitway was the only way, and Dowell even flew to Green Bay with Mother Carol to try to meet with Eileen; Eileen refused. Kabeer was adamant that his wife submit, but Eileen would not.

A few days later, on July 19, 2017, Eileen and the children left Kabeer while he was doing business in Appleton, 30 minutes west of Green Bay. When he returned home, he had no idea where his family was.

* * *

Reggie White began studying Hebrew intensely after his playing career ended in 2000. He wanted to read the Old Testament in its original language, and he visited Israel to see the ancient text in person. During his playing days, White was famously an outspoken Christian, known as the “Minister of Defense”—he was an ordained minister at age 17.

KGB idolized White as a football player—it was White’s franchise sacks record that KGB broke—and as a spiritual leader. KGB credits former teammate Ryan Pickett (who is not in Straitway) as the one who introduced him to Hebrew Israelism, around 2016, but says White was the first person to introduce him to the idea of keeping the commandments and the Old Testament law. They had multiple conversations back when KGB was a young Packers player and White was retired but still had a presence in Green Bay. “I was clueless about what he was talking about,” KGB said in a YouTube video in which he interviews Sara White, Reggie’s widow.

In December 2004, just after Reggie died of a heart attack, Sara told ESPN that Reggie became “disturbed” when he noticed how small differences in scripture’s translation could change the meaning of a passage. In the years before his death, Reggie had stopped preaching and stopped going to church. He told the NFL Network that he felt rejected by Christianity because of his exploration of the Torah. “I am considered a heretic amongst them; I have ministers that have wanted people to stay away from me.”

Says Jeremy White, Reggie’s son: “[He] was pretty much ostracized. They didn’t offer him any support and they even accused him of being in a cult.”

Packers legend Reggie White waves to the crowd as he leaves Lambeau Field

White was an inspiration for KGB on and off the field.

The Whites started calling themselves “believers” instead of Christians because they were disappointed with the hypocrisy of Christian pastors. Jeremy says that Reggie spoke to several pastors who privately agreed with the things he was learning in his studies (he stopped eating pork and celebrating Christmas and Easter because of the pagan roots) but told him that they would not bring these ideas to their church because they feared people would leave. Jeremy says that Reggie couldn’t reconcile that these church leaders already knew the things he was telling them.

White was digging into what is known as the Hebrew Roots movement. Those in the NFL’s religious circles consider him to be the league's Hebrew Israelism pioneer, though Jeremy says Reggie never officially identified himself as a Hebrew Israelite or with any affiliated group—he hosted a small Bible study in his home. Jeremy says his father believed he had Hebrew roots and looked at the Bible as “an actual history of where you may have come from as a Black person,” but that belief was not the focus of his studies, and he never believed that only Black people were the chosen people.

KGB reached out to Jeremy and Sara in the summer of 2018 to seek advice and invite them for an interview on his live YouTube show. “Kabeer tried to get us to say what Reggie would have done in this regard,” Jeremy says. “We basically said my dad wouldn’t be doing it the way Kabeer is doing it. I know for a fact if YouTube had existed when my dad was doing all this, he still wouldn’t have put it out there.”

At the end of Jeremy’s YouTube interview with KGB, a voice off-camera asked a question from a viewer. “Do you believe the torch has been passed from your dad to Brother Kabeer?” Jeremy answered carefully, saying the torch isn’t just for one man to carry.

KGB does his own outreach on his YouTube channel. Often, he uses scripture to justify angry rants about his divorce—women and Christians are his two favorite targets (a scroll through his videos reveals titles like, “How to convince your wife to obey you,” “Christianity, number one hate group!” and “Greedy WITCH!!!”).

“I have talked to Kabeer and I’ve been to his house, and I have seen his YouTube videos,” Jeremy says. “[Reggie’s path] wasn’t a denouncement of Christianity in that way whatsoever because there was no anger. There was more disappointment, but his drive to learn about the Bible wasn’t fueled by anger. It was fueled by curiosity and wanting to be the best man of God that he could be. It disappoints me that [Kabeer] is associating [with Reggie White] while also being able to have this, what I would call, ‘anger brand.’ ”

When KGB returned home to an empty house that day in July 2017, he went looking for his wife and children. He believes a collection of local pastors, parishioners and former teammates betrayed him and conspired to break up his marriage. He says that, while searching for his family, he was being deliberately misled by local church leaders, who implied to him that “If you tithe at our church, [only] then we can help you out.

“I was looking all over Wisconsin for them, and I was desperate. When you get in that situation, what happens is you go crazy.”

He says he found out later that Eileen and the kids were staying at the home of a pastor friend who lived in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “What was done to me, instead of trying to keep my family together, they tore it apart,” KGB says. “They threw gas on there. If I was around black people who knew my culture, I don’t think they would have reacted this way. But when most of your friends are Caucasian …”

He and Eileen had a relationship with Fred and Tracy Johnson, a couple that runs a leadership training business in Green Bay called Initiative One. KGB had worked for the Johnsons’ company, as the vice president of sports leadership, for around two years. Kabeer believed they had been among a long list of people who advised his wife to leave him. So he drove up to Door County, a popular vacation spot on Lake Michigan, and took a ferry to Initiative One’s executive retreat property on Washington Island. (The Johnsons declined to comment for this story, citing the volatility of the situation.)

According to Initiative One’s petition for a temporary restraining order (which was granted), the retreat guests were relaxing on the screened-in porch when KGB walked up onto the property unannounced, “frightening Initiative One’s guests.” He asked whether the Johnsons were there, and when the group answered no, he entered the lakehouse and spent 10 minutes looking for his wife and children. The petition states that when the Johnsons found out about his “intrusion,” they asked Kabeer to stay away from the company’s properties.

About a week later, KGB showed up at Initiative One’s office in downtown Green Bay, again unannounced and uninvited. The petition says that Kabeer was “overly excitable” toward Tracy Johnson and other staff, asking where his family was and looking for them inside the office, “all of which was terrifying to Initiative One’s employees.” Tracy tried to escort KGB off the premises, but he refused to leave, and grew more and more agitated about his family’s whereabouts. After the interruption, Fred Johnson texted Kabeer to cease and desist from any further contact with Initiative One or any of its employees.

In April 2018, KGB posted a series of videos about Initiative One and the Johnsons to his YouTube channel—“Initiative One destroyed my marriage” and “Initiative One threatens civil suit against KGB.” (The videos have since been deleted, as part of the terms of the four-year restraining order.)

According to the restraining order petition, Kabeer referred to Fred as “the devil” and filmed the first video while standing inside Initiative One’s parking lot, behind the gate that controls access to the lot. After another text from Fred to stop all contact with Initiative One’s property, Kabeer posted the second video attacking the Johnsons. “Little Freddy, you can use all your scare tactics,” he said, according to the petition. “It doesn’t work on someone who doesn’t have anything to lose.”

KGB pointed his finger and stared into the camera. “This is a warning,” he said. “I am coming.”

* * *

Three weeks after that Christmas program, a pair of Providence Academy parents spoke in hushed voices at a coffee shop in Green Bay. It was January in Wisconsin, and they kept their winter jackets on inside, as if ready to bolt in case anyone caught them talking to a reporter. Green Bay is a small town, after all, and this whole situation has been so “weird,” as they say. The kids had just started school again after Christmas break; Green Bay police officers stood watch during pick-up and drop-off hours. Their daughter came home crying that week because one of her classmates wasn’t coming back to school.

“A lot of people were expressing concern that this is escalating quickly,” the husband says. The wife looked around as he spoke, worried that a man at the table behind them was listening in. “What is the next thing that they are going to do?”

As KGB entered the seventh hour of a marathon interview with Sports Illustrated, his energy level was still holding steady. It spiked when local coverage of the Christmas program incident came up. He let out an incredulous laugh. “I saw the stories on the news,” he says, “and if I didn’t know that wasn’t me I would’ve been scared of me too! I would’ve been convinced that I was armed and dangerous.

“I couldn’t believe they shut down the school after that.”

He’s incensed that anyone could perceive him, Desmith or Salmi as dangerous. He points out that, after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, many in the Providence Academy community, including teachers, started carrying guns—he believes that Desmith and Salmi were far from the only ones armed in the church that night. He says that he sent them to the church only because he wanted to record proof that, despite his repeated requests, his children were participating in the program; and he felt that if he showed up to the church himself it would have caused the kind of public confrontation he believes Jung was baiting him into. KGB says he thought Desmith and Salmi, being white, would be able to blend in. He later realized that Jung recognized them from a Biblical debate Jung had attended at KGB’s house. He says he didn’t know the program would be broadcast on Facebook, and insists that if he had known that he never would have sent anyone to the church. As for the Black people don’t shoot up schools, white people do line, he says he didn’t say that with Desmith and Salmi in mind—he hadn’t decided to send them to the church at that point. And he laughs at the idea of Desmith and Salmi being his “followers,” as some media reports described them; they are his “brothers,” he insists.

There’s no denying that race plays a role in creating this uneasiness with the Green Bay community, the city is only 3.5% “Black or African American alone,” according to the 2010 census, and few Black players stay there postretirement for that reason. KGB is not shy about invoking George Floyd’s name. His pure size can make him naturally intimidating; he’s 6' 4", says he’s up to 275 pounds and looks like he could still line up for the Packers this fall. Even his name—the Yoruba “Gbaja-Biamila,” first given to his great grandfather by his Nigerian village, translates to “big man come save me”—can spark xenophobia.

There’s the fact that his current religious beliefs are foreign to many, and most people find the theological interpretations on women and the queer community offensive. And as for the stance that certain Christian holidays should not be celebrated? Well, Christmas polls well in the Wisconsin suburbs.

But he also doesn’t do himself many favors. YouTube is an especially personal medium, and when he points his finger into the camera and delivers a line like, “This is a warning, I am coming,” that threat carries weight with any viewer. He often refers to his children as his “property.” And he has a tendency to poke, prod and instigate when it comes to matters of the law, whether it’s dealing with police or in court (he says he considers himself a “commandment keeper,” not a sovereign citizen).

Mugshots of Ryan Desmith and Jordan Salmi

Mugshots of Desmith (left) and Salmi, from the night of the Providence Christmas program.

For instance, on the night of the Christmas program, KGB arrived at the church after Desmith and Salmi had been removed. According to the responding officer’s reports, his new wife, 26-year-old Bri Rainey, immediately started filming the police as KGB argued with the officers who had placed DeSmith and Salmi in the rear of the squad car. A responding officer asked KGB whether his children were currently inside the church. “They are not my children, they are my property,” he answered. “And I will be getting my property and leaving.”

He paced around the parking lot, and, according to the police report, purposely stared at Sergeant Tom Denney’s gun. The four officers on scene looked nervously at each other. Denney asked KGB what he was doing. KGB didn’t answer. The responding officers grew concerned to the point that they grabbed his arms to place him in handcuffs before the situation could escalate.

“This is what happens to a black man in Wisconsin,” KGB said. He resisted when the officers grabbed his arms; they gave him the choice to leave quietly or go to jail with Desmith and Salmi. After a few more minutes of arguing, he chose the former and drove off—in a car that did not have license plates or any temporary tags. (KGB says he can’t find a law that says his vehicle must have license plates—there is one—and says that, at the time, he was interested in seeing how far he could push. He has recently relented and put plates on his car, citing the fact that he’s trying to limit his interactions with law enforcement.)

DeSmith and Salmi were taken to jail on several counts: trespassing, carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a dangerous weapon on school premises and, in DeSmith’s case, obstructing an officer (they pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of carrying a concealed weapon in June; the other two charges were dismissed).

At 3:24 a.m., KGB, DeSmith and Salmi met with Lieutenant Clinton Beguhn in the lobby of the police department to request their firearms, ammunition and knife be returned. “It’s the law of the land to have firearms, and we haven’t broken any law,” Gbaja-Biamila argued. Beguhn sighed and informed them that carrying a concealed firearm without a permit was, in fact, a violation of Wisconsin statutes, and that the guns had been entered into evidence and therefore could not be released. KGB instructed Salmi and DeSmith to take down Beguhn’s name and badge number. Beguhn calmly handed them his business card and wrote down his officer number.

“Write him a bill for $1,000 every day for fair and enjoyment use,” KGB told them.

“O.K., I’m done,” Beguhn said, as he turned and left the lobby. “I’m not going to play in your pretend world.”

“Stay to get the bill,” the trio told him.

“You can mail it,” Beghun said, shutting the door behind him.

They left behind a bill for $1,094. Both the white and yellow carbon copies were attached, and there was no biller information or address to pay. It was similar to the one Gbaja-Biamila had sent earlier that day, to Jung, for $149,999.82, for the “fair and enjoy [sic] use of my property for the Christmas Program” ($49,999.94 for each of his three children in the pageant). He has no expectation any of these bills will ever be paid. But “when we stand before the most high Yah, they are accountable,” he says.

As for Providence Academy parents wondering “the next thing they’re going to do,” KGB says he’s the one living in fear. He worries that police, FBI or even a different religious group reacting to recent coverage will storm his property. Law enforcement at all levels believe there are a lot of guns at Straitway Praiseland. Gbaja-Biamila won’t address this except to say they follow Dowell’s lead and they have a right to defend themselves. He mentions that, while he doesn’t align with his beliefs or his actions, he’s reading up on David Koresh’s behavior in the lead-up to the deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco; he doesn’t want to give law enforcement a reason to come after Straitway.

He wants to be left alone. And he wants to leave Green Bay. He says he’s met with a realtor and is preparing to sell the property and move the ministry. “I feel we are misunderstood here.”

* * *

Kabeer believes the reason Eileen left is because she didn’t want to observe the Sabbath. But looking into Straitway turns up a slew of other likely motivations. The second chapter of this series examines Dowell’s connection to R.G. Stair, a religious leader with a criminal history of sexually assaulting women that lived on his community and accounts of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the Straitway compound in Tennessee. Dowell’s ministry has been accused of indoctrinating underaged girls, pressuring members to hand over financial assets, threatening eternal damnation for all of those who leave Straitway and harassing those who do leave.

Chapter II, “The Pastor, the ‘Cult’ and Its Troubled Past”: a deep dive into Straitway Ministry, through the eyes of those who lived it.

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