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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.

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.”