Twenty years ago, the gates swung open and released the Rev. Charles Howard after nine years spent in prison.
But inside, where his soul counted no days, Howard already had been set free. Howard went into prison a drug dealer and came out a man of God, intent on living out his days preaching the Gospel.
The convicted felon became a convicted man, finding God in his prison cell and becoming a pastor a few years after leaving prison. Howard’s church,
Kingdom of God — spelled without an “I” to make the point that there is no “I” in God’s kingdom — in Lorain, will celebrate his two decades of freedom at a special service at 4 p.m. Sunday.
When Howard started serving time in 1991, he could have faced up to 40 years for drug trafficking. Back then, he had moved up from running cocaine and crack on the streets of Elyria to being a supplier for lower-level dealers, he said.
“I was raised up in Elyria, and then after I graduated high school (Elyria class of 1987) I turned to a life of crime, selling drugs. Ended up getting myself jammed up,” he said.
Well into his prison sentence, he said he was on his cell bunk one day when he heard God’s voice: “Now is the time,” the voice said. “Now is your time.”
Howard said he changed from that moment on. Bad habits had followed him into prison — at the time he heard the voice, he was holding drugs.
“I got up that morning, I gave all my drugs away, I accepted Christ as my personal savior and began doing Bible studies in prison; I’d do them on the yard,” he said.
It wasn’t startling to him, no matter how his life looked on the outside, he said. All his life his parents had taken him to church, attending revivals at Bethel Church of God in Christ in Elyria, where his uncle served as pastor. Throughout his life, preachers would tell him he was destined to be a preacher himself.
“I could be high somewhere and a prophet or a preacher would find me and tell me ‘You’re going to preach one day. You’re going to be a great man of God one day.’ At a young age, they started telling me ‘You’re gifted, you’re called.’ I was surrounded by Christ but didn’t accept Christ,” he said. “So when it happened, I wasn’t shocked. People around me were, but I wasn’t.”
He was released from prison on April 1, 1999, and set about two things in short order: marrying Valerie, his wife of 20 years now and his fellow pastor at the church, and going to school to study theology and secure his ministerial license.
By 2002, the couple had started a small storefront church on Broadway in Lorain. The space could only fit “maybe 125 max” and the congregation quickly outgrew it.
“Drug addicts, prostitutes, many diverse people were coming and we saw many people’s lives get changed,” he said. “It was standing room only every Sunday.”
The church found a temporary home on Colorado Avenue before buying a former furniture building on North Ridge Road and remodeling it. Sunday attendance averages between 150 and 200; some worshippers have attended since the church’s beginning, he said.
The journey has not been easy.
Coming back to his old stomping grounds where his reputation was for something completely different was difficult. Proving his integrity and a fundamental shift in his beliefs and his character was a constant worry until he learned to let go of that concern, he said.
In 2009, his son, Charles “Chuckie” Howard Jr. was shot and killed in a house in Elyria. He was 17. A friend was convicted of the crime that prosecutors said was an accident; he is in prison.
Trusting God’s plan — and that he makes no mistakes — became truly real in the aftermath of losing his namesake.
“I was crushed. Probably nothing that has happened to me, in my life, was more detrimental or hurtful. But because of the love of God that has been shared in my heart, it has allowed me to forgive people,” he said. “That’s when I knew for sure that I was saved, because I knew the young man who done it. I knew the people in the house when it happened. The old me would’ve reacted totally differently. The new me had to live for the rest of my children.
“I had to make peace with it. I am at peace with the one who done it. That’s how I deal with it: I can’t preach something and be the opposite of what I preach. I preach forgiveness, so I have to live it,” he said.
The event to mark the anniversary of his release takes on a whole new meaning for him, in the light of grace. His vision for preaching the gospel and seeing lives changed knows no boundaries, he said. The church has started offshoots, one in Louisville, Kentucky, and one “just across the bridge” in Jefferson, Indiana, and will continue to expand wherever they’re needed, he said. The Lorain church has a street ministry and a prison ministry, and he considers his specialty to be “ministering hope and life to people.”
He encourages anyone “hurt, broken, damaged in some way or addicted” to attend. “Come bound and leave free,” the service promises.
“That is what I live for, changing people’s lives. I am grateful that God has chosen to use me. The Bible says that God has chosen to use the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. That maybe explains a little bit about why He has chosen me,” he said. “That’s what I believe I’ve been called to do, give people hope and to regain their lives back through Christ.”
The special freedom service for Apostle Charles Howard is at 4 p.m. Sunday at Kingdom of God, 1671 North Ridge Road, Lorain.