LORAIN — The Rev. Kareem Smith’s road to redemption began in 1993 as he stared up at the ceiling in a cell in the Lorain County Jail.
A month short of his 20th birthday, Smith was facing drug trafficking charges that he would eventually spend 26 months in prison for.
“I’ve never felt more lost and empty before,” Smith recalled Sunday after a service at the new Faith Word Community Church. “I asked God, I said, ‘I don’t know who you are’ — I was just talking to him like I would a regular person — ‘but if you get me out of this, I want to serve you.’ ”
Twenty years later, Smith is continuing to try to make good on his promise. Some 200 worshipers turned out Sunday for the first official service of the church whose temporary home is in Morrison Elementary School at 1830 W. 40th St.
Smith is hoping to find a permanent home for the church and increase the congregation’s size and community outreach. Smith said he preaches at youth detention homes every two weeks and hopes to work with Lorain Schools to “adopt” a school in which congregants would mentor students.
Smith said he wants to show troubled youths the compassion and patience his uncle, Dwight Brown, showed him. Smith recalled getting bailed out of jail and while driving home getting flagged down by his uncle who was in another car.
For years, Brown had been trying to convert his nephew, but Smith — who grew up in Elyria and was making a living dealing crack cocaine — wanted no part of it. When he got out of the car, Smith said he expected to get a lecture.
Instead he got a hug.
“He said, ‘I love you. God loves you. And if there’s anything I can do for you, let me know,’ ” Smith recalled. “That was the beginning of my conversion experience.”
Jailhouse conversions are common, but they often end with the person who says they found God back in trouble with the law. However, Smith has avoided that road.
Brown said he emphasized to his nephew that finding God was not an escape route from prison, but if he truly believed, “God will be with you wherever you go.”
While imprisoned at the Southeast Correctional Institution in Lancaster, Smith earned his GED and took college courses. Paroled in 1996, Smith moved in with Brown to avoid falling back into his former life.
Smith married in 1998. He and Renelle Smith have four children.
Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral studies from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 2008 and spent time as a pastor in Cincinnati and as a pastor of discipleship and care at Church of the Open Door in Elyria, which included Bible reading and substituting for the senior pastor. Smith said the church is “wonderful,” but he left it late last year because he wanted to evangelize more aggressively with a more gospel-driven message.
Smith said he wants to covert people, but not by telling them what they want to hear. In his approximately 50-minute sermon on making religion relevant, Smith compared the philosophy of mainstream churches to Jesus’ disciples wandering aimlessly in the desert. He said the “secular mentality” of our “individualistic society” had turned many people off religion.
“We need as a church to return to a verbal proclamation of the gospel and not just a lengthy, long process of friendship-building or safe, non-threatening dialogue or an artificial gimmick designed to swell up a church overnight,” he said.
Smith said words must be backed up by actions such as book and Bible clubs and mentoring to disadvantaged youths.
“We don’t want to not only lend our lips to the gospel, we want to lend our lives to the gospel as well,” he said. “It’s not enough for us to just simply to see people get baptized. Jesus wants to see people mature in their faith, develop to become fully devoted ambassadors of Jesus Christ.”
Congregant Kerry Jenkins said Smith’s message of community outreach inspired him and his family to move with Smith from Church of the Open Door. “He has a great vision that is going to benefit not only the church, but the community in general,” Jenkins said.
Smith acknowledges his vision is ambitious and will take time. He said he wishes there were more college classes available to prisoners that he benefited from and would like to see Ohio expunge nonviolent felonies from ex-convicts’ records after seven years to give them a better chance of finding jobs. Smith said he hopes his story and vision will inspire others.
“People believe in the vision and the need for churches to be more relevant,” he said. “We are living ambassadors for Jesus Christ.”
Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.