Saturday, March 29, 2008

KGB at the Varsity Theater, Part 3

Part 3: On Spiritual Things

KGB's confrontation with Gill Byrd ended with a summons to Byrd's office the next day at 9 a.m. Gbaja-Biamila was afraid he had blown it and would be cut. Instead, at the chosen hour, a white man - the pastor of a local church - was in Byrd's office. Kabeer waited outside, but Byrd said, "Come in." Byrd - who was a Nation of Islam member before his conversion - invited KGB to share his Islamic-derived criticisms of Christianity with the pastor. Kabeer found, to his surprise, that either Byrd or the pastor were able to answer his questions as no one had before.

His actions began to match his growing faith. Later that day, KGB cut off a friends-with-benefits relationship with a local woman. On September 26, 2000, Gbaja-Biamila was baptized.

Gbaja-Biamila was forthright in his testimony. He said, "Jesus is my Lord because he is my master, and he is my Savior because he rescued me from hell." He exhorted his audience: "I go fishing quite a bit. When you go fishing, do you gut and clean the fish before you catch it, or after it?" After we replied, he said, "You don't have to be clean before you come to Jesus Christ - in fact, you'll be unclean. If you let Jesus catch you, he'll clean you - you don't have to worry over it. Just let Him transform you."

He warned the young men in the audience, "I trust that most of you hope to be married one day, so I'll let you know: the standards you set now will persist into your marriage and color it." He shared an example from his own marriage: just after he married his wife, his sex drive waned and he found it difficult to make love to her. He puzzled over this for a while. One day, walking in the local mall, he found his eyes drawn to a girl across the aisle. He stopped and realized that he was so used to seeking the "forbidden", joining the "thrill of the chase", that married life seemed boring. That evening, he prayed with his wife for God to renew their love, and the problem went away.

I went mostly to hear a pro athlete speak and came away pleased at KGB's candor and obvious growth as a Christian. Hearing his talk was an unexpected bonus in my week.

KGB at the Varsity Theater, Part 2

Part 2: A Transformed Life

Gill Byrd played cornerback for the San Diego Chargers from 1983-93. He is the franchise's all-time leader in interceptions with 43; also, according to Gbaja-Biamila, he was fantastic in the iconic video game Tecmo Super Bowl. Byrd became a Christian in 1983, in his rookie season. He kept spreading the Gospel in retirement: he had ties to the Athletes in Action chapter at San Diego State, and he sent KGB a text message during Gbaja-Biamila's brief stint with the group. At the time, Kabeer felt awed to get a text from a "NFL player".

When Kabeer was drafted by the Packers and flew to Green Bay, who was there to meet him at the airport? None other then Byrd, hired in 1999 as the Packers' executive director/player programs. In that job, Byrd was primarily responsible for managing the Packer rookies' transition into the NFL. The two men became fast friends: KGB soon leased an apartment, but he felt lonely in Green Bay and visited Byrd's house nearly every evening that summer of 2000.

Kabeer said, "When I stepped into the Byrd home, it was like stepping into another planet." He noticed how Byrd treated his wife, Marilyn, with love and respect, and how Byrd cared about the media his then-teenage sons, Gill II and Jarius, watched and listened to. Kabeer told us, "I just wanted to live like him. I was not open to Christianity at the time, but I saw the peace and joy in his house, and I wanted to have what he had."

In the beginning, Kabeer was like another, older son, "a big brother" as he put it. Back then, he dressed in black urban style, with hoodies and baggy pants. He also joined the Byrd sons in youthful hijinks; one day, he told Gill and Jarius how to avoid detection after looking at Internet porn sites (presumably by erasing the 'History' menu). The boys eagerly went along with KGB in the moment, but later turned around and told Dad, earning KGB a severe lecture from Byrd.

As the summer wore on and training camp neared, KGB's veneer cracked. One evening, after breaking down in tears in his apartment, he drove over to the Byrd's and asked Gill what he needed to do to become a Christian. Gill laid a hand on Kabeer's shoulder, prayed over him, and instructed him, "Read the Bible and obey it."

Kabeer opens the Bible

Most Christians whom Gbaja-Biamila had met primarily cited the New Testament. Therefore, Kabeer concluded that the Old Testament contained embarrasing secrets they wished to hide. He began by opening the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.

KGB read through the Creation and the Fall matter-of-factly, but he was struck by Genesis 6:5, an expression of God's anger towards human rebellion: "Yahweh saw... that every inclination of the thoughts of man's heart was only evil all the time" [NIV]. Kabeer's belief, influenced by his father's practice of Islam, had been that the Bible was a man-made book. But he couldn't believe that a man who wanted to tell an appealing story would write Genesis 6:5. He kept reading through the Flood and came to Genesis 8:21-22: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. Never again will I destroy all living creatures." Again, KGB was deeply moved by the contrast between God's majesty and humanity's baseness.

Gbaja-Biamila said, "I couldn't stop reading. Every free moment I got during training camp, and just about every evening, I read through the entire Old Testament, and I saw how it pointed to the coming of Jesus Christ." All was not rosy, though; KGB started to catch flak in training camp for leaning so heavily on Byrd. One day, for the first time, the two men exchanged strong words at work. KGB accused Byrd of not standing up for him, but Byrd responded that KGB had a long way to go before he could say he walked with Christ.

To be continued...

Friday, March 28, 2008

KGB at the Varsity Theater, Part 1

On Tuesday evening, March 25, Packers defensive end and Pro Bowler
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila spoke at Marquette University's Varsity Theater at the invitation of Campus Crusade for Christ. The title of his entertaining, hour-long testimony was "Fame and Faith".

Part 1: A Complicated Boyhood

Gbaja-Biamila was born in Los Angeles in September 1977. His parents grew up and met in Lagos, Nigeria, but started their family in the United States. Kabeer has four older brothers and one twin sister, Hadijat, who preceded him by ten minutes. Kabeer told us, though, that Nigerians consider him the older twin because he pushed her out first.

He grew up in a mixed-religion home. His father is a Muslim; his mother converted to Christianity in Nigeria and remains so. Growing up, he got mixed messages. His mom was more of the spiritual leader of the house; she would drag Kabeer and his siblings to church most Sundays. In contrast, his dad was outspokenly Muslim and got into apologetic confrontations with Christians. As Kabeer grew, his dad told him all about various contradictions in the Bible.

As a youth, Kabeer identified himself as a "good kid", one who tried to stay within the rules and seek adults' approval. In fact, after the 1992 Rodney King riots tore through his neighborhood, KGB became a founding member of the urban food co-op Food from the 'Hood and made the cover of Newsweek as a 15-year-old. However, Kabeer stressed that behind the veneer of good conduct, he stole small items, had promiscuous sex, and felt that he was morally justified if his good deeds outweighed the bad.

Gbaja-Biamila earned football scholarships to San Diego State and Colorado State, choosing the former because it was closer to home (about two hours) and his parents could easily watch him play. He joined the campus chapter of Athletes in Action, but he was repelled by the two-faced lives of its members. Kabeer spoke of them as people who went to church on Sunday, but didn't live their calling the rest of the week; they drank, partied, and hooked up like anyone else on campus. After some time, KGB parroted his father's Islamic critiques of the Bible. When no one gave him a satisfactory answer, he left the fellowship.

Kabeer became San Diego State's all-time sack leader and seemed likely to be chosen in the 2000 NFL Draft. The day before the draft, San Diego State had a media day for him and one other potential draftee. Asked where he wanted to go, he said, "I'd just be happy for a chance to play in the NFL - heck, anywhere but Green Bay", to general laughter. The next day, the Packers selected him in the fifth round. Kabeer, forgetting his joke in the magnitude of the moment, was overjoyed. He was still on cloud nine when he returned to face the local media, who greeted him with tape of "anywhere but Green Bay."

On stage, Kabeer did his best "D'oh!" impression, telling us that to a black kid who had lived all his life in Southern California, Green Bay seemed like an impossibly remote, white place. Yet our God has His purposes. In Green Bay, he would soon meet a man who would change his life.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 11: Mississippi

Obama 61
Clinton 37

Even more than in South Carolina, the Democratic Party of Mississippi is an African-American majority party. Its proximity to Arkansas aside, this was not fertile soil for Clinton, and she did not contest the state vigorously. With the margin of Senator Obama's win, he erased the net delegate loss he incurred on March 4, putting himself in great shape for the remaining contests.

March 8: Wyoming caucuses (Democratic)

Obama 61
Clinton 38

Hillary made a lot of noise after March 4 about her ground game in Wyoming. Turns out it was just noise. Even though only 8,800 people showed up, Obama beat the pants off of Hillary again. If this contest were about the number of states won, Obama would be the landslide winner by now.

March 4: Ohio primary (both parties)

Clinton 54
Obama 44

McCain 60
Huckabee 31
Paul 5

Hillary Clinton's victory in Ohio means a lot of things. To me, though, it symbolizes the average American's schizophrenic attitude towards globalization.

In a development Harry Truman and Dean Acheson could not have foreseen, the Democratic Party has become the domestic party of resistance to globalization. The Republican Party, traditionally an isolationist party, has been thoroughly permeated by neoconservative thinking. It is now stridently, brazenly pro-globalization, with a flavor for every faction. Republicans are for the universal conversion of the global population to Christianity, for unfettered and unrestricted trade in goods, financial services, and human services (morality be damned) as the surest way to line the pockets of its business supporters, and for an American empire that smites down any state or terrorist band that stands in its way. Robert Ingersoll, Nelson Aldrich, and Robert Taft would scarcely recognize their party anymore.

In a way, neoconservatism has been hoist by its own petard. The earliest neoconservatives - the Irving Kristols and William Buckleys - saw that isolationism was a vote-losing proposition for Republicans and argued that the only way to break Democratic Party dominance was global engagement. They were correct on the narrow political point, but they failed to perceive how the indigenous elements at work in the Republican Party would distort their principles.

So we have an administration in power that is getting globalization wrong. Here's where the Obama v. Clinton tete-a-tete comes in: it is a contest between the Democrats who want to do globalization right and the Democrats who don't want globalization at all, or don't see the need for it. Now the percent of blacks, Hispanics, women, men, whites, etc., who have voted for either candidate have varied from state to state. Yet the age difference - younger voters break for Obama, older voters for Clinton - has proven remarkably significant and durable all campaign long.

Young Democrats of our generation understand what is at stake. We are Democrats by choice; many of us have broken politically from our Reagan-voting, Reagan-minded parents. We have ethnically, geographically, and temperamentally diverse networks of friends. We are leaders of the Internet age, pioneering new uses of the Internet for research, social networking, and telecommunications. We are for the spread of peaceful worship and against hate speech that masquerades as worship. We are for unfettered trade and against trade that demeans human dignity. We are for shrinking the equatorial gap of non-integrated countries and against sending our brave soldiers hither and thither without a clear strategic plan.

Older Democrats, mindful of the courageous exceptions, don't understand what is at stake. Many are Democrats by birth and culture; Democratic Party membership was part of a social milieu of union halls, city commissions, and three-martini lunches, not a carefully considered statement of political principle. They have insular networks of friends. They may use e-mail but are skeptical of the Internet. They tend to be less geographically mobile. The urban wing of older Democrats viscerally identifies with Hillary as "one of them"; Camelot and Woodstock were the twin peaks of their lives, and Hillary was on the barricades with McGovern in '72, for crying out loud! The rural wing of older Democrats responds well to Hillary's subtle message of racism: "I'm not a man, I'll admit. But I've stayed married to a Bubba. Better me than that black guy named Hussein."

Obama's overwhelming support among African-Americans of all crosstabs aside, this explains the Hillary vote versus the Obama vote to a nutshell.

March 4: Texas (both parties)

Democratic primary
Clinton 51
Obama 47

Democratic caucuses
Obama 56
Clinton 44

Republican primary (no caucus)
McCain 51
Huckabee 38
Paul 5

In a vast, varied, and, uh, Texas-sized state as Texas, the Obama vs. Clinton match-up was bound to test who could best rally his core constituency. Obama got blacks, men, and the young to the polls; Clinton got Hispanics, women, and the elderly to do the same. Clinton narrowly won the primary; Obama prevailed by a larger margin in the evening caucuses. Clinton got a "victory" to break her alarming streak of 11 losses; Obama actually won several more delegates. Both contenders were happy with the outcome: Clinton for blunting Obama's surging popularity, and Obama for cutting into Clinton's 20-point lead in early polling.

On the Republican side, John McCain defeated Mike Huckabee and won enough delegates to become the party's presumptive nominee. Huckabee, having done all he wished in this campaign, dropped out. Paul got no bounce at all from his home state.

March 4: Rhode Island (both parties)

Clinton 58
Obama 40

Huckabee 22
Paul 7

Not much here. Hillary would be an ideal President of Rhode Island, but that renegade entity decided to ratify the Constitution in 1790 (lest its trade be subject to penal tariffs) and become the 13th state instead. On the Republican side, Ron Paul is learning Howard Dean's bitter lesson that money and Internet fandom alone don't win you votes.