The Journey of KEM

I am the eldest child with three sisters, born in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve never met my biological father. My stepfather has been in my life since I was three years-old. When I was four we moved to the metropolitan Detroit area. First, we lived in Pontiac for about 10 years and then we moved to Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Both my parents worked, but we didn’t know our parents were struggling. We had both parents in the home, always had enough to eat and at Christmas always had presents, toys stacked to the ceiling. In many ways, we had a normal family dynamic. 

We left Pontiac my freshman year of high school for Southfield—quite a culture shock. We were one of the first African American families on our street. There was a large Jewish community and there still is. I delivered papers throughout the community and became very familiar with a lot of the Jewish traditions. We went from living in a blue-collar community to a suburban lifestyle. I was really out of my element. The kids and families in Southfield had experiences that we didn’t have. They had seen more, experienced more. I was like a fish out of water.

I was also starting to come into being a teenager and a lot of things happened to me that set the stage for me to try to find solace in alcohol and drugs. What I discovered about myself later was that as a child I was probably clinically depressed. Because I lacked better coping skills I started using alcohol and drugs. Alcoholism is something that is present on both sides of my family: my mom is a recovering alcoholic. She went into treatment and my parents learned new tools and developed a healthier way of living.

I was just beginning full-blown drug and alcohol addiction. I could no longer be a part of my family dynamic, at least not in the house. They were trying to become the best versions of themselves and my behavior and addiction were impediments. So, I left home at the age of 19 and began my downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. I flopped around the neighborhood for a while, different friends’ houses. My friends would sneak me in and let me stay the night. I continued to drink and use drugs.

Image of KEM

Deal With It! 

After I burned all those bridges, I ended up going to a shelter in Royal Oak, Michigan. At a church, someone came up to me and told me I was obviously younger than anybody who was in the shelter at the time. He said that whatever I was dealing with I needed to deal with it or else I could end up being in the revolving door of shelters for the rest of my life. It really scared me.

I was at that shelter for I don’t know how long and did the rounds. There’s a dance we do when we’re in that lifestyle. We go from shelter to shelter in the community. We know where all the soup kitchens are, who’s passing out lunch at what time on what day during the week, where to go get free bus tickets.

My first experience with the Salvation Army ARC (Adult Rehabilitation Center) was in Pontiac. I initially went to get off the streets. Any recovery would have been just a by-product, but I was eventually discharged for using. I went to the classes they had there. I would go for periods of time and not drink. But I was always using something and not fully coming to terms with my addiction or with what it would take to overcome it. I learned some things but I was not yet ready to get sober.

After that I went to the Salvation Army ARC in Detroit. I was discharged from there for drinking.I spent some time on the streets. I went back to that ARC after having spent the hardest week of homelessness. I was pretty beat up. I was sleeping outside on the Detroit River, on the eve of my biological birthday, when I surrendered. I didn’t know at that time that’s what happened. I gave up trying to do things my way. I became open to what ideas and suggestions that people had. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to facilitate change in my life.

A Safe Place

It was definitely a different mindset than the one that I had before. There was relief in knowing that my immediate need was met and that I didn’t have to be on the streets. I felt calm. I felt safe. And I knew that I wasn’t going to do anything to get kicked out again.

I wasn’t going back on the streets. I didn’t know how I was going to manage to do that because I had made all these promises before to myself and to others about staying clean and doing the right thing. I made these promises before with the idea that I knew how to do it. But this time, I didn’t know how it was going to get done, but there’s an adage that I love that says, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I was ready to be taught how to live. And I was saved. I mean I was saved. That was the most significant moment in my life. That was the place. It was a refuge. I just don’t know how things would have shaken out had I not had the foundation of The Salvation Army at that time in my life.

ARC Inspires Album Title

When you’re in the Salvation Army ARC, there are mandatory church services. We had a devotion every morning. Those things were definitely instrumental. In fact, my next album’s title is based on a memory of doing those devotions in the morning at The Salvation Army when everyone came down to the cafeteria. I would get up and read from Daily Bread. So, the title of my next album is called “Devotion,” based on that specific memory. Putting God first. How does that apply to my life today? Have I lost some of that? There’s no greater work than putting God first. I get caught up in all of these other things but the Bible says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). If I put God first, everything else is taken care of. Jesus talks about His yoke being easy (Matthew 11:30). Jesus is saying, “If you put Me first, that other stuff will take care of itself.”

Image of KEM and his mother.

Mother & Son celebrate his “Best R&B Song” nomination in 2011, for his song Why Would You Stay,  at the 53rd Grammy Awards.

A Mentor’s Impact

While I was there at The Salvation Army I met someone who became like a mentor to me, named Ronald Clowny. His life was being transformed and I started following him around, doing the things that he was doing and hanging out with the people that he was hanging out with—people who were told the truth about themselves and people who believed that there was a God and they weren’t it.

I went to the Salvation Army ARC in Detroit.
I was discharged from there for drinking.
I spent some time on the streets.
I went back to that ARC after having spent
the hardest week of homelessness.
I was pretty beat up.
I was sleeping outsideon the Detroit River,
on the eve of mybiological birthday,
when I surrendered.

Recently, I had a chance to visit Ronald. I hadn’t seen him since I left The Salvation Army maybe 25 years ago. He came to Detroit and I thanked him. He didn’t know the impact he had on my life. He had been watching my professional career but he didn’t know his impact. I was jealous of what God was doing in his life. And I was jealous enough to let his life witness to mine. I wanted what he had and I had an opportunity to thank him before he passed away about a year ago.

Delivering On Stage

In my concerts I have a time that people call the testimony part of the show. I started telling people I’ve been freed from the bondage of alcohol and drugs. It’s me trying to plant a seed or reinforce what those people in the audience may already know. There is hope beyond your circumstances, and there’s a place to go. There’s a solution whatever you may be dealing with. Everybody has a proverbial mountain that needs to be moved. Once I was able to put together that by being on stage I had an opportunity to witness, my career started to take off. It became more than me being successful.

Image of KEM performing.


It really became about me carrying a message of hope and encouraging people to put God first. That’s the only thing that you have that can’t be taken away from you. In my darkest hour, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

I want people to know that no matter what you’re going through, no matter what your circumstances may be, God has a plan for your life. And if you make Him the center of that, make God your priority in your relationship, there is nothing that you can’t overcome. The details of your life will take care of themselves. God wants you to know that help has arrived.

—Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is the Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary

When the Prodigal Returns: An Interview with Kyle Idleman

Kyle Idleman is Teaching Pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. An accomplished speaker and author, Idleman has written four books and presented at regional and national conferences. Join us as Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee has a conversation with Idleman about his book, Praying for Your Prodigal, where Idleman explores the complicated relationship between prodigal children, their parents, and God.

WC: What led you to write Praying for Your Prodigal?

Kyle: As a pastor for the last 20 years, I have just seen all kinds of parents who struggle through a season, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer of not knowing how to best speak God’s love to their child, not knowing how to best confront something in their child. It’s that they don’t know how to interact with them. They don’t know what to do about it. They’re afraid they’re going to make things worse. A very consistent lesson for me as a pastor and parent is the power in prayer. When you have a child who’s struggling with their faith or with addiction, or where they’re at in life, there’s no substitute for prayer. As parents we want to fix it. We want to know the answer to the question. But the best step is to pray.

WC: What is a prodigal child?

Kyle: That term is most often identified with the story from Luke 15. In the story of the Prodigal Son you read about a father who has two sons and the youngest son rebels against the father, leaves the father’s home and goes off to a distant country. Then the son loses everything and finds himself living in a pigpen. The Bible says he came to his senses and he went home—seeing him from far off, his father ran to him and threw his arms around him and said, “Let’s have a party and celebrate! My son was lost and he’s found. He was dead. Now he’s alive!” For a prodigal child that’s often the story as well. It can look different but it’s a rejection of what a parent taught, or a way that a child has been brought up, and they go to a “distant country.” They take a different approach to life, a different belief system, a different moral code, and reject what was taught to them. The prayer is that there would be this coming to their senses, that they would have an awakening, and their eyes would be opened, and that they would come back home.

WC: Why do some people turn toward God and others turn away during difficult circumstances?

Kyle: People turn away from God during their difficult circumstances because they blame God and think that He either could or should do something to change them. If you doubt the goodness of God, question Him as the Father when something difficult comes, the first response is sometimes to turn away.

Eventually their road becomes so difficult that their desperation allows them to be open when they weren’t before. People may go through a difficult season, reject God for a while, and then they reach a place where they have nowhere else to turn. They then turn towards God when they recognize that His arms are open, and as the Bible says, He’s a shelter in the storm, a sanctuary and He is where we are.

WC: How far does someone have to go to wake up and long to return home?

Kyle: I often hear people say, “Well, I had to hit rock bottom.” I don’t think that’s true. We can learn from other people in the journeys that they’re on. Wherever someone is right now can be the point where they can turn. But there does seem to be something to this idea that things have to reach a certain point before we’re open. The prodigal son lost everything. His friends abandoned him. Only then did he finally go to his father. I see that with couples in marriages or with addiction struggles where it reaches a point that the desperation is such that they turn to God. I sometimes talk about it as the gift of desperation. It’s a gift nobody wants. But there’s some really beautiful things that could come out of desperate moments when we recognize God’s power and His presence in a different way.

WC: What’s the difference between welcoming back a prodigal and enabling a co-dependent relationship?

Kyle: One of the reasons I wrote the book on Praying for Your Prodigal is because I recognize that parents really want to do something. But oftentimes, what we do ends up being enabling and that’s why prayer is so powerful. The father in the parable is a great example of finding that right line. The Bible says the father saw him when he was a long way off, and then he ran to him. He didn’t chase him down in the far country. He didn’t wire more money trying to demonstrate his love or earn the favor. He waited for the son to go through some really difficult times. When the son returned he was quick to run towards him. That’s a great example for us as parents. We want to do something. We want to fix things and we certainly want to respond with grace the moment we see repentance and we see brokenness. But often we are too quick to step in and enable. That’s one of the reasons we need help from some other people. Someone outside the situation can be more objective on what’s enabling behavior. I can tell another parent, “Hey, that’s enabling,” but I don’t necessarily see it in me.

WC: How do people try to act in the place of God when dealing with prodigals?

Kyle: We try to be their conscience. That often comes off as pretty judgmental and condescending. We also try to fix others. That gets us in trouble because it tends to be more enabling. But as much as anything, it’s a mentality that puts the weight on the parent. If I think it’s my job to fix my child, I’m going to be living with some pressure, some guilt, some shame that isn’t mine to bear. I’m going to be an imperfect parent no matter what, but I also have to acknowledge and recognize that my child is going to choose their own path. When we try to bear that burden it causes problems in the relationship with the Father. It’s a weight that we can’t bear. We’re asking ourselves to do something that only God can do.

WC: How does the family move on when a prodigal is restored?

Kyle: Going back to Luke 15, I love the fact that there’s a celebration. I’ve seen examples where a child returns home and the parents don’t want to celebrate their behavior. They want them to feel the weight of the consequences. The reality is that when a prodigal is broken and repentant and they feel the weight of that, they don’t need to be made to feel more guilt or feel more shame.

They’re living with the consequences of their decisions already and it’s a time to celebrate grace and forgiveness, God’s redeeming work. They’re going to have to continue to live with some of the consequences of their choices. It’s not the job of the parent at that place to punish him or her. You might want to help that child establish boundaries, and help them get on the right path. Certainly, you want to be aware of whatever struggle that might have pulled them off the path in the first place. But there needs to be a spirit of celebration, of grace giving. Parents need to celebrate, to give grace. Not make excuses, not minimize but to celebrate God’s redeeming work.

WC: What would you say to the one who finds it difficult to forgive the prodigal?

Kyle: I think that tends to be a commentary on our own self-righteousness. When I’m having trouble being gracious with someone else, it’s because I am underestimating the grace that I have received. When I understand God’s grace towards me, I much more quickly give grace to someone else. When that’s a struggle, whether that’s a parent or a sibling, I would encourage them to spend some time reflecting on the grace that God has given them through Jesus, the price that was paid so that they could come home and be reunited with the Father. The older brother in the story of Luke 15 is a clear representation of the religious leaders who are listening to the parable. They would look down on the sinners, but they were the sinners. That is the challenge in addressing our own hearts and being honest about our own prodigal ways with God and appreciating His grace in our lives. When we receive that, we have it to give.

WC: Since writing the book, is there anything you wish you had included?

Kyle: One of the things I tried to do with the Praying for Your Prodigal book is allow the prayers to speak for themselves. The tendency is to tell stories that always resolve. We want to put a nice bow on it and say, “Hey, everything is going to be okay,” but that’s too simplistic. We need God to give us strength on the journey. You don’t really know how long the journey’s going to last or where it’s going to lead. It’s taking it a day at a time and praying through it. I tried to do that in the book. I want to give people hope and encouragement, but not to think that all of it is just waiting for that day. It can be messy, and it can take a while, and you may not ever see it in your lifetime. Ultimately, it’s just a matter of surrendering it to God and praying through it.

—Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is the Editor-in-Chief and National Literary Secretary

An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

The year construction began on the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, NJ, the city was the most dangerous place to live in America. Inside Camden proper, 39 people were murdered that year, with 13 homicides occurring in one month alone—making it the worst month in that New Jersey city since 1949.

But hope is in the air.

The Camden Kroc opened in 2014—the last of the 26 Kroc Corps Community Centers to be built in the four USA territories, bringing to a close a nationwide legacy that was Joan Kroc’s dream.

“The city of Camden was overwhelmed,” said one Camden resident, now a Kroc member. “This is the best thing that could ever happen to Camden—especially in this neighborhood.”

Actually, the 24 acres on which the facility is housed is a former toxic landfill. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had to clean the site, legally signing off on the land’s safety and suitability, before The Salvation Army could take possession and turn the first spade of dirt.

Image of Camden Kroc

The Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, NJ is the 26th and last of the complexes built across the country as part of an incredible legacy.

“It’s a bit of an irony that the land had to be reclaimed,” says Lieutenant Dabiel Valdes, “sort of a precursor to the many lives we know will be reclaimed by God for decades to come!” Lieutenant Dabiel serves alongside his wife, Lieutenant Luz Valdes, as Kroc congregational life officers.

Yet another irony is that the last Kroc (Camden) to be built is loosely modeled on the first (San Diego), according to Lieutenant Valdes.

“The environment here at the Kroc and the employees are exceptional,” he says. “It has quite a family feeling to it. The staff and members know we are a church and they approach us to pray with and for them, and sometimes counsel them.”

The Camden Kroc Corps replaces the old Camden Citadel Corps, located not too far from where Salvationists serve and worship now.

“This is a diverse congregation,” the lieutenant adds. “Most everything we do here in the corps is bilingual, and even the soldiers who came over from the old Citadel are thrilled to have a facility like this to carry out the Army’s mission and ministry.”

Image of staff member, Camden KROC, praying with someone.

A staff member prays with someone—a sight “not uncommon” at the Camden Kroc.

The city of Camden and the neighborhood residents were “on board” to carry out the project of landing and building a Kroc. To help with the construction of the Camden Kroc, the city even replaced an older bridge near the center’s entrance in order to handle the traffic of trucks and equipment.

Local corporations were also on board.

Campbell Soup Company, headquartered in Camden, built and sponsors the Kroc Café—with proceeds from sales supporting the Kroc operating budget.

The Subaru Corporation sponsors the Choice Food Pantry, which serves an estimated 1,000 families per year, averaging about 20 families daily. The pantry is a little supermarket of sorts, allowing folks to pick out their own grocery needs—meats, produce, dairy, canned goods—without the indignity of having someone looking over their shoulder or telling them what they can and what they cannot have. Two caseworkers oversee the pantry, which is part of the Kroc’s Pathway Of Hope program.

The Wells Fargo Conference & Education Area consists of three large meeting areas that house a Book-exchange Library, an Arts & Crafts Room and a Computer Room that provides computer instruction for adults and children.

The three areas can also be configured into one larger room for special events.

The Town Plaza is a centrally located area within the Kroc, where folks can “hang out,” get lunch at the Kroc Café or enjoy the Kroc Aquarium—which is maintained daily by the Camden Aquarium, which treats the tank and takes proper care of the fish.

The Aquatics Complex is sponsored by the New Jersey American Water Company. The Black Box Theater (hosting drama, music, and dance) is a gift of the Nardi Family.

Image of teens playing basketball at the Camden Kroc

The gymnasium is among the most utilized game features of the Camden Kroc.

Interestingly, a Press Room overlooks both the Kroc Gymnasium on one side and the Aquatics Complex on the other. Windows peer over both venues, giving media reporters and commentators the means to broadcast and/or narrate sporting competitions both on the court and in the pool—perhaps even simultaneously should meets in both sports be scheduled.

Majors Terry and Susan Wood are the Kroc Center administrators, rounding out the Kroc officer staff at present.

“Our chapel seats 220, and a moving wall can accommodate an additional 200,” Major Terry says. “But our ministry doesn’t stop there—we have 120,000 square-feet of space in which to promote the Army’s mission and evangelical thrust.”

Adult Ministries at the Camden Kroc features Bible studies two times each week, as well as meals with “unlimited coffee.”

A Youth Ministries Room is used several nights a week, with free Wifi available throughout the building so students can do their homework. Friday evening is Youth Night, with a Bible study, a meal and lots of fun. Three flatscreen televisions, play stations, air hockey, ping pong and board games are available. Wednesday nights bring Chat & Chew. Teens and young adults share a meal around a huge table and discuss topics of interest. For instance, one week they talked about a positive self-image and how God sees us. The next Wednesday, the topic was healthy relationships and what the Bible says about them.

“The only rule at Chat & Chew is that they have to turn off their cell phones,” the lieutenant says.

“It’s an honor to be here,” he adds. “I grew up in a neighborhood like this across the river in Philly. Really, Camden is not much different from Philly—we know the need in the neighborhood and how best to relate to the people here. There is such potential for ministry!

“This is a beacon of hope for all of Camden.”

—Major Frank Duracher is the Assistant Editor

Straight From A Police-Action Movie

By his own admission, Jose Valentin’s testimony is straight from an “action movie where the leading actor was me!” Midway through his 16-plus years as a police officer, one “routine” S.W.A.T. team day in 1997 changed everything.

“My squad arrested one of the most dangerous drug dealers on the island (Puerto Rico). I went to my house and when I was opening the gate a man came in a car and hit me,” Jose explains. “When I was on the pavement he ran over me again and then sped away!”

Jose knew he was dying and didn’t want to leave his family behind.

“I was in the ambulance on my way to the hospital and I prayed, ‘God, if You’re real, let me see my kids grow up!’”

Jose then passed into a coma. When he awoke two days later, a fellow police officer and close friend led him in the sinner’s prayer.

“That was the way I accepted Jesus into my life and Savior and Lord.”

Jose goes on to explain that before his conversion—even though he was living his passion as a police officer—“I always had a void in my heart that I did not know how to explain and I could not understand. It was impossible to fill.”

Jose was invited to an evangelical church as part of a “Police Officer Week” observance. The pastor saw “something” in Jose, and told him, “God has a purpose in your life!”

“I could not understand that and I said to myself, That is crazy; what is wrong with this pastor?”

Jose continued his career as a police officer until 2004, when his dad—a man that had abandoned Jose as a child—was dying of cancer in Florida.

“God gave me the opportunity to ask him to accept Jesus as his savior and he did before he died,” Jose says. “After I returned to Puerto Rico, I didn’t feel the same passion for being a police officer. I just wanted to tell everybody about Jesus Christ!”

This change of ambition made Jose’s squad captain mad to the point that he told Jose, “If you want I can change your pistol for a Bible because you no longer look like a S.W.A.T. officer—you look like a preacher!”

Those harsh words notwithstanding, Jose told his wife he intended to quit his job as a cop. After a move to Pasco County in Florida, Jose and Yamira still did not know what kind of ministry to pursue.

The family struggled when the economy collapsed in 2009. They were going through what he describes as “the most difficult times of our lives.” While holding a garage sale to raise money, two ladies stopped by for a bargain. They happened to be soldiers of the Pasco County Corps of The Salvation Army. The younger of the ladies, Lucy, invited Jose and Yamira to church that Sunday.

The Army’s Dual-Gospel ministry—worship and service—impressed the Valentins. But what also impressed Jose were the uniforms! Seeing people in a God-loving organization wearing uniforms really appealed to Jose—harkening him back to his 16+ years as a policeman.

“I told my wife that this is a perfect combination: God, and a uniform!” he says laughing.

Still, Jose was in a spiritual battle, he admits, because he wasn’t sure that God wanted them in The Salvation Army. Jose accepted that confirmation at the Florida Division’s 2010 Youth Councils.

Jose and Yamira entered the Evangeline Booth College in 2013 as members of the Heralds Of Grace Session. Today, Lieutenants Valentin are Corps Officers in Marietta, Georgia.

It seems for all his adult life, Lieutenant Jose has devoted himself to serving the community—whether as a S.W.A.T team member or now as a Salvation Army Officer.

“People in any community are always in need, but particularly youth because I know what it is to grow up in hard conditions and the pain that comes with it. I want everyone to have a firm relationship with Christ,” he says.

Major Frank Duracher, Assistant Editor, National Publications