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Former Packer Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila discusses his side of Christmas pageant incident

Paul Srubas
Green Bay Press-Gazette

GREEN BAY - As a former member of the Green Bay Packers, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila hadn’t been in the news much since being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 2013 for his 74½ sacks during his four-year career. 

Until last month.

That’s when two young men, reportedly acting on his instructions, walked into a church Christmas pageant while carrying 34 rounds of ammunition and two handguns. They never displayed the guns, never caused any kind of disturbance. But they refused to leave at the order of the school headmaster or the orders of the six Green Bay police officers who responded to the scene.

It was a Tuesday evening, Dec. 17 at the Assembly of God Church, 1460 Shawano Ave., where the private Providence Academy was putting on its annual Christmas pageant.

Jordan Salmi, 24, of Onalaska, and Ryan Desmith, 22, of Friendship, were arrested that night. They are charged in Brown County Circuit Court with misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. Desmith is also charged with obstructing officers.

Gbaja-Biamila was there, but he was not arrested or charged.

According to court records, the two men have no children attending Assembly of God or Providence Academy, and when Providence headmaster Ron Jung asked them to leave, they refused. When police arrived to remove them forcibly, they both were found to be carrying Taurus Millennium G2 semi-automatic pistols with magazines loaded with 11 or 12 rounds, according to the complaints. Desmith also had an extra magazine in his pants pocket that was loaded with another 11 9 mm rounds, and he was carrying a knife with a 4½-inch blade, the complaint says.

Gbaja-Biamila, who calls himself the leader of a local affiliate of Straitway Truth Ministry, puts out regular videos on YouTube in which he addresses members of his assembly. In the most recent posts, he said he asked Salmi and Desmith not to disrupt the pageant in any way or make any kind of scene, but simply to attend the pageant and videotape or photograph it.

Ryan Desmith, left, and Jordan Salmi

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Gbaja-Biamila has two children from a previous marriage who attend Providence Academy. He says he objects to their attending the school and to participating in the Christmas program, which he says was at odds with his faith.

Police had received directions that day to keep an eye out at the Assembly of God church, because Gbaja-Biamila had made YouTube videos that contained threatening messages to Providence Academy and Jung, the complaints say.

Gbaja-Biamila acknowledges people might see these recent events as being mystifying from a man they know as a Hall of Fame football player, Christian minister, donor to area charities, including the Providence Academy, and someone who has been involved in the greater Green Bay community. Some have even suggested what's happened is a product of multiple blows to the head during his playing days. He laughs that explanation off, saying the only way he has changed since his playing days is in his newly deepened faith in Jesus Christ.

He was a Muslim in the tradition of his Nigerian-born father before he switched to the Christian faith in the tradition of his Nigerian-born mother. After an enlightening dream in 2017, he said, he developed his new belief that even Christians fall short of following the actual word of God and instead come up with ways of working around or explaining away God's decrees. Since then, he discovered Straitway Truth Ministry, a religious community founded by a Tennessee pastor, and has been following that path ever since.

The Press-Gazette reached out to Gbaja-Biamila as soon as news of the Christmas pageant incident came out, but he said he wasn’t aware of that effort until last weekend, when he consented to an interview.

In an interview lasting roughly 2½ hours, Gbaja-Biamila revealed himself to be a passionate speaker who sees himself as a literal interpreter of the Bible and of the U.S. Constitution, and one who claims to try to follow those interpretations in all that he does and says.

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila discusses his faith and an incident at a Green Bay church that led to the arrest of two men affiliated with his ministry.

Although the church is seeking restraining orders against him and his associates, Gbaja-Biamila denied ever threatening anybody. He said he believes pageants commemorating Christmas are sinful because Christmas has pagan roots.

The incident also has its roots in Gbaja-Biamila’s divorce in 2017 from his wife of 16 years. He said the court has granted him 50% custodial rights of his children, but in all matters concerning parental rights, courts and the schools and everyone else are deferring to the ex-wife’s wishes.

“The system really makes you bow down to the woman, literally subjects you to the woman, and I couldn’t do it and still be committed to Jesus,” Gbaja-Biamila said. “It was either follow her or follow Jesus. I chose Jesus. She was not willing to follow me as I followed Jesus.”

With 50-50 custodial rights, Gbaja-Biamila said, he finds himself having to take everything to court when things don't go his way, but the courts aren’t interested in any issues that do not concern money. If it’s a religious issue, “the court says just work things out; who cares about Jesus?” Gbaja-Biamila said.

The following is a question-and-answer session with the Green Bay Press-Gazette in which he tries to explain what transpired and why:

Why would you object to your children attending a Christian school and participating in a Christmas pageant?

“I never met a person who identified himself as a Christian who actually keeps the commandments. What makes me different is I keep the commandments of God; Christians don’t.

“We’re doers of the word; they’re hearers of the word. For example, I don’t eat pork. Christians out there will say it’s OK to eat pork or bacon or brats. We don’t eat it, because it goes against the commandment of God.

“I’m what Paul would have called himself. He was a Hebrew, an Israelite, from the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob … Hebrew Israelites. You’d never hear of them keeping Sunday worship, or Christmas or Easter. That’s a good indicator. We don’t keep any of those. We keep the seven feast days, Passover, Feast of Fruits, (Unleavened Bread), Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, Tabernacles, the Feast of Trumpets. Christians don’t keep any of that.”

Aren’t you associated with the Black Hebrew Israelites, elements of which have been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups? Didn’t two people with those beliefs die in a shootout with police early in December after murdering a detective at a cemetery and three people at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City?

“We don’t even know if that’s true. … But I know they call them Black Hebrew Israelites. I’m not condoning or accepting any of that, but that’s not who I am. I'm part of Straitway Truth Ministry, and we have an assembly here in the Green Bay area called Straitway Praiseland — that’s what I’m head of. We’re just a few people trying to live a peaceful life, we just want to keep the commandments of God, we want to love God, love our neighbors. That's all we are about. We're about loving God, loving our neighbor. That’s it.”

Gbaja-Biamila went on to say that his group, like the black Hebrew Israelites, believes that dark-skinned people are directly in the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and that white people are not. But the black Hebrew Israelites believe only those who are direct blood descendants are headed to salvation, whereas Straitway followers believe anybody who embraces their belief system is an Israelite, Gbaja-Biamila said. That’s why the group has many white members, including the two men who were arrested at the Christmas pageant, he said.

Are you a member of a cult? Are you extreme?

“I used to play for the Green Bay Packers and we just did an interview with a whole bunch of Packer fans, and man, they are extreme! They’re out there in the cold, and we’re like (he pretends to shiver), my God, how do you guys do this stuff, and they’re going ‘We’re here to see Aaron Rodgers!’ They are a cult! I’d call them a cult. We’re a cult, too, but our lives revolve around Jesus.

“We just want to live peaceful lives. We’re peaceful people. … I promise you, we don’t start anything. We’re just here to live a life. … Anybody coming here is coming here to learn, but I’m not on the streets saying, ‘You need to believe what I believe!’ We’re not that.”

Is it unreasonable for people to find it frightening that you sent two armed men into a children’s Christmas pageant?

“I sent my two brothers — you call them ‘associates,’ we don’t use that — I sent my two brothers who are Caucasian, light-skinned like you, and said I don’t want you to make a scene, I sent them in there, just get pictures — proof — proof of claim that my sons were in this little play. … Just take their picture, like everybody is doing.”

Why armed?

“According to the constitution of Wisconsin, Article 1, Section 5, you have the right to bear arms for security and defense.”

Sure, but why do it? You, Salmi and Desmith all know the climate we live in, the school shootings, shootings in public places; you may have a constitutional right, but is it wise? Is it reasonable to think that people won’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t get freaked out by that?

“This (carrying weapons) is encouraged at Providence. Back in the days when there was a lot of school shootings … we said, do we get an off-duty cop or start carrying ourselves? We actually paid for the teachers — I’m talking when I was a board member (for Providence Academy’s governing board), I was vice chair — we got our teachers trained so they can learn how to carry and shoot so they can protect the students, and we encouraged that. They carried. That’s why you don’t see off-duty cops (at the school or special events like the Christmas pageant), because you had people in the crowd carrying. We even got the parents involved, with ‘You guys, carry, too.’

“It would be different if no one else did it. There was no security, no metal detectors, no sign (saying weapons prohibited). It’s welcome. Let’s create a real picture here: There were other people in that building that were carrying.”

Note: Ron Jung, the headmaster at Providence Academy, has not responded to requests for comment.

How do you know?

“I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I know the procedure. I was a board member when we came up with the policy. Teachers have it in their classrooms. We can say, ‘What are teachers doing with guns in their classrooms?’ It’s a private school. It’s not like public schools. If you go to Providence, they carry. Not all of them, but there are teachers who carry.”

What were your two brothers supposed to do there? What was the purpose of the pictures you wanted them to take?

“My sons were at a pageant, a Christmas pageant, that goes against my religious belief. As a father, I have religious rights not to be prohibited from exercising my religious freedom. They (my sons) were being used in a way that goes against my religious belief. I just had my two brothers come there to make sure I have evidence (my sons) were being used without my consent.”

Evidence for what purpose?

Gbaja-Biamila explained that Providence Academy was using his sons against his will to perform in a Christmas pageant, and Gbaja-Biamila believes it’s within his rights to demand financial compensation for that use. After demanding that his sons be withdrawn from the pageant, Gbaja-Biamila presented Jung with a bill for $150,000.

“The day before the play, I told him, ‘I’m not going to do anything to stop you physically, but if you choose to go ahead and go against my consent, I’m going to ask for just compensation according to Article 5 of the Bill of Rights. … So all I did was gave him a bill making him personally liable.”

Article 5 deals with criminal and civil court proceedings, protects against "double jeopardy" and protects people against self-incrimination, but it also includes language protecting private property from being taken for public use without just compensation.

The matter never ended up coming before a judge, but Gbaja-Biamila’s plan was to have photographs or video of his sons on stage so he could present evidence that they were included in the performance against his will.

Why didn’t Desmith and Salmi just leave when Jung asked them? All of this could have been avoided.

“I asked them to get me something. It (the pageant) didn’t start. Ron spotted them and asked them to leave. They literally were guilty of being associated with me.”

Shouldn’t Jung, as headmaster, have authority to say who can or can’t be on the premises?

“I had property (my sons) on that land.  I’m trying to get my property, too. They (Salmi and Desmith) were there on my behalf for my property. … If I told you to go get something out of my car, I have that right, and if someone comes and says, ‘Hey, get away from that car,’ what do you do, listen to that guy and get away or to Kabeer? Now you’re in a pickle. It’s a civil issue.”

Do you understand why people might find it objectionable to talk about your children as “your property”?

“I understand. But property is anything you possess. These are my sons and daughters. I created them. They don’t belong to him, they don’t belong to you, they belong to me.”

Isn’t it logical for people to presume the two men should have listened, if not to Jung, then at least to police?

“Here’s the problem. If Ron would have told me, just like I gave him notification, months, a week, a day before, and the day of, you know what Ron could have done? He could have said, ‘Kabeer, don’t come, you’re not welcome. I’ll call the police.’ And you know what would’ve happened? You and I wouldn’t be talking right now. I wouldn’t have come.

“I will not step foot at that school ever again. I don’t care if it’s graduation and my son really wants me to be there. … I will not go because of what they did. I won’t trust them anymore.”

You and you ex-wife were granted a divorce, she was given 100% placement, and you were given 50-50 custody. If she wanted your sons to attend Providence, if she wanted them to participate in a Christmas pageant, why do you believe you have the authority to forbid it?

“Woman is to be submitted to the man. It’s in the Bible. It’s clear. Men have their role, women have their role. So women were created for men. I can’t submit to the woman. That’s renouncing Jesus. Submitting to the wife would be a direct dishonor to Jesus, because I wasn’t created for the woman, I was created for him.”

If you’re no longer married, you’re not submitting to the wife.

“This is where it gets funky. Under statute, we’re not married, but according to the Bible, the only way is that I give her a bill of divorce, and that never happened. According to the statute, we’re divorced, but according to the Bible — there’s two systems going on.”

Gbaja-Biamila went on to explain that even according to the law, he and his wife aren’t officially divorced, which appears to contradict the court record. He said he had been forced under duress to sign off on some aspects of the formal divorce but later learned “common law” allows him to refuse to sign certain contracts, and after learning that, he stopped signing and also filed paperwork “rescinding” agreements he had already signed off on, including the divorce and certain financial obligations associated with it. He believes that means they aren’t officially divorced.

Didn’t Jesus say ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s”? Can you morally or rightfully just turn your nose up at legal considerations in matters of divorce or in matters of carrying concealed weapons without a permit?

“I would rather deal with consequences of law than offend God. Daniel was thrown to the lions because he wouldn’t submit. … Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fire because they wouldn’t pray to a statue. If what Caesar tells us goes against God, don’t render.”

How can the law be expected to dispense justice equally to you and your ex-wife? You say the law is stepping on your rights of religious freedom, but how can it realistically grant you dominion over her and, at the same time, give her her legal rights to pursue life, liberty and happiness?

“I’m hoping it will all be cleared up in court on (Jan. 16). I hope to get it out of the public and into the private. Just deal with it in private. It’s a family affair, not meant for the public. I can handle my own house. I’ve learned how to handle the house of Kabeer.”

Isn’t your ex free to do what she wants, or is she still biblically under your control?

“She can walk, but she can’t take my stuff. If she does, she has to compensate me. She’s going to do what she’s going to do, and I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But it’s going to be done civilly and done right. I want to assure you, they’re not going to put OJ on me. I’m OK not seeing my sons and daughters again. If I can’t get them the way I should biblically, I’m OK with that, but if I can do it in a way that still honors Jesus Christ, I will, but I will not go beyond that. If I can use what benefits the Constitution gives me in ways that allow me to be a man and still be submitted to my God, I will do that.”

Beyond that, what are you hoping to do here? What kind of outcome are you looking for?

“I don’t want people to be afraid. I want them to say, ‘Hi, Kabeer, how are you doing?’

“I’d say it’s natural for people to be afraid of things they do not understand. That’s why I’m having this interview with you, so we can bring clarity. This is my home, too. I’ve lived here 19 years. I’d like to live here peacefully as I always have.

“We’re peaceful, nothing to be afraid of. We’ll defend ourselves, yes; we carry. But every American should carry. You have a right. You also have a right not to carry. But there’s nothing in the Constitution saying you have a right to carry except when you’re around sons and daughters. We have sons and daughters running around, and we carry. In our world, we’re not thinking there’s anything wrong. We teach them how to use them properly so they don’t hurt themselves.

“There’s nothing weird about this, nothing extreme. It’s just a man trying to get his family back properly according to his religious beliefs.”

Contact Paul Srubas at 920-265-3087 or psrubas@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PGpaulsrubas.