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Kevin Petty is the president and founder of the Amazing Gospel Souls, a band and social ministry based in northeast, D.C. One would never guess by looking at him, but Petty has been to hell and back again, as have the other members of his band. They're all former inmates of Lorton Prison, and their lives haven't been easy.
Petty said that he's wanted to be a singer since he was 5 years old and saw Little Anthony and the Imperials perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. But he never could have predicted where his voice would lead him.
One day, Petty heard a group singing in the back alley behind his apartment building in Newark, N.J. The group was good, and had a reputation for winning all of the top talent shows in the city. The lead singer, Barry Gibson, took young Petty under his wing and started teaching him how to sing and dance like the rest of his crew. He even gave his protégée a nickname: Jitterbug.
Gibson's band started practicing in the basement of Petty's apartment building, and the youngster felt privileged to sit in on rehearsals.
Both of Petty's parents worked, so it was nice to have older guys in the neighborhood looking out for their young son. Sometimes his father would amiably buy quarts of beer for the teenagers, as a sort of thank you for being good role models to his son.
But Gibson and his friends had a secret: they were addicts.
Petty was only 8 years old when he uncovered their secret. He was on his way to school when he popped his head into the basement to see if Gibson was there. He saw the older boy sitting alone in the dark, doing something strange to his arm.
"The kit was still sitting on the table... and he said, 'You know what this is?' and I said, 'no,'" Petty says. Gibson told the boy it was "doojee," a slang term for heroin.
Gibson asked if Petty wanted to try some, and the boy agreed.
"He cooked it and he drawed it up in there, and he did like I remember the nurses would do when they would give us our little shots in school," Petty says. Then Gibson pinched the 8-year-old boy's arm and inserted the needle.
He says the drug made him vomit, and he didn't like how heroin made him feel, but he wanted to impress Gibson.
"I listened to every word he said. I tried every move he told me to try in singing," Petty says. "He said, 'sing this note for me, Jitterbug.' And he would sing that note, you know, and I would emulate it to the 't,' and he said, 'Perfect! That's what I'm talking about. That's my Jitterbug. You're gonna be a star!'"
By the time Petty was 9 years old, he was addicted to heroin and no one suspected a thing. But it wasn't long before people found out. When Petty was 10, Gibson handed him a bag full of heroin capsules.
"He said, 'Listen I got to go someplace. I need you to hold on to this for me 'til tomorrow. Don't let nobody see it. If you need to use some, just use a little bit of it, and I'll see you tomorrow,'" Petty says.
Ten-year-old Petty cheerfully accepted the responsibility and stashed the drugs in his pocket. But he didn't exactly lie low that day.
"Me and my crew went out, and I got this doojee in my pocket, and we went out and stole a car," Petty says. "We were riding through the streets of Newark, N.J. and all up through Elizabeth, and we were going everywhere, and the police get behind us and chase us."
The kids crashed the car, and Petty wound up in juvenile hall. When the police searched his pockets, they were shocked by what they found. But they were even more surprised by the child's admission that he actually used the drug.
Two weeks later, Petty had a hearing before a judge who was determined to take the child away from his parents. "He believed at this stage, that at my age, if I was on heroin, my parents was giving it to me," Petty says.
However Petty's parents were southern folks with country sensibilities. They didn't even know what heroin was, let alone that their son was addicted to it. His mother enlisted her other children to keep an eye on their brother.
"They tried, but at that stage it was too late," Petty says. He chased his addiction all the way to D.C., where he ultimately landed himself in Lorton Prison.
"In 1978, in the height of my addiction, I had lost my humanity and everything, and I robbed a guy for his drugs and in the course of the robbery, you know, in the fight, I took his life."
Petty was charged with murder and robbery and spent more than 30 years in Lorton prison and the federal system. But there was a silver lining to his misfortune.
"It was inside the prison system where I got an opportunity to find my humanity, to heal," he says. "God got a chance to work with me and raise me and turn me into what people see today."
Singing a new tune to life
However the change didn't happen overnight, and although Petty saw some pretty horrific things in Lorton, the prison experience didn't scare him sober. He continued to struggle with his addiction and overdosed eight times while in prison. He says it's a miracle he's still alive.
"Most of the people, including Barry Gibson, that started out the way I started out, are not here today, that I know," Petty says. "They didn't make it."
But through it all, Petty never stopped singing. He and a few other inmates even formed an R&B group. One day, a friend asked if they would sing in his gospel band. His singers had quit, and he had a concert coming up.
At first Petty and his band mates hesitated. "None of us knew about God or knew about going to church or anything like that."
But they relented, and that performance changed Petty's life. He says God used the people in that church to wake up something inside of him.
"It was just so embracing and so loving, something I had never experienced before, and I knew from that point forward I wanted it again," Petty says. He threw himself into the church and the Amazing Gospel Souls and never went back to singing R&B. He says it was like being born again.
"He saved me for a reason, to be a blessing to others and that's the way I live my life, with total faith in Him," Petty says. "I'm not chasing money, I'm not chasing fame. It's about living my life out for him, because he helped me realize that my life had purpose, His purpose, and he brought me back."
Petty said divine intervention created a miracle, and that being a part of the gospel and discipleship enables him to have a positive effect on other people's lives. His buddies followed him, and soon the former R&B vocalists were singing the Lord's praises.
"I'm still hearing from a lot of them today saying thank you, you know because their lives were changed too," Petty says. "We became disciples for God, and God got a chance to raise us up and give us new purpose in life, and that new purpose is what we're living out today."
Petty says the Amazing Gospel Souls try to be more than just a band. "The Amazing Gospel Souls are now out here in the community shining light in other people's lives that are in the same place that we were. They might not be in prison, but they are just as low."
Many of the guys are mentors, including Petty, who has 17 mentees that he calls and checks on every day. Petty works as a counselor and aide at the Salvation Army Harbor Lights center in northeast D.C., giving guidance to people struggling with addiction. He says the biggest reward is reaching out to people who are down and out, like he once was.
"The biggest thing that you can do for people when they're at this stage is give them hope, and hope is knowing that no matter how far you've fallen from grace, no matter what your fall is about, God don't count those things," Petty says. "Whether it's a big fall or a little fall is irrelevant to Him, but it's never ever too late."
Petty wrote a soon-to-be-released e-book called "Lost In My Dreams," in which he recounts his story. He says he hopes it will inspire parents to keep a closer eye on their children.
"Get in your kid's life and protect them, because when we're kids we're dumb," he says with a chuckle. "We do dumb things, and we'll follow our heroes. We'll follow those things that we think that are right, and I followed the wrong thing."
But Petty says he doesn't wish to demonize Gibson, the childhood hero who led him astray. He says that at the time, Gibson was just a kid himself with no one looking out for him.
He says he also hopes people will learn from his story and from the lives of the Amazing Gospel Souls that God always has your back.
"Trust in Him and have faith in Him," Petty says. "This is what we go around and let people know today. You have to trust in God. He never ever fails. He hasn't failed me yet."
The Amazing Gospel Souls are currently working on a second album and DVD. For more information about the band, upcoming performances, and to check out some of their music, you can go to AmazingGospels.com.
[Music: "The Sound of Someone You Love" by Penguin Cafe Orchestra from Angels in the Architecture]
Photos: From Addiction to Redemption