By: Katie Sobiech
“Aaliyah loves Mr. Starks” was written in a child’s handwriting on a white sheet of paper with a pink, scribbled – in heart. This picture along with other drawings and letters of gratitude cover the walls of Michael Starks’ office.
When you look at Starks, who is Community Organizer for the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association and Founder of SLAAP, you are looking at a living, breathing miracle.
There are certain things in life that only God can be given the credit for. Apart from Him these miracles could not exist.
Michael is one of them.
Having been put in jail at just 19 years old, arrested 117 times, shot four times (once in the head, temporarily paralyzing him) and spending time in a dozen different jails and prisons all across the state of Ohio, he has quite a story to tell.
He knows the ropes of prison life, he has been there, done that, and now has something to say to those who are caught up in that lifestyle, as well as the youth that are headed down that path.
Becoming an Outlaw
Romans 8:28 says that God causes all things to work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. Although Starks isn’t proud of his past, it has been a gift in the sense that all of the things that he went through have given him credibility to work with many of those who struggle with the same issues.
Just after his sixteenth birthday, Starks’ mother was shot by an irate customer while working at the Tropicana Club. It was after her death that everything changed.
“Prior to that I wasn’t the “leave it to beaver” type kid, but I wasn’t an at-risk kid either,” he said.
With grandparents who were deacons and deaconesses in the church, he grew up with an understanding of Christ, but when his mom was killed he became resentful.
“I got angry at God,” he said, “and I said, ‘you know what, I’m just going to become an outlaw.’ I made a commitment at age 16 to live my life like an outlaw.”
While his siblings moved in with his grandparents, he thought, “I aint gonna listen to nobody now”.
He started hanging out in the streets, bouncing from place to place, “doing the things that kids in the streets do” and had no stability.
“That root of bitterness, anger and resentment continued to fester inside of me and I acted it out,” he said.
Then he asked, “Have you ever read that quote saying that sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay and cost you more than what you are willing to pay?”
“If I had known that my commitment (to be a rebel) would consume so much of my life, I might have rethought that.”
The first prison he stayed at was the Mansfield Reformatory, which he described as resembling Dracula’s castle. Windows were broken out, birds flew around, and there wasn’t any hot water.
“They had a range man who would come around (carrying a bucket) and say ‘hot water, hot water’.”
To make matters worse, the toilets were so old that the inmates had to put a board and brick on top of them in order to keep the sewer rats from coming in.
“It was decrepit,” he reminisced.
“It wasn’t fun being told when to get up, when to lie down, what to eat and what not to eat, when to talk and when not to talk.”
But even with the horrible conditions, he still found himself in and out of prisons.
He says that the reason he continued the sick cycle was because he never changed his pattern of thought. “I always came out with the idea that I had a new and improved way to get some money or hustle,” he said.
Every time that he got out he was determined to do a better job at doing the wrong things. “I thought, ‘I’ve got a new move for them this time’,” he said.
But time and time again, he landed in prison.
“After a while you get caught up in that mind process and before you know it, when you’re living an abnormal existence that abnormality becomes your normal and you lose any perception of what normal is.”
It makes sense. In prison you are surrounded by people who do the same things and actually share their insights and tips, or “new and improved” ways to get away with crime.
“Prisons are merely warehouses for the insanity that goes on in the insane. I don’t think there was ever any design or forethought given to rehabilitation,” he said.
Sitting on a file cabinet in his office is a photo, framed in gold, of a young man in his late teens. There is also a drawing of Michael with this man, hanging up on the wall above it.
“See that picture there,” he said, “That is my son, Michael Jr. He got killed in 1991.”
“Your children don’t look at Michael Jordan, Aretha Franklin, or Dolly Parton. Kids first and foremost want to be like momma and daddy and when you’re not setting the standard or right example for your children to follow, they will follow whatever standard or example you are setting because kids don’t do what you say – they do what you do.”
As Starks was in and out of prison throughout Michael Jr.’s life, Michael Jr. was often told “You look just like your dad. Your dad is such a hustler.”
“He started digesting all of that negativity and before you know it, it became a self fulfilled prophesy,” Starks said.
Starks reminisces, saying that just before his son’s death he had come back from California after signing a record deal, then, he was killed 3 days after his 20th birthday for something he had nothing to do with.
Starks said that his choice of lifestyle and the crowd he hung around came back and “bit him”.
It wasn’t until the death of his son that Starks got serious about turning his life around.
“It caused a moment of clarity for me, when I had seen that if I had been there to provide the right example for my son this would not have occurred.”
Then he thought ‘You know what, you’ve tried everything else – you might as well try God.’
So he prayed, re-dedicated his life to Christ and was miraculously delivered from his heroine addiction. He had been shooting $300 worth of the drug a day, or ten bags. The withdrawal factor is so intense that it will normally kill you if you don’t get treatment, but he didn’t suffer at all. Since that day he has not had one drug, drink or cigarette.
Whose Side Are You On?
Starks realized that by his actions, he was siding with the enemy.
“The word says ‘Do not give any room to the adversary’, because if you give him an inch he wants the whole ruler. If you allow him an opening in your life he will get in there and before you know it you don’t have a life anymore, it’s his life.”
“I didn’t realize that I had joined forces with the adversary,” he said, “I had allowed him into my life and we were pretty much partners.”
He laughs about it now, saying “I used to love getting up knowing that I was going to be rubbing elbows with some of the grimiest people on the face of this earth; those grimy folks out there in the streets doing all the dirt.”
After getting delivered from drugs and committing his life to Christ, the Lord spoke to his heart, “You know Michael, you’ve been taking all of your life, now its time to give back.”
The first thing he did was go to the United Way to volunteer. He helped with Project Learn, tutoring people for two years so they could get their GED’s.
He also became a member of the Greater Akron Citizen’s Circle which assisted ex-felons in re-entering society.
Along with that, he got involved in a community outreach called TROOPP (To Reach Others Outside of Popular Parameters). It was during his involvement that he was asked to speak at a fundraiser in downtown Akron at the main library. Pastor Duane Crabbs, Founder of Southstreet Ministries and President of the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association, just happened to be in the crowd and approached him afterwards saying “God just laid it on my heart that you’re the person that we need to work with down in Summit Lake.”
They had just been given a grant to hire a community organizer, so Crabbs asked “Would you consider applying for the job?”
There were 10 applicants ahead of him. Seven out of the ten had college degrees, three had masters degrees.
“Nobody thought I was going to get the job,” he said, “but God went to work.”
He didn’t have any work history, let alone anything to put on a resume.
“I had been out in the streets, a hustler all of my life,” he said.
After the interview someone on the panel said “After looking at your record we just don’t think you are salvageable.”
“They thought I was just going to go back out and become another statistic,” he said.
But instead he went through all of the obstacles that he needed to in order to get the position. After a long process of narrowing down the applicants he ended up getting the deciding vote.
“I came in with no experience in community organizing,” he said, “but when God plants you somewhere he will give you the wherewithal to accomplish what it is He wants to accomplish.”
Now as Community Organizer he does housing, clothing and food referrals, substance abuse intervention, mentoring, tutoring, holiday food basket giveaways and more.
Not only that, but he runs SLAAP (Start Living and Acting Positive), a jail and prison ministry that he founded with the purpose of visiting those in prison to disciple, mentor, give life skills, substance abuse intervention, and food and clothing referrals.
One Life at a Time
A fairly new endeavor for Starks is his partnership with Judge Brenda Burnham Unruh and her One Life at a Time program which offers mentoring for at-risk young men.
“God placed it on her heart that she needed to do something with the young males that were coming into her courtroom repeatedly for minor offenses like drug abuse and stealing,” Starks explained.
Unruh asked God how she should address the issue and He laid it on her heart to start the mentoring program.
She asked Starks to be on the Board, he said yes, and their relationship took off from there. Now Starks goes to her courtroom at least once or twice a month on her call days. When she identifies a young man that she feels would be a right fit for the mentoring program she asks Starks to do an assessment on him.
Derek is one of those young men.
“Instead of getting off track and being on some other types of stuff, it keeps me focused. He (Starks) is a man of God, and that helps me too,” Derek said.
Then looking at Starks, Derek said “This is a good man right here. I’m glad he got this job.”
Starks has come a long way.
“When I was out in the world,” he says, “I had shoot outs with the police, and now here I have a letter of recommendation coming from the Chief of Police,” he said.
Many certificates and letters cover the walls and cabinets of his office, but he says “Everything that has been attained is not a testament of what I’ve done, but what God has done in my life and I make sure that He gets the glory.”
Having been delivered, he says that part of his covenant with Christ was “If you deliver me from this, not only will I not go back into it, but I will share what you have done with whomever, whenever, and wherever I’m called upon to do so.”
This was the foundation of SLAAP. He was no longer a vessel that the enemy could work through, but a vessel for God to work through.
If you feel called to help Michael in his ministry endeavors he does need financial support. He also asks for prayer that he would be surrounded by the right people that keep him focused on Kingdom things; also to stay humble.
You can contact Michael at: 330-434-5253 Attn. Michael Starks, 380 W. Crosier St., Akron, OH 44311