For several years during the 1970s and 80s, Ken Van Velzen worked for one of the most successful drug importers in the US. In his own words, he was an “enforcer.” He wasn’t the guy who traveled to Colombia to arrange transportation; he was the guy who shoved guns in people’s noses and told them to do whatever he said.
Walking down the hallway of Grace church to meet him, the first thing I notice is a bright smile and a bandaged arm. At sixty-nine years old, Ken is recovering from hand surgery. He shakes his head and chuckles, “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, who would’ve thought I’d break my hand trying to open a jar.”
I like him immediately.
Ken was raised in a Christian home in Michigan, the fourth of five sons. He had a fairly unremarkable childhood filled with sports, schoolwork, and church. When he was nineteen years old, he married Sharon, his high school sweetheart. “I started building a house on Lake Michigan in 1975,” Ken recalls. “It was 3,000 square feet on 4 acres of land. We had so many dreams for our life together.”
One Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was a call from a friend who happened to be the top importer of marijuana in the US. “He wanted me to come to Florida and work for him,” Ken says. “With that one call, I threw away all my dreams for our life in Michigan. I finished the house, sold it, and moved to Florida in 1977.”
When asked why he gave up everything to join the drug trade, Ken replies, “Millions and millions of dollars is all I can say. My friend was a multi-millionaire, all from the importation of marijuana, and I wanted some of that. One of the things Hebrews says in the last chapter is ‘don’t become a lover of money,’ and I became a lover of money” (Hebrews 13:5). Ken continues, “For four years I threw myself into my work. I met dangerous people. I became a dangerous person. With that lifestyle came a lifestyle of cocaine and heavy drinking.”
At the beginning, Sharon had mixed feelings about Ken’s work. She was intrigued by the lifestyle, but before long she was telling Ken, “I don’t want to know anything about what you’re doing anymore.”
By 1980, things were messy. Ken’s friend had made enemies and was eventually shot. He survived, but the following week Ken was arrested for the second time since joining the industry. “The day I was arrested was the day I had determined to kill myself,” Ken confides. “I had a gun in my mouth and against my temple, on and off, for three hours. The only reason I didn’t pull the trigger is because I believed I would go straight to hell.”
There were seven charges against Ken, including possession of drugs and firearms, drunk driving, reckless endangerment of life, and more. His lawyer advised him to check into a mental hospital. In the fall of 1980, Ken checked into the Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Michigan for 8 weeks. Incredibly, he was only charged with drunk driving.
“Sharon was so excited when I was discharged from the hospital. I had written a poem while I was there,” Ken pauses. “I’m a poet too,” he says bashfully, and in that moment I see why Sharon fell in love with him. “Sharon thought it would be a turning point in my life, but it wasn’t. I got home and continued trying to make it big for three more years.” Over the course of those years, Ken lost a significant amount of money. “It turned out to be an expensive career,” he says. “I lost far more than I ever made.”
By this point Sharon and their two children’s bags were packed. One day she heard a song on the radio by Christian artist Don Francisco, called Love is Not a Feeling. Sharon sensed God telling her, “You’ve been praying for your life to get better, now you need to pray for Ken’s life to get better.” She decided to stay, and would later testify that from that day on, things started to change.
In Ken’s own words, “I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I woke up one morning and was able to say, ‘Good morning God,’ instead of ‘good God it’s morning.’” At Sharon’s urging, they visited a local church. Ken reasoned, “They’ll say, ‘tell us about yourself,’ and I’ll tell them everything. Then they’ll say, ‘nice knowin’ ya.’” But that’s not what they did. The body of believers surrounded and loved him. They asked him to share his testimony with the whole church. “I got all the prayers,” Ken says smiling.
It was a long process to rebuild their marriage and family, but they did. Looking back, Ken believes his teenage conversion under the guidance of his Christian parents was authentic. He wandered long and far, but God faithfully brought him back.
Decades later, Ken would endure the greatest sorrow of his life. On May 30, 2017, at 7:10pm, Sharon passed away from ovarian cancer. “I had never lived alone,” Ken admits. “The morning after she passed, I thought to myself, ‘Hey, you’re all alone.’ But I knew that if possible, she would reach down and smack me on the side of the head if I didn’t live the faith that I had professed.”
Indeed, before dying Sharon wrote Ken a letter, telling him that her deepest desire was for him to continue serving the Lord until the day he died. “I read it once and couldn’t read it again for six months,” Ken says. “At the beginning, Sharon was a large part of why I held on to the faith. But it’s not just Sharon I didn’t want to disappoint. God gave me an opportunity — a second chance — and I certainly don’t want to mess that up. I’m sure I could, given my nature and past, but my faith is built on a solid Rock. Through the years I’ve jumped up and down on that Rock. I’ve screamed at it and cursed it. I’ve kicked it many times…but I’ve never jumped off it.”
Ken’s life bears witness to the beautiful reality that as believers we keep the faith not because we are faithful, but because God is. As we leave the interview, the lyrics of Ken’s poem ring in my ears:
When I Was Filled
By Ken Van Velzen
When I was filled with deep despair,
Feeling shame I could not bear,
And when my life seemed all a waste,
And thought my guilt too much to face,
That’s when God’s love took me in
And washed me clean of all my sin.
“My son,” He said, “I love you still.
I always have and always will.”