Today, NKrumah Lewis is working on his fourth degree, a task he’s accomplishing between working as an associate minister at Elon First Baptist Church and preparing to begin a ministry of his own in Durham.
It’s already an impressive feat, but even more so for a man who served time behind bars — some of it for a murder he didn’t commit — after a childhood of abuse and his teenage years as a gang member living on the streets.
“As I was turning 17, I was homeless because of the domestic violence,” Lewis said.
Thinking escaping Durham would help turn his life around for the better, Lewis joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
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He remembers, as an 18-year-old, closing his eyes during an altercation in Kinston one night and thinking he had just been shot.
After realizing he wasn’t, Lewis could see the man standing across from him — the one who had fired at him — trying to pull the trigger, but the gun had jammed.
Lewis and a friend, both of whom were stationed at Camp Lejeune, retrieved their own weapons from the car and fired back as the suspect drove away. No one inside the car was hit.
They returned to base but were pulled out of line the next morning and charged with first-degree murder. What Lewis wouldn’t learn until two years later, while still incarcerated, was that it was for a separate shooting that had occurred a street over later that night, a shooting in which he’d had no part.
As soon as he was cleared of those charges, Lewis was picked up by authorities in Orange County for an armed robbery they linked him to from his younger years based on fingerprints.
After he served six months in jail in Orange County, when he pleaded before a judge in January 1994 — wearing a tie and making an effort to be as impressive and articulate as possible — the judge spared him active prison time by suspending his seven-year sentence.
“He let me go that day, and I never looked back,” Lewis said.
Having already been accepted to UNC-Greensboro, Lewis enrolled and began that same month, and at his first meeting to check in with his probation officer, the officer terminated his probation and let him live unsupervised, he said.
“I’m sure part of the gravity of that decision had to do with the fact I had been locked up a couple years for nothing,” Lewis said.
As he went through college and began attempting to find employment, Lewis’ criminal record set him back again. He attempted suicide his senior year.
He tried going by his middle name, D’Angelo, among other tactics to hide his real identity.
He committed to make himself indispensable in his work in mental health.
“It paid off,” Lewis said of his commitment to work harder than seemingly necessary to prove his worth to employers.
He earned his master’s degree from N.C. A&T State University, and then a doctorate of philosophy in sociology, studying race and crime, from Virginia Tech.
Lewis remains today one of only two African-American men who have obtained Ph.D.s through that program. He graduated in 2005.
“To me, what became important about that endeavor was I felt like I was uniquely qualified by my lived experience to do something about gang involvement, to do something about domestic violence,” Lewis said. “I made up my mind that everything that happened negatively would become a platform.”
Currently, Lewis is completing a Master of Divinity through Chicago Theological Seminary. When he finishes it in 2018, Lewis hopes to then obtain a fifth, a Doctor of Theology, from Duke University’s Divinity School.
As part of being associate minister and director of prison and jail ministry at Elon First Baptist, Lewis is working on getting inroads to minister at the Dan River Prison Work Farm in Caswell County, as well as doing some street ministry in Burlington, he said.
After being ordained as a nondenominational minister this summer, Lewis will launch a ministry in Durham, True Zion, by first helping with job creation, food, housing and other basic needs in the area, and later establishing a church. In some ways, Lewis said, he thinks Durham is the location of his future ministry as a way to give back after playing a role in the city’s decline during his youth.
“I want to meet the need first,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to force my faith on people. I don’t want to proselytize. I want my life to preach.
“I want the people like me, that nobody thought would be anything, that nobody saw any redeemable quality in.”
Lewis plans to reside in the Burlington area, despite his efforts in Durham. He is the father of three daughters, ages 15, 13 and 8, as well as the author of “Becoming a Butterfly: From Prison to Ph.D.”