Rev. Gregory Christopher during a Sunday service at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Tacoma on Sunday, August 11, 2013. Photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer Lui Kit Wong The News Tribune
Rev. Gregory Christopher during a Sunday service at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Tacoma on Sunday, August 11, 2013. Photo by Lui Kit Wong/Staff photographer Lui Kit Wong The News Tribune

Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: From prison to City Council? Hilltop pastor to test voters’ faith in redemption

May 19, 2017 08:00 AM

In September 1984, the robbers — including then 27-year-old Gregory Christopher — entered a jewelry store on Gravelly Lake Drive in Lakewood.

Christopher carried a handgun, concealed in a USA Today newspaper, according to charging documents from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. An accomplice brandished a sawed-off shotgun.

Employees at the store had their hands and feet bound with duct tape. The burglars made off with $163,000 worth of jewelry.

So goes the story of how Christopher, who over the past 17 years has become a civil rights leader, a proponent of workers’ rights and police oversight, and perhaps Hilltop’s best-known pastor, ended up in a Washington prison.

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The story might not come as a surprise to those who’ve heard the Rev. Christopher speak since he took over for the Rev. Earnest Brazill at Shiloh Baptist in 2000.

But it certainly might for voters throughout the city who will weigh his fitness for a spot on the Tacoma City Council in this year’s election.

Christopher has announced his candidacy for the council’s at-large Position 6, formerly held by Victoria Woodards.

His decision makes for an interesting, potentially telling dilemma: Do voters believe in second chances and redemption?

Christopher’s story, in my opinion, offers a particularly compelling case that they should. He could bring experiences and perspective to the City Council that would serve the city well.

And while it’s not my intention to endorse his candidacy, I will say this:

Christopher has earned the right to take this shot and deserves a fair shake from Tacoma voters — based not on the man he was, but the man he’s become.

To hear his story, I sat with Christopher in a backroom of Red Elm, the Hilltop coffee shop that’s blossomed in the neighborhood where he has spent most of the past two decades working to improve lives and bring positive change.

Drugs — specifically an addiction to crack cocaine, picked up shortly after he got out of the Army — led him to this dark chapter of life, Christopher told me over coffee.

“I got hooked on it,” he said. “And I couldn’t kick it.”

I got hooked on it. And I couldn’t kick it.

The Rev. Gregory Christopher on his addiction to crack cocaine

He says he supported his drug habit with robberies, which led to his losing “everything,” including his home, his wife and, eventually, his freedom. In total, he says he served “a little under four years” behind bars because of it.

Why shouldn’t his criminal past — robberies, at least one drug charge and time served behind bars in Texas and Washington — disqualify him from holding elected office?

His assessment was blunt and honest: “I’m not sure that it won’t,” Christopher, now 59, offered. “I’m not sure that Tacoma is going to embrace this.

“But what I do know is I need to be upfront with them about it.”

In discussing his checkered past, Christopher was certainly making a calculated decision. He knows his history is now up for public scrutiny, and, in political speak, I’m sure he realizes it’s advantageous to get out in front of the story.

But he didn’t come off as a politician trying to spin the news cycle. He came off as a man of deep conviction and contrition, trying to be real about the things he’s done and the leader he wants to be.

And he frequently spoke of the city he wants to help Tacoma be.

“I see Tacoma going in the right direction,” he said. “And I want to make sure we don’t deviate from that. And then I see a Tacoma that still favors a certain population.

“I think we can have equity. ... I think the business community can make it. I think those in poverty can be lifted out of poverty. I think those that need social programs, that they can have those. I think we can do that.

“I just don’t think that those things are insurmountable.”

Over the past few years, Christopher’s name — and his reputation as a respected member of the community — have been on display.

While he’s never held political office, he was appointed to Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s minimum wage task force, he helped galvanize support in favor of paid sick leave, and he’s been a key player in Project P.E.A.C.E., an ongoing effort to improve the relationship between Tacoma police and citizens.

Currently, he’s also president of the Tacoma branch of the NAACP and a board member in the Tacoma Urban League.

“What I saw in him in the last 15 years is a person who cares deeply about equity and inclusion and fairness, and has a genuine love for this community — all of Tacoma, not just up on the hill,” said Lyle Quasim, co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective.

Quasim acknowledged initially being “surprised” by Christopher’s past, but said he’s shown an “intellect, understanding, passion and love for the city” that make him fit for office. He believes Christopher’s decision to run demonstrates “initiative and courage.”

I’m a person who likes redemption, likes second chances, likes the ability to contribute, but only if in a public office that person has the skills and the abilities to work well with others and to govern. ... And I think Rev. Christopher has that.

Lyle Quasim, co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, on Christopher’s qualifications for the job

“I’m a person who likes redemption, likes second chances, likes the ability to contribute, but only if in a public office that person has the skills and the abilities to work well with others and to govern,” Quasim said. “And I think Rev. Christopher has that.”

When it comes to governing, Christopher lists health care, immigration and living-wage jobs as some of his priorities. He repeatedly referred to a need to “level the playing field,” as one of the main impetuses for his run.

Still, when it comes time for Tacoma to cast ballots, what well might decide Christopher’s fate are questions about his background and not the themes of his campaign or how well he articulates his vision.

It’s something he knows and a reality he’s at peace with.

“One of the reasons I didn’t try to get more involved in politics sooner, by running for an office, is because of my past,” Christopher said.

“I didn’t think this was even possible for me.”

That’s a shame. And I’m happy he changed his mind.