LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — The restaurant walls are covered with Scripture verses. A Bible and calendar with daily devotions sit on each table.
The sign outside the building says Barry’s Cheese Steaks — a restaurant in Louisville, Ky. — but the employees and managers leaving their stations to pray with customers indicate that people find more than a steaming hot sandwich at the West End eatery.
A middle-aged black man comes from the kitchen with a wide smile, and greets all the customers as he asks them about their food. Barry Washington, 51, introduces himself. He seems like a typical owner, but anyone who knows him understands that few people expected him to reach this point in his life.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., he was adopted by Clyde and Anita Washington when he was two days old. Washington’s biological parents put him up for adoption because they were unable to raise a child. His mother was a 16-year-old prostitute, and his father was a pimp and drug dealer.
Washington’s adopted parents raised him to know the Lord, but as he grew up, he rebelled against his parents’ teaching.
When he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, Washington began selling drugs and developed cocaine and heroin addictions by age 20. He grew tired of a life of crime, and attempted to improve his life.
“I moved up to Ypsilanti, Mich., to turn my life around,” Washington said. “I did good for a while, but then I got back into the same things. In 1986, I was sticking up drug dealers and I got jumped, stabbed 41 times, and left for dead.”
Still living a life of crime, Washington spent the next eight years traveling between Pennsylvania and Michigan. He continued to use and sell drugs, and his addictions worsened.
It was a week before Christmas 1995, when two men approached Washington.
“These two Nigerian men were witnessing to me and gave me $2 to get something to eat,” Washington said. “I went back and thanked them and they invited me to their fellowship, and that night I got saved. Then it was like the Lord literally walked me right up out of the drug addiction.”
Even though Washington became a Christian, he still struggled because the streets were the only world he knew. Washington also felt the call to return to Michigan, but did not want to go.
“I battled in my mind with the Lord, thinking that’s where I almost got killed — why would I go back?” Washington asked. “But the Holy Spirit kept pressing that that’s where I was going.” So on Jan. 1, 1996, he moved back to Michigan.
While in Michigan, Washington began to learn how to read again and take his new faith seriously. He began to cook in restaurants and started attending the Tyndale Bible Institute, where he met Ron Horton and Ronald Author, both of whom became his mentors.
It was through this mentorship that Washington first heard about Boyce College, the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Author encouraged Washington to go to Boyce, despite his lack of education and age.
“The Lord blessed me to get my GED in 90 days,” Washington said. “So I came to Louisville and the highest grade I had completed was the eighth grade, and I probably had the reading level of a fifth grader. But the Lord has been good to me, and I learned things quick.”
Washington graduated from Boyce with an associate degree in 2000 before earning his bachelor’s in 2011. In 2004, Washington planted Redeemed Christian Church in Louisville’s West End, where he now pastors.
It was through the ministry of his church that Barry’s Cheese Steaks began as a way to keep kids from his community off the streets.
“We opened this place to give some of these young ones a chance to learn how to do something for themselves,” Washington said. “People think that everyone who comes from the West End is acting crazy, but we are going to show people that that’s not us.”
Even though the restaurant is a business, which Washington eventually wants to franchise, it is ultimately a ministry that strives to impact people through God’s Word. Washington trains the staff to be sensitive and willing to pray with people, and teaches the staff to serve God through serving other people. Other ministry opportunities come through the Scripture that decorates the restaurant.
“We had a mother from Nigeria come in with five children who weren’t baptized and they were wanting to find out about baptism, and they ended up joining my church,” Washington said. “The Scriptures and devotions posted all over the restaurant opens the door for people to ask questions and many end up going to my church or other churches.”
The ministry also impacts the employees as well. Wayne Blakely Jr. met Washington when he was 11 years old and began attending his youth group.
“I started to go to Barry’s church when my dad began to work on Sundays,” Blakely said. “Then he opened a summer camp, and I worked there. I began as volunteer janitor and worked my way up to staff leader.”
Blakely said Washington did not just give him a job, but saved him from a life of crime.
“Barry changed my life because if he had not come around I would still be in the gangs,” Blakely said.
“We are in the West End and all I had seen growing up was killings and drug deals. So I was going to be out there as a drug dealer trying to get some easy money.”
Washington has seen the Lord bring him and his ministry through many hardships and provide during the darkest of circumstances. Now he is praying that this growth will continue to allow him to impact the West End, and all of Louisville with the Gospel.
“The Lord has been good and faithful in providing an increase and seeing things grow,” Washington said. “But we have a strong desire to cross zip codes. We must lose this West End mentality, and show people that there are Christian businesses all over Louisville.”