The road to redemption
ELCA pastor’s journey began in prison
By Jay Saunders January 6, 2021
In the span of less than a decade, Erich Kussman went from prison to Princeton Theological Seminary to serving as pastor of St. Bartholomew Church in Trenton, N.J.
From prison to Princeton to the pulpit.
That is the road less traveled taken by Erich Kussman, pastor of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, N.J.
It was on that road that Kussman found God, found the man he calls his father, and found himself featured on the A&E network series The Redeemed.
“God uses the foolish things in this world to make the wise,” he said. “I’m the fool. If you look at this story as a whole, you’d probably say it doesn’t make sense.”
For Kussman, the story began in Plainfield, N.J. Growing up, he didn’t know his father, and his mother was addicted to drugs. He and his siblings found themselves breaking into homes to steal food.
“We were hustling and bustling just to get by,” he said. “Living the street life was my world. It was what I knew.”
That life led to Kussman selling drugs. One night in 2002, he found himself on a drug deal that turned into a fight. He ultimately stabbed another man with a box cutter, and everyone fled. Two weeks later he was in handcuffs and on his way to jail.
“I wanted him to cut off his yesterdays and focus on his tomorrows.”
Kussman turned down multiple plea deals and faced a long prison sentence. He knew he “wasn’t going anywhere,” he said, but then things started to happen that changed his life—even though he thought his path wasn’t leading him anywhere but inside a jail cell.
The cell Kussman occupied in Somerset County jail had been used as a makeshift chapel by the other inmates, who would meet there early in the morning for Bible study. For months, he would ignore the gatherings and go back to sleep. But one day he had what he calls his “God moment,” after hearing Psalm 34:6: “This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.”
The next day, something exceptionally unusual happened: Kussman was mistakenly released from jail—no explanation, no details. Then, as he stepped outside and walked free, the next domino fell.
“I started walking down the street and saw a man and asked him if he was lost,” Kussman said. “He pointed his finger straight at me and said, ‘No, you’re lost, and you need Jesus.’”
After nearly two days of unearned freedom, Kussman was once again surrounded by police cars and brought back to jail, sentenced to prison for 12 years, with a 10-year minimum. But, having realized something had changed in him, Kussman was ready to learn.
Fighting for others
After being transferred to state prison, Kussman got a job in the chaplain’s office. There he met Emmanuel Bourjolly, a chaplain who worked with inmates and led Bible studies with them. He and Kussman quickly formed a relationship.
“He impressed me every day,” Bourjolly said. “He came to me and asked for my guidance. I wanted him to cut off his yesterdays and focus on his tomorrows.”
And those tomorrows included a promise, of sorts, from Bourjolly to Kussman.
“[Bourjolly] told me I was going to go to the same place he went,” Kussman said. “He meant Princeton Theological Seminary. I had never laughed so hard in my life. I said, ‘Are you nuts, old man?’”
As the years went on behind bars, Kussman continued to work and study with Bourjolly. When Kussman was released into a halfway house, Bourjolly helped him earn his General Educational Development degree and apply to college. Four years later Kussman earned a degree in biblical studies—and got a surprise on graduation day.
“I don’t know how he found me, but that man showed up at my graduation,” he said of Bourjolly. “He said, ‘My son, are you ready?’ The next day I had an interview with Princeton.”
When looking for a home congregation, Kussman joined Holy Cross Lutheran in Springfield, N.J., where he would serve as vicar. Kussman said he found the ELCA congregation to be “the only welcoming church, after visiting a half-dozen beforehand.”
He sees his role in ministry as walking alongside people on their own journeys.
In 2019, Kussman earned a Master of Divinity degree with a Lutheran studies concentration from Princeton. In July of that year, he began his call as acting pastor of St. Bartholomew. In the span of less than a decade, he had gone from a prison cell to pastoring.
“Erich has completely changed,” said Bourjolly, whom Kussman identifies as his father figure. “He is still a fighter, but [now] he is fighting for others.”
At St. Bartholomew, Kussman strives to use all his hard-won life lessons to serve the community. He holds office hours on the sidewalk. He helped create a food pantry that serves nearly 200 families per week and has expanded to a meal distribution program during COVID-19. He sees his role in ministry as walking alongside people on their own journeys.
“This world needs a little love,” he said. “People may see [St. Bartholomew] and it’s the only Christ they see. Everyone needs a meeting spot, but it’s the people inside it who make it real. My dream is for the community to know we’re here.”
Last year, his story reached more people when he was featured in an episode of A&E’s digital-exclusive documentary series The Redeemed, on Facebook Watch. The true honor for Kussman, though, came when he was ordained and became an ELCA rostered minister in October. The service was the first time in his life, Kussman said, that he was “speechless.”
“It was a fulfillment,” he said. “Now let’s see what God has for me next.”