Getting high on God with former addicts at Red Letter Ministries

It's Friday night in a beat-up north Minneapolis neighborhood. Brandon Barthrop is a former drug addict who smoked marijuana at 13, experimented with meth at 14 and did as much acid as he could do before he was 18. At 20, he says he had a spiritual awakening at Teen Challenge while finishing up a court-ordered rehab program.

"I hear an audible voice of God speak over me as I'm sitting outside the office and the Lord said, 'I will make you more high than all the drug addicts and I'll make them jealous of how high I get you," he said.

After 5 years of bible school, Barthrop came back home and started a fringe movement, Red Letter Ministries. Its members literally get high on faith.

'No high like the Most High'

"No high like the 'Most High.' That's the truth. He is the 'Most High.' All of the life energy that's on the earth comes from God. So when you get into God, you will feel like 10,000 watts of electricity surging through your veins," he preached.

That energy plays out every Friday night in Barthrop's living room, otherwise known as Joel's Bar, where Barthrop free-styles sermons live to his followers online. To say his methods are unorthodox is probably an understatement. His sermons are a mix of moments of zen, vulgarity and messages of his own creation.

"So like when we snort invisible lines or toke the ghost we're enjoying the breath of life which in Hebrew means the holy spirit," he said.

Why so vulgar?

Fox 9 posed a question: People who consider themselves "Messengers of God" priests and pastors don't drop profanities at the pulpit, so how does his vulgarity come into play?

"So, it's just a cultural interpretation. If you're in the hood here and you're speaking ebonics that's just how you communicate. There's nothing derogatory about it. That's all you know how to talk, so maybe we're trying to reach people in the low places," he said.

'You could tell he's speaking the truth'

Barthrop says his messages have wide reach.

"My friend Carol started watching first and was like, ‘Yeah, he looks whacked out and stuff, but he's preaching the truth.' So it looks different than what you're probably used to as far as church and people preaching the gospel but you could tell he's speaking the truth," follower Rebecca Philips said.

Followers for more than three years, Philips and her friend, Carol, drive up from Cleveland every few months to see him preach in person.

"When you get healed up and you know the father and you start to know him intimately, like what it says, in his presence is fullness of joy so it's like when you tap into that. And people around you are flowing in it. And when you see that it's like, whoa. It's like a joy bomb," Philips said.

Then, there are followers like Jessica, a former Playboy model.

"I tried so many things to fill up my spirit and I just felt this overwhelming spirit of loneliness, always, my whole life, and I knew that God was there but I just didn't find any people that believed in the lord like I did," she said.

Three years ago, the former model and drug addict put all her chips on Red Letter Ministries and stopped going to her weekly AA meetings to hang out with Barthrop.

"When he was talking, it was like everything that I had felt my whole life since I was a kid, that 6-year-old girl that prayed on a mountain, ‘Lord, save me,' everything that he was saying was everything that I had thought, felt, everything inside me was confirmed. It was kind of like reading a book in one second. It's like the puzzle all came together," she said.

The skeptics

His sermons don't draw much of a crowd at the crack house. In fact, it's hard to say just how many followers he has. He lays claim to thousands online, but there's no doubt Barthrop's drunken ministry is creating a buzz way beyond Minneapolis. All over the world, hundreds of people have weighed in. Countless bloggers, religious leaders and church websites are trying to undo his message. Hundreds of websites all over the world warn of his "charismatic goofery" and "demonic offerings," as one puts it.

Dr. Charles Reid, a religious expert at St. Thomas struggles to take Barthrop seriously.

"It's hard to say where this will go. You could see it settle down, you could see it blow up in his face," Dr. Reid said. "He reminds me a great deal of Cheech and Chong."

"It comes down to, is he doing good in the world, and we have to really look at the people around him. Have they improved their lives?"

Every drug under the sun, nothing better than God

Meanwhile, Barthrop contends he is doing good.

"I've discipled people off of heroin. We've had them live in our house for six months, get their kids out of child custody. Read the book of john together, out loud and hug each other. I've tried every drug under the sun, there's nothing better than God," he said.

Several people from his past spoke to us, including local pastors and youth group directors who knew him before he started his ministry. They've all since cut ties, fearing his messaging has spun out of control.

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