Kelvin Cochran served as a firefighter for over three decades. He was named “Fire Chief of the Year” in 2012, and former President Barack Obama appointed him the U.S. fire administrator, the highest fire service post in the nation.
But Cochran faced a different kind of fire in 2015 when he was terminated as Atlanta’s fire chief for writing a book in which he expressed his personal views that marriage is between one man and one woman. Cochran reached a settlement with the city of Atlanta in 2018, but says the experience of losing his job because of his faith was “challenging, to say the least.”
As Americans, “we have the freedom to live out our faith, religious liberty, and we have freedom to speak our faith in whatever form of speech that we feel convicted to do without consequences,” Cochran says. “You shouldn’t have to lose anything for living out your faith or speaking your faith in our country.”
Cochran joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his new book “Facing the Fire: The Faith That Brought ‘America’s Fire Chief’ Through the Flames of Persecution.”
We also cover these stories:
- Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell dies due to complications from COVID-19.
- The Supreme Court issues two opinions that are being hailed as big wins for police officers.
- Tensions continue between Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and city police officers over vaccine mandates.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am honored to welcome to the show the vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom, Kelvin Cochran. Mr. Cochran is the former Atlanta fire chief and in 2012, he was named “Fire Chief of the Year” by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He was appointed the United States fire administrator, the highest fire service post in the nation, by former President Barack Obama and his impressive 34-year career as a firefighter gained him national attention as “America’s firefighter.” Mr. Cochran, thank you so much for being here today.
Kelvin Cochran: Thank you, Virginia. I’m honored to be on your show.
Allen: Well, I am really excited to talk with you about your brand new book “Facing the Fire: The Faith That Brought ‘America’s Fire Chief’ Through the Flames of Persecution.” It’s out and available for purchase as of Oct. 12. And before we dive, Mr. Cochran, into the discussion of that book, I would love for you to share a little bit of your personal story. You were a firefighter for over three decades. Why did you decide to pursue that line of work?
Cochran: Well, my story is one of those classic American dream stories that started when I was a 5-year-old boy growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana.
At 5 years old, one Sunday after church, Virginia, there was a fire across the street from where we lived, Miss Maddy’s house was on fire. And when the Shreveport firefighters came, my brothers and sisters and I, we ran out on our front porch. When I was watching those Shreveport firefighters, I was so taken in by what they were doing. I looked at my mom and my sisters and brothers and said, “I want to be a fireman when I grow up.”
And we were a very, very poor family. My dad left my mother with six children. She never got remarried. And so we were struggling with poverty, living in a shotgun house in a back alley.
And when I shared my dreams with the people at church and at school and in the neighborhood, they pretty much all told us the same thing back in those days, that all of our dreams would come true in America if we would believe in and have faith in God, if we would go to school and get a good education, if we respected grown people and treat other children like we wanted to be treated. They said, “All of your dreams are going to come true.”
I was so determined to not be poor and to have a family that I never left them and to be a firefighter that I just believed what they were telling me were the keys to my dreams coming true. And it worked. So it all started as a 5-year-old boy.
Allen: I love that. That’s so encouraging and inspiring to hear that people from such a young age were encouraging you to follow that dream. That’s just really, really, really beautiful and so encouraging. I know that early on in your career, you did face some obstacles and some barriers and some discrimination. Talk a little bit about those and what it was like to keep pursuing your dream, even in the midst of facing some discrimination.
Cochran: That’s a great question. And again, I’d have to start from where I just ended. When my dream was born, blacks could not be firefighters, women could not be firefighters. I find it kind of odd, but also divine, that nobody ever told me, “Change your mind because blacks can’t be firefighters.” No one ever told me that.
And so I was raised on faith and patriotism. And in 1981 when I was hired, Virginia, it was a result of a lawsuit that was filed against the city of Shreveport who refused, who put up a fight to keep from hiring black firefighters and women. And so they lost the lawsuit. And so they were required to level the playing field so that blacks could be hired.
So when I graduated from the recruit academy and began my fire station assignment … they let us know in no uncertain terms that we were not welcomed, that we were only there because we were black and that we were protected by the government and so many other hurtful and awful things that were said.
There was a bed designated for the black firefighters so that the other white firefighters would avoid sleeping in that bed on the other shifts. Some fire stations even went so far as to have separate plates, forks, and spoons for black firefighters so no one would mistakenly eat from the same dishes. It was very, very difficult.
But those values that were instilled in me growing up, they worked even in that situation, believe in and have faith in God. The education piece was learn the job, know the job. No one can take your job knowledge from you. Respect the authority of the Shreveport Fire Department, in spite of how they are treating you, and treat the other firefighters like you want to be treated. And so those values got me through those difficult days and the favor of God was on me because of that.
Allen: You talk a lot about your faith, how important it is to you, where does that come from?
Cochran: It comes from my single mom. When Dad left, things were very, very difficult for Mom, and she knew the Lord, but when he left, she really turned wholeheartedly to her faith in God. And so I can remember how things just kind of shifted for us.
We joined a church, the Galilee Baptist Church at the top of the alley that we lived in, where Miss Maddy’s house caught on fire. We were in church when the doors were open, we were there and we were in Sunday school, we were in worship service. We went back in the evenings on Sundays for a Baptist training union. We went to Vacation Bible School. And our mother had high standards based upon the dreams she had for us. And she fed our dreams and let us know that with God, nothing can be impossible.
So just watching her walk through the difficult days that she had to endure and making sure that faith was instilled in us growing up, by the time I actually reached young adulthood in the fire service, that faith is what was instilled in me, was my foundation. And the challenges, Virginia, of going through a career in the early stages, I just began to see the hand of God in every situation come through on my behalf. So God has a track record. He builds a track record in our lives, even from childhood, that he is faithful and that we can count on him.
Allen: Amen. Amen to that. Well, you talk so much about your faith in your new book “Facing the Fire,” but it’s actually not your first book. It’s your second book. Your first book was “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” It’s a devotional. And you wrote that book when you were still the fire chief of Atlanta. Ultimately, that book, “Who Told You That You Were Naked?”, got you terminated by the mayor of Atlanta, from your position as Atlanta’s fire chief.
For those who may not know your story or it’s been a while, maybe, since they heard it, take us back to 2013, 2014, when you wrote that first book, and explain just a little bit about what that book was about and then how it ultimately cost you your job.
Cochran: Thank you, that’s a great question. People that heard you recite the title of the book, if they hadn’t connected that question with Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 11, they probably have drawn the conclusion, “Well, no wonder he got fired with a book titled ‘Who Told You That You Were Naked?'” But I was serving as fire chief of the city of Atlanta at that time, after returning from serving a year as the United States fire administrator, and very active in my church in men’s ministry.
I was teaching a group of men of this course called “The Quest for Authentic Manhood.” And one of the courses led me to discover that there are many Christian men who still struggle with our sinful nature. And the question “Who told you that you were naked?” points to that issue. “Who told you were naked?” in essence is saying, “Who told you that you are condemned and deprived?” That’s what God was asking Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Who told you that you were condemned and deprived?”
And for Christian men today, who the Bible clearly states that those who have been baptized in Christ have been clothed with Christ, we are no longer naked and there’s, therefore, now no condemnation. But men who struggle with condemnation cannot walk in the fullness of what God created us to be as husbands and fathers, as men, and all of our roles that God has placed us for his kingdom. That’s what the book is about, men walking in freedom and not being overcome with condemnation.
But four pages in the book, I talk about biblical marriage and biblical sexuality because many Christian men struggle with sexual sin. And I simply explain God’s purpose for marriage and God’s purpose for sexuality and that any sex outside of God’s purposes is sinful. And those are the pages and the principles in the book that cost me my childhood dream come true. …
An Atlanta City Council member who is openly gay discovered what I had spoke in the book. Even though it was written on my private and personal time, he complained to the honorable Mayor Kasim Reed, who embraced the ideology of the LGBT community as it relates to marriage and sexuality and he saw it as an opportunity to honor his commitment to them by initially suspending me for 30 days.
Now, Virginia, the suspension was intentioned to investigate me, to determine if I had ever used my biblical views on marriage and sexuality to discriminate against anyone who had opposite views. The investigation exonerated me that I had never done so, that I was just and fair in treating all people. But I was terminated anyway after the 30-day suspension.
Allen: So you are fired for your religious beliefs and essentially discriminated against for those beliefs. What was that like having someone, after all you had come through, after 30-plus years of devoting your life in service of being a firefighter, what was that like to then have someone essentially tell you are discriminating against others and make false accusations against you that ultimately resulted in you losing your job?
Cochran: It was challenging to say the least, because in the United States of America, we have the freedom to live out our faith, religious liberty, and we have freedom to speak our faith in whatever form of speech that we feel convicted to do without consequences. You shouldn’t have to lose anything for living out your faith or speaking your faith in our country.
But on the other side of that, Virginia, is because the Christian faith is rooted in love and tolerance of all peoples and people groups, I had the opportunity to live that out. I mean, the love that I shared with my brothers in the Shreveport Fire Department, in spite of their mean-spirited and hateful acts toward me because I was a black, that was the love of God in me. I vowed going through that experience that if I was ever in a position of leadership, no one would have to experience what I went through.
I was very intentional of extending justice and fairness and equity to all men and women of the departments that I was privileged to serve because we serve a diverse community, so you have to have an authentic love for people to be a firefighter. We are put in positions to where we could lay our lives on the line for even strangers, if duty calls for that. That’s what I lived out every day in my profession, but that’s the love that I have in my heart for people for Christ.
So to be accused of being bigoted because of my biblical views on marriage and sexuality and to assert that I’m no longer, Virginia, capable of leading a fire department because of those views was very, very hard for me.
Allen: And the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, for whom you now work, they represented you in that case. And you did, ultimately, come to a settlement in 2018 with the city of Atlanta. And you’ve written this book now, “Facing the Fire,” that tells this whole story, that tells how your faith helped to carry you through this season. What is the message that you really want readers to take from the book, especially as it regards the importance of religious freedom and standing up for religious freedom, whether or not we ourselves are religious?
Cochran: Well, first of all, praise God for Alliance Defending Freedom. I did not know that there was such a thing as a Christian law firm in the United States of America, but Alliance Defending Freedom is a Christian law firm, a Christian ministry that came alongside me to stand with me while I was facing the fire. And so I talk about their amazing role that they played when I was going through facing the fire.
But the book “Facing the Fire” is a God-sized story of how faithful God is in preparing us for the seasons that we experience. The Christian walk of faith is a series of level plains, mountain climbs, and valleys, and sufferings are necessary component of fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives. So I start the book off talking about what happened in Atlanta.
But you know, Virginia, how it is when some people have a near-death experience, they say their life flashed in front of them. When I was terminated, my life flashed in front of me, and God showed me that he had prepared me for that moment my entire life. And so I used the book to go back to childhood where I was having fires that I had to face, and God delivered me from those childhood fires.
I’m very transparent in the context of when I was a young adult and a young married man, how selfish I was and how those fires that I brought on myself created challenges that I had to turn to God. And he delivered me from those fires. I talk about the details of the fires that I faced, not just fighting fires, but actually the fires of racism and discrimination and how God delivered me through those fires. So readers will get to see my transparency in facing fires that led me to the confidence I had when I was terminated.
And I believe with all my heart that they’ll be able to see their lives, as they reflect back on their childhood, their family, their careers, how God has been faithful in their life. And he will be faithful with them if they end up facing the fire for living out their faith.
There’s five things that I really, really want to emphasize that are takeaways, major takeaways from “Facing the Fire,” the book. First of all, God always prepares us to face the fire. We wouldn’t be going through the fire if God had not determined that he had equipped us to go through the fire.
The second thing that I’ve learned is that there are worldly consequences for standing on biblical truth and standing for Christ. But No. 3 is there are kingdom consequences for standing on biblical truth and standing for Christ and the kingdom consequences are always greater than the worldly consequences.
What I’ve learned as No. 4 is God is glorified when his sons and daughters have the courage and grace to face the fire. He’s seen in a way that he would’ve never been seen before if we had not had the courage and grace to stand.
And the fifth thing is, as Jesus promised, if you face persecution for standing for him, he says, “I’ll restore whatever you lose a hundredfold.” My testimony, Virginia, is truth that Jesus was not speaking in hyperbole. …
I lost some friends, some what I thought were good friends, but I have been restored friends that are a hundredfold greater than the friends that I’ve lost. I lost a good job, but now I’m a senior fellow and vice president for Alliance Defending Freedom, the same law firm that defended my case. God has given me a job that’s a hundredfold greater than the job that I’ve lost. I can tell you, Virginia, every area of loss, God has restored it a hundredfold.
Allen: A hundredfold, that is beautiful. Well, for those listening, Mr. Cochran, who feel encouraged listening to you and inspired, but at the same time, there might be this sense of hesitation—they might know that if they were to really open up and be honest about their faith in their workplace, that they might face a similar situation, that they could risk being fired, losing their job. And for so many people, they need that income. They have a family to support and they think it’s just not worth the risk. What would be your message to them?
Cochran: I would say to them that when we consider the risk that we face in the United States of America, compared to the risk that other sons and daughters of God face in other nations, the losses that we face in America pale in comparison to the losses that other Christians deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Remember the story of the 21 Christian Egyptian men, about six years ago, who were captured by ISIS and [were told], “You reject Christ or we’re going to cut your heads off.” They refused to reject Christ and their heads were cut off.
In Afghanistan even today, families who are Christian families are given ultimatum: “Reject Jesus Christ or we’re going to kill your children.” There’s not a case on record where a father who is a Christian in Afghanistan rejected Jesus Christ. And they were faithful to their risk, their threat, their precious children were killed.
I remember about five years ago in northern Kenya, a college campus where Christian and Muslim students were known to attend a radical group of Islamists stormed the college campus, separated the Muslim students from the Christian students, and told the Christian students, “You’re all going to die. The only way you get to live is to reject Jesus Christ.” One hundred and twenty-five college kids refused to reject Jesus Christ and they were gunned down on the spot.
We don’t face those kinds of challenges in the United States of America. I lost my job, but I didn’t lose my head, I didn’t lose my children, and God gave me another job that is greater.
What I would challenge Christian Americans to think about is that we have a part to play and God has a part to play. And if we do our part, God is going to be faithful to do his part. …
TobyMac has a wonderful song, “I don’t want to gain the whole world and lose my soul.” When we make a decision not to stand, what we’re saying is, “I would rather gain the whole world and take a risk on losing my soul. There is no gain to having an opportunity to stand for Jesus.” And then through fear of loss of worldly whatevers, we reject Jesus Christ in that moment. The worldly consequences cannot compare, brothers and sisters, to the kingdom consequences that God has promised. And I’m living proof of that.
Allen: Mr. Cochran, I think that’s such an excellent reminder of the fact that the beauty that we have here in America of religious freedom, what a gift that is. We have seen, though, such an increase in things like cancel culture. And for individuals, we see more and more stories of people just like you that have been persecuted because of their faith. Are you optimistic that we, as Americans, can really stand in this moment and defend our First Amendment rights, the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and are you optimistic for the future of our country?
Cochran: I am and let me tell you why. I believe that God is divinely provoking the body of Christ to come together as a unified body. The reason why it appears we’re not losing the cancel culture war is because the body of Christ is so divided by race and politics and denominations and other things, but primarily race and politics and denominations have kept us so divided. And in our divided state, Virginia, we have become so silent and passive and the enemy appears to be having the upper hand.
But I believe God is going to provoke a spiritual revival in the United States of America, where we begin to come together as a unified body, to stand as one body on behalf of all believers who are attacked for living out their faith.
One of my job assignments for [Alliance Defending Freedom] is to develop a national deployment strategy so that every time a believer is publicly attacked for living out their faith, there’s a unified response from the body of Christ to that location on their behalf, to pray with them, to support them, to have a legal strategy around them, to have community engagement with them and the community on their behalf, so that they will not feel alone and so that they will not have a sense of loss.
I believe that’s one of the ways that the body of Christ is going to come together. Because none of us celebrate when a believer is being attacked, but we don’t want to act on our own. We want there to be a unified response. And so hopefully within the next three to six months, that’ll be a reality and it’ll happen every time. And what that’s going to do, if we have a unified, consistent response every time a believer is attacked, I believe more believers will have the courage and grace to stand and will ultimately cancel cancel culture.
Allen: Mr. Cochran, thank you. The book is “Facing the Fire: The Faith That Brought ‘America’s Fire Chief’ Through the Flames of Persecution.” Thank you, Mr. Cochran, so much for your time today.
Cochran: Thank you so much. I appreciate being on your show.
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