Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Reformed American Gangster Does Good...

From ‘Real Gangster’ To The White House? Breaking The Cycle Of Crime And Self-Destruction

Terrell Johnson has put his past behind him and now focuses his attention on troubled youth. He and his wife, Lisa, are reaching youth locally and nationally through their organization, Wake Up Youth Foundation. (Photo by Wiley Henry)

Before Terrell Johnson had what he calls his “Damascus Road” experience, he’d become one of the roughest gang leaders and drug kingpins in Memphis.

By the time he was 15, he’d made more than a half million dollars on the streets of North Memphis. His drug empire was growing, he said, and those selling little white chunks of cocaine followed his lead.

“I was a real gangster,” said Johnson, also known as T.J. “I said to God, ‘I didn’t kill Christians, but if You did it for Paul, You can do it for me.’ That was the day the Holy Ghost came to me.”

After Johnson’s transformation, youth organizations and law enforcement officials began seeking advice from the former gang member and ex-convict who managed to turn his life around.

Last month, the National Exhoodus Council in Philadelphia, Pa., tapped him to be its national spokesperson for Urban Issues, a public safety initiative the Council is tweaking to unveil at a White House Summit some time this spring. The date hasn’t been set.

Terrell and Lisa Johnson spent 12 days in the nation’s capitol for a pre-inauguration agenda en route to a possible meeting with President Barack Obama some time in the spring. Here, they show off some of the memorabilia from their trip, including a pair of cufflinks, tickets and writing pen. (Photos by Wiley Henry)

Johnson also will speak at various venues during the Council’s “Exhoodus National Tour” to promote peace between gang leaders and offer alternatives to criminal behavior.

Twenty American cities have been identified on the tour. Those cities, said Malik Aziz, the co-founder and national co-chair, have the highest gang problems and aberrant behavior among youth.

The word Exhoodus, he said, is “Ebonic” – which comes from “Exodus” in the Bible; and ‘hood represents urban ghettos. “It’s the same concept as the Jews coming out of Egypt. So we’re hoping black people will come out of the environment of gangs, drugs and crime.”

Aziz served a total of 14 years in a Pennsylvania prison for drug trafficking before he re-invented himself. He said he met Johnson last year in Philadelphia when Johnson spoke at a re-entry program at the behest of then-Mayor John F. Street.

“I was impressed with his candor and demeanor. And when I heard his story, I also was impressed,” said Aziz, the assistant director of the Office of Re-entry, which he convinced the mayor to open for people like himself who were formerly incarcerated.

“That was when I asked Pastor T.J. to be a part of the Council and serve as the national spokesperson,” said Aziz, 55.

Johnson’s wife, Lisa, is the national spokesperson for women’s issues.

“We can’t just do this stuff on paper. We have to be in those communities,” said Aziz. “We want to end the culture of crime in those communities and motivate people to change. We’re experts in this stuff.”

A troubled beginning

When Johnson is asked to speak to troubled youth, he talks candidly about himself and the repercussions of criminal involvement. He’d been on the streets of Memphis dealing dope and reeking havoc until the police caught up with him.

“I was 19 and facing a 35-year-to-life prison sentence for drug trafficking,” he said.

After spending four years in prison, he was released in 1995. His parole didn’t end until 1999. But life on the outside, he said, was a little difficult to manage. In 2002, he lost just about everything he’d tried to regain.

“I lost everything,” he said. “I was in a house for six and a half months with two small children and no lights. The fire department came over and brought me a generator.”

In the United States, 700,000-plus men and women get out of prison and return to their homes without a job. Terrell and Lisa Johnson, president and vice-president of the Wake Up Tour Foundation, hope to do something about those statistics.

Then an opportunity arose. In 2003, Mayor Willie W. Herenton offered Johnson a job as a prevention and intervention coordinator for the city’s Juvenile Violence Abatement Project (JVAP). Directed by Dr. Rita Dorsey of the Memphis Police Department, Johnson was the first ex-felon the department hired.

That same year, he experienced God for himself and was compelled to change his life. At the same time, Lisa was grappling with her own problems. But she understood Johnson’s pain and offered him her shoulders for support.

“I was married to a man for 19 years,” said Lisa, whose last name then was Woods. “He was addicted to crack, but I stayed with him through 12 rehabs.”

Christ, she said, helped get her through the dangers of marriage. “He helped me through the nights when people were holding guns to his head and mine. My son and me would hide in the closet. But God was protecting us.”

As a teenager, Lisa’s son was troubled. It eventually got him locked up. “He (Johnson) came to my house one time and identified everything,” she said. “He was the one who told me that my son was gang-affiliated.”

Also, Johnson and Lisa each lost a brother to gang violence and bad drug deals. On the streets, Johnson explained, “When you kill six of mine, I’m going to kill 12 of yours. That’s what gangbanging means.”

He didn’t go that far to avenge his brother’s death. “I didn’t know the life he was in,” said Lisa. “He kept calling me, so I gave in. When I found out about his life, I knew there was something in him that said that part of his life was over.”

A year later, Terrell Johnson married the former Lisa Woods in a lavish wedding.

National ambition

Johnson wears several hats now as he seeks to get his message across. He is the pastor of two churches: Temple Faith Deliverance Church in Bolivar, Tenn., and Wake-Up Ministries in Memphis.

“I was a gangster,” he said. “Now I’m a preacher and politician. It is a major part of my life now.”

He also is the founder and president of Wake Up Youth Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to inform, empower and educate young people about the responsibility of living productive lives.

The Foundation also seeks to steer young people away from gang violence, drugs, peer pressure and other societal ills. Lisa Johnson is the Foundation’s vice president.

“Last year, there were 168 homicides,” Johnson pointed out.

Those grim statistics keep the Johnsons out front in the fight to restore those who are formerly incarcerated and the youth who often follow bad examples.

“In the United States, 700,000-plus men and women get out of prison and return to their homes without a job,” Johnson said. “While some of them are returning home, their children are going in.”

This is the premise that prompted Aziz to launch the National Exhoodus Council and tour. Comedian Bill Cosby, he said, was introduced to “Exhoodus” two years ago and was impressed.

“So were Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn) and Congressmen Danny Davis and Patrick Murphy . . . And Obama’s senior advisors when he was the president-elect.”

Aziz said a strategic plan will be finished and unveiled Feb. 23 in Wilmington, De., Vice President Joe Biden’s home state. That afternoon, the plan will be unveiled in Philadelphia.

The group also is scheduled to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus on Feb. 24. “The strategic plan,” Aziz said “includes job development, an education proposal, mentoring, and an entrepreneurial package.”

He said he’s met with President Obama several times over the course of the campaign and expects to meet with him in the White House soon to discuss the strategic plan.

The Johnsons were in Washington for a pre-inauguration agenda. They spent 12 days there. Terrell Johnson spoke about public safety at the University of the District of Columbia.

The goal, he said, is to get the President to sign off on the strategic plan.

“This is a dream come true,” said Lisa Johnson. “In the beginning, our goal was to take the Wake Up Youth Foundation to the national level. It is the tool that has taken us to where we are today.”

For more information on the National Exhoodus Council or the Wake Up Youth Foundation, contact Terrell Johnson or Lisa Johnson at 901-412-9778 or email them at info@wuyf.org.

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