published Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Chattanooga community gathers to fight gangs

Minister T.J. Johnson, a reformed gangbanger and drug dealer, speaks to the congregation at New Emanuel Baptist Church on Friday night. The church was holding a youth revival.
Minister T.J. Johnson, a reformed gangbanger and drug dealer, speaks to the congregation at New Emanuel Baptist Church on Friday night. The church was holding a youth revival.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

As T.J. Johnson stood at the front of a church congregation Friday night, he held up a silver platter holding money, a fake gun and a bag representing a kilo of cocaine.

"These were the wages of my sin," the former drug lord told the youths sitting in the pews in front of him at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church. "All the money, the drugs, the women. I know you all know what it's all about."

He then lowered the platter and pointed into the congregation.

"But all of it leads to death," he shouted. "All of it leads to death."

Johnson, president and CEO of the Memphis-based Wake Up Youth Foundation, knows how sweet the payoff of drug running can be. He was well acquainted with gang activity and drugs before he was 10 years old, and by age 15 he had established himself as a kingpin drug dealer and gang leader in North Memphis -- raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug sales.

But when Johnson was still just a teen his brother was shot and killed by gang members. He vowed to kill his brother's murderer and everyone in the man's family, until the woman who later became his wife convinced him he had to forgive them.

"She led me to the church, and that was my new beginning," he said.

Shortly after, Johnson was facing 35 years to life in prison on drug trafficking charges. Because of good behavior, he was let out after four and has being trying to help youths stay out of trouble since then.

As spokesman for the federal Second Chance Reentry Act, he's met with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to share his experience concerning gang prevention and violence.

This week, Johnson's been speaking with the youths at Emmanuel for the church's annual youth revival.

Work with faith-based groups is a crucial element of what Johnson describes as a multipronged effort to clamp down on gangs, which must also involve law enforcement and an arsenal of prevention and intervention programs.

Deacon Wallace Powers said the church has been engaged in a long struggle to pull its youths away from gang activity.

"We've got a few who are in gangs, and we've got a few wanna-bes who are 15, 16 years old," said church deacon Wallace Powers. "We just want to show them love so they don't go looking for love somewhere else."

Earlier this summer and during this week Johnson met with city leaders and spoke in local schools, sharing brutally honest accounts of his life with the gang and his time in prison.

"This city is in for a rude awakening. When you have sixth- and seventh-graders willing to die for what they believe in, you need to start having serious prevention programs," he said. "Everyone needs to step up."

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