Minister Adrian Johnson drives a really cool car. Pimped up in sparkling green paint, squatting on dubs (street language for the 20-inch wheels that make the cars ride high in the air), Johnson's ride fits right in with what's called "D-Boy smooth" on the streets, but with a hard-to-ignore difference.
The word "Jesus" is emblazoned across the side of the car in bright gold script.
Posted up at the Breaking The Cycle Boys Symposium last Saturday (April 5th) at Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church on Stage Road in Cordova, Johnson's "whip" perfectly symbolized the church's mission to reach out to youths and speak to them – in plain but impactful ways – of how temptations can ruin their ambitions. Several hundred were in attendance, some transported by bus by Memphis Police Department, a sponsor.
Highlighted by the appearance of Memphis basketball legend Penny Hardaway and keynoter Antwone Fisher, speaker, author and screenwriter, the symposium concluded with a powerful lecture and slide show by gang intervention specialist Terrell "TJ" Johnson.
Chronicled by The New Tri State Defender in June 2007 in an article terming him the "Gangster of Gospel," some may scoff at the anointing of oil Johnson placed on those he addressed directly. Still, his presentation had a very real and visible impact.
"Because they know I'm telling the truth," Johnson explains. "I was facing 35 years to life when I was saved."
His organization is called the Wake Up Youth Foundation. From gasps to needed moments of humor and encouragement, Johnson "don't play." He mixes preaching with street lessons backed up with a slide show showing kids the risk they are taking with their lives if they become gang affiliated.
"This one is fifteen. He was found in a ditch where his brothers in the gang dumped him. This next one shows you another young man murdered by his own gang before they went and shot up his mother's home. See this young lady? Her boyfriend murdered her and stuffed her in a garbage can. That's the chance you are taking with your lives when you run these streets," said Johnson narrating through several slides.
A particularly telling moment came when one slide panel displayed the word "saggin."
"Now, reverse that word and think about it," Johnson told them. "Quit falling for these mind games the streets put on you."
Assembling the crowd up front, Johnson walked through, giving personal messages to many. As he addressed this one and that one, Terri Lawrence, who was taking pictures, pointed out a young man who was visibly disturbed. The minister grabbed him and spoke with him, bringing the young man to tears as he acknowledged that he was having gang-related problems.
Standing by his car afterward, Johnson told the young man's story.
"His brother is a big gang member in a major set. For him to be here and to see how it affected him is why we have to keep doing this. It gave him the courage to step forth and ask for help."
Nicholas Bouey brought his 11-year-old son, Nicholas, and nephews, Orien, 13, and Jacoby Franklin, 11. Asked about the presentation, Orien said, "It was a little explicit, but...that's life." Saying he is an "A-B" level student, he says that so far he has not been approached by anyone in a gang.
The elder Bouey said he was glad he brought the boys.
"Letting them see (what gang life could lead to) for themselves was a very positive experience, because they're not going to listen to the parents," he said.
"I've had experiences in my past that I don't want them to know about and to let them see it as it really is keeps them from thinking that just because I made mistakes and come through it they can do the same thing. I think it is something kids that may be caught up need to see."