This Pint-Sized Preacher May Be a Prophet, But Who's Profiting?
On a treeless cement slab of Northwest Miami-Dade County, a swarm of spruced-up families filters into New Harvest Missionary Baptist Church. Terry Durham sits quietly on a folding chair in a cluttered office at the building's rear. His knee bobs anxiously. He's dressed with flamboyant confidence in white alligator-skin boots and a powder-blue suit, but his eyes shift timidly around the room, which is filled with chattering adults.
Terry's an ordained minister. He's also 11 years old.
"Oh, he's shy now," says his grandmother, Sharon Monroe. "But once he gets up to that pulpit, the Spirit takes over."
Monroe is a rotund 51-year-old with a sparkly blue dress, a pouty baby face, and stiff curly hair. She suggests a prayer to ask the Lord to speak through the boy — "to use this child in Jesus' name." So she and Terry grasp hands and bow heads. Afterward, they exit the stifling room, enter a crowded sanctuary, and march down a short aisle to the altar.
Mothers in the audience wag paper fans and adjust their Sunday best, clapping along to a raucous church band. The Rev. Gregory Thompson approaches the podium. He's the house pastor at New Harvest, which is around the corner from the Opa-locka Airport. He has a clean-shaven head, a bright white smile, and wise chocolate-brown eyes. He asks the Lord to bless the congregation, the country's new president, children in general, and the looming FCAT test. Then he hands over the microphone to Terry — and something shifts inside the boy.
The band starts with an instrumental number, and he transforms into a young Michael Jackson, half-singing as he preaches. "Said, I don't know 'bout who I'm preachin' to today," he wails, nostrils flared. "But you betta get ready to come out the hell you been goin' through!"
"Amen!" a sweaty woman in a red sundress hollers.
"Say that!" another chimes.
Terry dances, recites memorized Scripture, and pulls women and children from the audience. The band plays faster. He hops onto a chair, jumps off for dramatic effect, then orders a gold-toothed pianist to "go down on your knees and shout Jesus three times!" The middle-aged musician obeys.
At the podium, the dashing, almond-eyed fourth-grader uses a blue dish towel to dab moisture from his shiny face. "You gon' hafta 'scuse me today, Lord!" he shouts, whipping the towel in a circle. "A-coz I just feel good!" The guitar screeches; the piano moans. A toddler with sticky cheeks dances in the aisle.
After a few minutes, inspired churchgoers form an impromptu line before the young minister. They are broke young fathers, old ladies with bad backs, burnt-out moms with babies on their hips. Terry is shorter than all of them, but he reaches up and palms the forehead of a pudgy, braided woman in a gray flowing skirt. "The-house-a-that-you-want... it's coming on the way!" he howls. "The life-a-that-you want, huh! It's coming on the way!" His facial expression — creased brow and wild eyes — could be mistaken for pain as he belts out gibberish that sounds like deep, passionate pig Latin. He's in a trance, speaking in tongues.
Terry grasps the woman's head like a basketball, and she suddenly begins to shake as if struck by a mild seizure. He pushes her gently, and she falls backward into the arms of two mesmerized choir girls dressed in matching white outfits. The braided woman, tears streaming down her plump cheeks, drops to her knees, rocks, and screams "Jesus, Jesus!"
When Terry finishes, Monroe takes the microphone. "Don't forget we got CDs and DVDs outside," she says. "Visit www.ministerterrydurham.org for more information."
The Rev. Thompson gestures toward a steel-mesh bucket. "I want you to bless him," he urges. Inspired churchgoers drop in tens, 20s, and 50s. Thompson says they can make change. "Come on, we can break a hundred!"
It's just another Sunday for the bright, bashful Margate boy. In the past five years, dozens of churches have invited the child; his twin brother, Todd Jr.; and his grandmother to 35 states and four countries, where he has performed what Grandma Monroe calls "healings" and "layin' hands." His followers swear he has the ability to prophesize and cure ailments — both emotional and physical. Sponsors have booked family members into fine hotels and showered them with monetary "blessings."
Terry's is the tale of a talented, humble Liberty City Elementary schoolkid rising from sickness to stardom. But while TV and newspapers have chronicled his growing success, including a brief feel-good profile in the New York Times in March, the circus of adults that surround him and their respective criminal histories make the story more complex. Monroe's never-before-disclosed past includes organized fraud and felony theft convictions, and Terry's father has done three jail stints on drug charges — raising questions about his handlers.
"The grandma's milking him," says freelance writer Adolfo Flores, who penned the story for the Times. "It was something I wanted to show but couldn't."
Counters Sharon Monroe: "We're not pricin' God's word. Terry don't even make enough to pay the bills."
On Terry's first day of life, he nearly died. Doctors rushed the premature, two-pound, 13-ounce baby to the intensive-care unit at Broward General Hospital, where they hooked him to a breathing machine and pushed tubes into his raisin-sized nose. His twin brother, also ungodly tiny, was put through the same regimen.
His mother, Nicole Little, was then a slender, 18-year-old club kid with Naomi Campbell cheekbones. Looking at her twin boys, she broke down. "He could fit in the palm of my hand."
After series of tense blood transfusions and three months of tearful episodes, Terry and Todd Jr. came home to Monroe's place. The only clothes Terry fit into were blue-and-white striped Cabbage Patch doll pajamas. "Some people say twins is double trouble," Monroe likes to say. "But the Lord gave us a double blessin.' "
The boys' father — Todd Durham — says he had admired Little, who was two years older, from afar at Blanche Ely High School. "She was one of the popular, pretty girls," he says. "She didn't know I had a big crush." Todd was a quiet but cocksure kid who spent time tinkering with computers and "was into partying." The pair met at a car wash in Pompano Beach.
After the twins were born, the couple moved in with Monroe, Todd's mom, and "lived like a married couple" for a short period, Durham says, though they never wed.
Terry was far less healthy than his brother. "We didn't think he'd make it," Little says. "[Todd Jr.] was doing fine, but Terry had complications." He had to take prescription medication to swallow food, learn to breathe on his own, and see physical therapists three times a week.
The next year, in 1999, Little says she decided "to go back to school." So she moved out and gave Sharon Monroe custody of the boys.
By the time the twins were a year old, the pressures of being a young single father began to overwhelm Todd. And his rap sheet started to grow. "It was an inner-city neighborhood," he says. "I'm no saint."
Just before 8 p.m. on November 24, 1998, an anonymous female tipster told Hollywood police about a crack dealer who was holding $200 of rock in the parking lot at 20th Avenue and Johnson Street, according to court documents. When an undercover cop approached Todd, he gestured to a loaded silver .38-caliber Smith and Wesson under his front seat. "Don't fuck around," Todd said. The cop handed over $200 in crisp $20 bills for ten rocks. Todd was charged with one count of delivering cocaine and three counts of carrying a concealed weapon. Officers also found a $20 bag of marijuana on him and charged him for that.
Ten days later, while out on bond, he dealt crack to another undercover cop. He was arrested again and charged with delivering cocaine. He pleaded guilty in May 1999 and was sentenced to 32 months in state prison and 18 months of house arrest for both cases.
These days, Durham says he was "set up" after a big deal ended badly. "They ended up turning informants on me."
He says he regrets selling drugs but adds, "Honestly, when you're young, who wouldn't want to live the life of a dealer? It's extravagant."
When Durham began serving time, Monroe took the boys. But in early 2000, Grandma ran into a legal problem of her own. It wasn't her first time in trouble — Miami narcotics cops busted Monroe on June 10, 1992, for buying "six plastic bags of cocaine," according to a police report. The case was dropped in exchange for her participation in drug rehab.
In March 2000, she picked up the phone and — with soft, plump fingers — punched in the number of 78-year-old Dorothy Pinnell, who lived in a nursing home in Bloomington, Indiana. Monroe introduced herself and asked for the elderly woman's bank account number, according to court documents.
Bank investigators soon noticed fishy checks and telephoned Pinnell, who told them a female caller had lied to her. Monroe told Pinnell that "she had won the lotto" and "had to pay taxes on her winnings," according to court documents.
In October 2000, a bookkeeper involved in the phony lotto operation spilled the details to cops. Monroe was one of three women charged with conning $20,000 from at least six elderly victims. After a two-week trial, Monroe was convicted of organized fraud and grand theft. On September 21, 2001, she was sentenced to three years' probation.
Monroe won't talk much about the conviction. She says only that it was the fault of a company she worked for and that it was her first day on the job. "I didn't know nothing," she says. "I was doing what I was told."
Adds her lawyer, Dennis McHugh: "She paid restitution — that's the only reason she didn't go to prison."
Around that time, Monroe began to run an intimate church congregation in a blue townhouse in Sunrise. Terry, then a chubby toddler, would suck on his index finger, watch her preach in the living room, and imitate her voice inflections, she says.
By 2003, she and the twins moved from the $65,000 townhouse into a white $200,000 Oriole Estates house, where a glistening pool sometimes served as a baptismal font.
Soon, Monroe says, she went on disability for "a back problem," stopped working, and began to care for five foster children. From 2001 to 2006, she filed five claims seeking child support against relatives of unrelated children.
A big-screen TV flickers on a lazy Saturday afternoon in March at Sharon Monroe's dimly lit, one-story Margate home when the phone rings. "Praise the Lord," she answers. "You calling from Jamaica for Minister Terry?" she asks, her drowsy brown eyes shifting from the television to the boy. There's a pause. "Yeah, you want him to pray for you?"
Terry leans against the kitchen counter, flipping through a watch catalog. As Monroe hands him the phone, he closes his eyes. In a gentle voice, he asks the Lord to help the caller with sickness. "You know there's a problem she's facing now, Father God," he pleads. "I'm looking for a breakthrough in the mighty name of Jes-us!" When he opens his eyes, they are raw and damp. He looks deeply empathetic.
Monroe hears the prayer end and tells Terry to remind the caller he'll be touring Jamaica on April 26. A bottle of prescription painkillers and a pack of baby diapers sit next to her on the counter.
Afterward, New Times asks Terry how he'd describe God. "I think — " he starts.
"It's a spirit," Monroe interrupts.
Though Terry's family life has been dark at times, the trouble seems to have propelled him in the opposite direction — into an insular world marked by prayer and good deeds. Like his followers, Terry believes he has "a gift" that allows him to channel a higher power, cure the afflicted, and uplift the hopeless.
He says he got the calling when he was 3 years old. Tina Bernard — a short, Haitian-born 38-year-old who cared for him at a six-room Christian daycare called This Generation of Hope on West Broward Boulevard, says: "You'd never forget this boy." One morning, she came to work with a throbbing headache. Terry waddled over, took her head in his hands, and closed his eyes. She swears the pain faded upon his touch. "I felt a burden lift," she says. "I was lighter afterwards."
At the time, Monroe would take Terry with her whenever she preached. "This boy didn't know nothing but church," remembers the boy's aunt, Robbie Stone. "He was always in his room listening to Jesus music."
The next year, Terry says he realized, "God speaks through me." He thinks for a second, trying to describe it. "It's like a nice breeze come over me."
Adds mom Nicole: "He wasn't an ordinary child; he was more like an adult."
At age 4, Terry was reclusive; he dealt with asthma, hernia surgery, and prescriptions for digestive issues. One day, when the boy was 6, Monroe says, Terry's cousins awakened her. "Something's happening to Terry in the bathroom," one of them said. She pressed her ear to the door and found him preaching to himself.
That year, Monroe reports that she allowed Terry to give his first sermon at her church, True Gospel Deliverance Ministry. They held their services at Temple Beth El Synagogue in Palm Beach County. He moved to Pastor Ernestine Cooper's church in Fort Lauderdale. Says Cooper: "The message that comes out of him isn't from a child — it's the power of God."
In the months that followed, Terry's health complications faded and he started to make friends. Twin brother Todd Jr., who plays drums during the sermons, says other kids "knew he was a preacher, but they liked him anyway."
In the following years, Terry preached every Sunday at Monroe's church in Palm Beach County, where the family collected donations. Monroe says she put the money Terry earned into a personal account for the boy.
In November 2004, Monroe, who didn't work outside the church, was sued by Ford Motor Credit Co., which claimed she owed $1,500 and threatened to repossess her Ford Explorer. Terry's Bank of America account was frozen to pay for the car.
That March, the Sun-Sentinel ran a profile on Terry, calling him a "wonder boy" and dubbing him "The Little Man of God."
A few months later, Todd Durham built a website for his son that called the boy "the world's youngest licensed and ordained minister" and sold "Terry Durham products." The site shows a photo of the child — akin to an actor's headshot — clad in a pinstriped suit. In one hand, he holds the Bible. With the other, he points into the camera. "Please be advised Terry Durham is an international Minister," the site reads. "Booking will result in a contract and service fees."
On a recent Friday night, in an empty church parking lot, Todd Durham becomes animated as he speaks about his son. "Terry is the Hannah Montana of gospel!" he says. "When you're hot, everybody wants a piece of you."
The scene could have been plucked from Jesus Camp: In an immaculate white suit, 9-year-old Terry puts a microphone to his lips as benchfuls of children stare up at him with admiration. It's early 2007, and he urges the church crowd, "Don't lose faith." As he speaks, a young man his height — with buzzed hair and a neon-green shirt — limps toward him on crutches.
Midsentence, Terry reaches out and palms the injured boy's head. "Heal him in the name of Jesus!" Terry hollers.
The crowd cheers. The music blares. Overcome, the injured boy throws down his crutches and prances off-camera without a limp. "That child walked away dancing!" Monroe insists.
Around that time, Terry's audiences began to grow. With larger crowds came larger offerings. In February 2007, Terry preached at the Titus Harvest Dome Spectrum Church in Jacksonville before a gathering of 7,000. Trinity Broadcast Network, an international Christian television station, shot footage. Harvest Dome Minister Phillip Brown remembers that the show was so popular, they had to bring chairs into the aisles. "It was packed," he says, "You could see the hand of the Lord come upon him."
TV news quickly caught on. That same year, Terry appeared on the Today Show. Then ABC Nightly News shot footage of the 9-year-old in a segment about child preachers in which a mustached anchorman asked: "But whose word is it?" They aired clips of women falling to their knees at Terry's touch. Randall Balmer, a professor at Barnard College, explained that Terry and kids like him were "parroting their parents." He later told New Times: "There's an element of exploitation... it turns preaching into a spectacle."
Some fans treated Terry as a Christ in the making. "We got calls every day," Monroe says. "They wanted him to cure they sick sister or they dieing mama."
Other viewers approached Terry on the street. One starstruck 20-something ran up to Terry at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport two years ago. "Can you touch my wallet?" she asked, explaining her financial woes. A 105-year-old woman vowed to have Terry bless her before she passed away.
Churches across the country began inviting the boy. The family stayed in the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City — a $300-per-night oceanview hotel — and the Hilton in Newark, New Jersey. A millionaire in the Cayman Islands put them up in her mansion, Monroe says. "She wanted to be the one to take care of Terry."
Adds Todd Durham: "It's very lavish... with limos and fine dining."
By the end of 2007, Monroe and the twins had upgraded homes again — to a cream-colored $286,000 place with a pool in Margate. Though she was still on government disability checks, Monroe opened her current storefront church at Powerline and McNab roads in Fort Lauderdale. It was called True Gospel Deliverance Ministry. She declined to talk about church finances, saying, "The money is our business."
This past March 1, the New York Times ran a story on Terry with the headline "11-Year-Old Boy in Florida Is a Man of God on Sunday." It quoted heavily from Monroe, noting she "had a vision in which a child joined her at the pulpit." It makes no reference to the family's criminal history or the substantial offerings during guest appearances.
Monroe says the boy is doing God's bidding. She is cagey about Terry's income. "We're not making millions," she says.
Todd Durham adds: "I put more time and money into this business than I get back." He says the cash will go to pay for Terry's education.
Terry doesn't pay much attention to the money. On a recent Saturday, he dedicated the entire day to preparing a sermon titled "God Is a Provider" while his cousins attended a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
New Times asked if he ever misses out on normal kid stuff. "No," Monroe answered for him.
Terry adds: "People say my grandma is pushing me. But God chose me."
Child preachers like Terry are most common in Pentecostal communities, says University of Miami religious studies professor David Kling. They're also embraced at African-American churches, where there's a "strong folk and oral tradition."
These settings are ideal for "freelance evangelical preachers to collect unregulated income," he says. Sometimes there's a belief that if you give, you'll be rewarded. "If people are convinced a healing is taking place, they are more willing to give," Kling says. "It's as if a transaction were occurring."
Back at New Harvest church — on the treeless stretch of Northwest Miami-Dade — Terry's sermon has been over for ten minutes, but tears are still rolling down the braided woman's cheeks. She sits on the floor sobbing to herself in front of the audience. A few older ladies stroke her hair, rub her shoulders, then escort her back to her seat.
In the audience, Terry's mom and dad both wear T-shirts with Terry's face printed across the chest. They read: "Little Man of God." As he steps down from the pulpit, several churchgoers form a semicircle around Monroe to gush over the boy's talent. She smiles.
Pastor Gregory Thompson, who earlier encouraged the congregation to donate money to the boy, says Monroe called him a few days before the sermon. She offered him the chance to hear Terry preach. Thompson says it's unusual for New Harvest — which he calls "Bapticostal" — to have a guest minister. "But it's not every day you get a child like this."
It's unusual too for cash offerings to go directly to the preachers, he says. Typically, donations fund the church and are divvied among bills, the pastor, and community events. He adds that it's especially odd for a first-time guest preacher to walk out with such a hefty wad. But Thompson says he was inspired. "He's a young man who is doing something positive... I wanted to send a message to our church's youth."
Outside New Harvest, A. Leon Worthy — a wiry 69-year-old with a snowy beard — says he thinks of it as a duty to give the family money. "It's a mandate from the Bible to support the man of God," he says. "His message was from the heart."
Later, Pamela Brown, a sophisticated 52-year-old with thick-framed glasses, explains she believes Terry is a prophet. Before she got to church, she asked God if she should become a pastor herself. Terry didn't know this, but he told her, "You can now walk into the path of ministry," she says.
Recently a scout from Bad Boy Records came to hear Terry sing, Monroe says. This spring, he'll tour Kingston, Jamaica, and Syracuse, New York.
Before the family leaves New Harvest, Monroe takes home the tens, 20s, and 50s from the offering bucket, and the family piles into her blue Cadillac. In the back, Terry — quiet again — watches the building fade out of sight as he heads back to a house filled with Bibles, crosses, and posters of himself. Says his dad: "You'll never find another Terry Durham."
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