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On a treeless cement slab of Northwest Miami-Dade, a swarm of spruced-up families filters into New Harvest Missionary Baptist Church. In a cluttered office at the building's rear, Terry Durham sits quietly on a folding chair, his knee bobbing 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 is 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 lively church band. Rev. Gregory Thompson, the house pastor at the NW 27th Avenue church, approaches the podium. 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 begins playing 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!" hollers a sweaty woman in a red sundress.
"Say that!" another lady chimes.
Terry dances, recites scripture, and pulls women and children from the audience. The band plays faster. He hops onto a chair, jumps off for dramatic effect, and then orders a gold-toothed pianist to "go down on your knees and shout Jesus three times!" The middle-age musician obeys.
At the podium, the dashing almond-eyed fourth-grader uses a blue dishtowel to dab moisture from his shiny dark face. "You gon' hafta 'scuze me today, Lord!" he shouts, whipping the towel in a circle. "A-cuz I just feel good!" The guitar screeches; the piano moans. A sticky-cheeked toddler dances in the aisle.
After a few minutes, inspired churchgoers form an impromptu line before the boy 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 woman wearing braids and 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 choirgirls dressed in matching white outfits. The 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 ministerterrydurham.org for more information."
Reverend Thompson gestures toward a steel mesh bucket. "I want you to bless Terry," he urges. Inspired churchgoers drop in tens, twenties, and fifties. "Come on, we can break a hundred!" he shouts, smiling.
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 the family in fine hotels and showered them with monetary "blessings."
Terry's is the tale of a talented, humble Liberty Elementary student rising from sickness to stardom. But while television and newspapers have chronicled his growing success, including a brief feel-good profile in the New York Times this past March, the circle of adults that surrounds him, and their respective criminal histories, makes the story more complex. Monroe's never-before disclosed past — including organized fraud and felony theft convictions — along with Terry's father's three jail stints on drug and trafficking charges, raises questions about the boy's 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 Monroe: "We're not pricin' God's Word. Terry don't even make enough to pay the bills."
Sharon D. Monroe had an unremarkable childhood. She was born March 9, 1958, the youngest of nine children in a scrappy, tight-knit Pompano Beach family. Her mother, Samantha, was a tender but stern maid and her father Brady a tall, gregarious construction contractor. They separated when she was in elementary school. "Our mama did her best," remembers Monroe's sister, Robbie Stone. "But she was always working."