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."
The family lived in a green two-bedroom apartment in a rough, working-class neighborhood at NW Seventh Avenue and Sixth Street, near the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The girls shared one bedroom, mom slept solo in the other, and the boys crashed on weathered couches in the living room.
They couldn't afford to go out much, so Saturday nights were spent playing jacks. On Sundays, they would walk a few blocks to Mount Calvary Baptist Church, a white building with a faded cross, black security bars at the entrance, and missing letters on the welcome sign.
When times got tough, they prayed. "If we didn't have the money to pay an electric bill, we'd praise God," Monroe says. "And he would provide it."
Home with siblings one day as a 10-year-old, Monroe climbed up to the stove and began "boilin' some water for a hot dog." As it steamed, she slipped, knocked it over, and scalded her forearm. It sizzled and scarred, but Mom wasn't home to comfort her.
At age 16, she dropped out of Coconut Creek High and went to live with her aunt in the ranching town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. There she joined the Job Corps and studied to become a nurse. Monroe describes her adolescent self as a Rev. Adam Clayton Powell in the making. "I had a great deal of compassion," she says. "To me, the hospital was like church."
Two years later, in 1976, she was visiting her family in Pompano Beach when she passed her beefy, good-natured father's red and white one-story house. He was in the driver's seat of his green pickup truck, leaning against the window. She figured he was taking a catnap. "Something told me to turn around," she says. So she swung the car back toward her dad's place, pulled over, and playfully grabbed his ear, expecting him to jump. But he was cold. He didn't move.
His mouth was twisted and his eyes rolled back. She screamed. When she learned he had died from a stroke, she moved home. "I was scared that if I left again, my mama would be next."
In her 20s, she dated a tall neighborhood mechanic whose name she doesn't like to mention and had her only son, Todd, who would later become Terry's father. She says she was "called to ministry in 1991" and joined the South Florida-based International Men and Women's Christian Fellowship, a nonprofit that offers seminars on Christianity and advocates prayer in school. Then she became a freelance evangelical preacher and youth pastor.
But trouble was brewing. At 8 p.m. June 10, 1992, City of Miami narcotics cops "were conducting surveillance" at NW 13th Avenue and 67th Street, according to a police report. They spotted Monroe, dressed in gray, exit a silver Datsun and approach a man with gold plaid pants. He waited outside a dilapidated hotel and then gave her "six plastic bags" of cocaine, all with small blue dots printed on the back. She stuffed them into her bra. Officers called for backup, noting she "was big" and "could be a male."
According to court documents, when authorities confronted her, she told them: "Yeah, I bought the stuff" and was then arrested for possession of cocaine. The case was dropped in exchange for her participation in a Miami-Dade drug rehab program. "She has a positive attitude and acts as a role model," one counselor wrote.
Monroe contends it was a friend who purchased the cocaine and that she never had a drug problem. "It was a social thing," she says. The close call seemed to draw her closer to the church. But more serious charges were still ahead.
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 up to a breathing machine and pushed tubes into his raisin-size nose. His twin brother, Todd Jr., also ungodly tiny, was put through the same regimen.
"If the monitor stops beeping," men in lab coats told the twins' teenage mother, Nicole Little, "he won't make it."
She broke down. "I used to cry just looking at Terry," Little says. "He could fit in the palm of my hand." Little was then a slender 18-year-old club kid with Naomi Campbell cheekbones.
After a 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 is two years older, from afar at Blanche Ely High. "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, they moved in with Monroe and "lived like a married couple" for a short period, Durham says, though they never officially 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." Had he been born ten years prior, before recent advances in preemie care, he almost certainly wouldn't have made it. 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 Monroe custody of the twins. She was pragmatic about the decision, lived nearby, and says she saw them regularly. "I told myself: You need to get your life together," she says.
By the time Terry was 1 year old, the pressures of being a young single father began to overwhelm his father, Todd. And his rap sheet started to grow. "It was an inner-city neighborhood," he says. "I'm no saint."
On November 24, 1998, an anonymous female tipster told Hollywood Police about a crack dealer "known to her as Scotty," who was holding $200 worth of rock. So an undercover detective met the lean 18-year-old just after 10 p.m. in a parking lot at 20th Avenue and Johnson Street, according to court documents.
Scotty ordered the officer into his red Jeep Cherokee and gestured to a loaded silver .38 Smith & Wesson under the front seat. "Don't fuck around," he said. The plainclothes cop handed over $200 in crisp $20 bills, and Scotty then "counted out ten pieces." When officers arrested him, they learned the dealer's real name: Todd Durham. He was charged with one count of delivering cocaine and three counts of carrying a concealed weapon. Officers also found a $20 sack of marijuana on him and charged him for that.
Ten days later, while out on bond, he ran into a different Hollywood vice detective. At 10 p.m. on North Federal Highway at Johnson Street, Durham "removed a cream-colored rock" from a "black plastic film container," according to the police report, and dealt crack to the undercover cop. He was arrested again and charged with delivering cocaine. In May 1999, he pleaded guilty and Judge Joyce Julian sentenced him 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 went bad. "They ended up turning informants on me."
He says he regrets selling drugs but that "honestly, when you're young, who wouldn't want to live the life of a dealer? It's extravagant."
Adds Monroe: "He wanted the best for [the boys] and couldn't afford it."
When he began serving time, Durham disappeared from his sons' life. Grandma took over, but in early 2000, she ran into a legal problem of her own. That March, she picked up the phone and with soft, plump fingers dialed the number of a 78-year-old woman named 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. She was made to believe "she had won the lotto" and "had to pay taxes on her winnings," according to court documents.
In October 2000, investigators called a bookkeeper named Dania Nieves into the offices of Republic Security Bank in Plantation. Thousands of dollars of phony checks had been cashed in Nieves's name, they told her. And they needed some answers. Nieves began to cry and confessed she "was part of a business... doing this basically at home." She explained she had taken orders from "two partners." The ringleaders she named: Sharon Monroe and a saccharine-voiced 41-year-old former Miami Beach saleswoman named Mary Lewis.
Together, investigators say, the three women had collected account numbers and printed fake checks from a computer, conning $20,000 from at least six elderly victims. After a two-weeklong trial, Monroe was convicted of organized fraud and grand theft. On September 21, 2001, Broward Circuit Court Judge Peter Weinstein sentenced her to three years' probation. Lewis got the same sentence. No charges are on record for Nieves.
Monroe won't talk much about the conviction. She says only 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."
Four of six of the fraud victims located by New Times are now deceased. Another had checked into Lakewood Senior Living in Wichita, Kansas, where an operator noted he was "unfit to comment." The last declined to comment.
The week of the trial, Monroe requested a restraining order against her former partner, Lewis, who she said had threatened to "put lead into me." Lewis also "broke my windows with rocks" and "followed us in the car... trying to run us off the road." In conclusion, she notes, "My grandchildren are scared of this lady."
Reached by phone, Lewis would say only that Monroe has since cleaned up her act — that she has gone "from a one to a ten." Asked about the domestic violence report, she hung up.
Around that time, Monroe began to lead a small 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 vocal inflections, she says.
By 2003, she and the twins moved from the $67,600 townhouse into a white $216,900 Oriole Estates home, where a glistening swimming pool sometimes served as a baptismal font.
A big-screen TV set 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 catalogue. As Monroe hands him the phone, he closes his eyes. In a gentle voice, he asks the Lord to help the ailing caller. "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 April 26. A bottle of prescription painkillers and a pack of baby diapers sit next to her on the counter.
New Times asks Terry how he'd describe God. "I think —" he begins.
"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 38-year-old Bahamian who cared for him at a six-room Christian day care called This Generation of Hope on West Broward Boulevard — says, "You'd never forget this boy." One morning she arrived at 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, endured hernia surgery, and took prescription medication for digestive issues. One day, when Terry was 6, Monroe says, his cousins awakened her. "Something's happening to Terry in the bathroom," one of them said. So she got up, pressed her ear to the door, and found him preaching to himself.
That year, Monroe says, she allowed Terry to give his first sermon at her church, True Gospel Deliverance Ministry. It was then run out of Temple Beth El in Palm Beach County. He moved on to the Good Shepherd Church in Fort Lauderdale. Says Pastor Ernestine 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 began to make friends. Says twin brother, Todd Jr., who plays drums during the sermons: "[Kids] knew he was a preacher, but they liked him anyway."
Over the next few years, Terry preached every Sunday at Monroe's church in Palm Beach, where the family collected donations. Monroe says she put the money Terry earned into a personal account for him.
In October 2003, Monroe, who didn't work outside the church, was sued by Ford Motor Credit Company, which claimed she owed $1,300, and threatened to repossess her Ford Explorer. Terry's Bank of America account was frozen to pay for the SUV.
The Sun-Sentinel in March 2006 ran a soft profile about Terry, calling him a "wonder boy" and dubbing him "The Little Man of God."
A few months later, Todd Durham built a website 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 at 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 the documentary Jesus Camp: In an immaculate white suit, a 9-year-old Terry puts a microphone to his lips as benchfuls of children stare up at him in admiration. It's early 2007, and he urges the church crowd: "Don't lose faith." As he speaks, a young man with buzzed hair and a neon green shirt limps on crutches toward him.
Mid-sentence, 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 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 to the phenomenon. 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 the young ministers 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 their sick sister or their dying mama."
Other viewers approached Terry on the street. One star-struck 20-something ran up to the boy as he was boarding a plane 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 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City — with $300-per-night ocean-view rooms — 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 again upgraded houses — to a cream-colored $278,000 pool home in Margate. Though she was still on government disability checks, Monroe opened her current storefront church on NW Ninth Avenue 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 about Terry, with the headline "11-Year-Old Boy in Florida Is a Man of God on Sunday." It heavily quoted 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.
Adolfo Flores, the 21-year-old freelance writer, spent about six hours with the family for the article. He was unaware of the criminal charges but says he wanted to show that "the grandma was very controlling." Ultimately, he says, editors thought he needed more than a day to do so.
Flores adds, "You can tell they're in it for the money. It didn't feel right."
Monroe says the boy is doing God's bidding. She is cagey about Terry's income: "We're not making millions."
"I put more time and money into this business than I get back," Todd Durham adds. He says the cash will go toward 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's. (Later, New Times asked if he ever misses out on normal kid stuff. "No," Monroe answered for him.)
"People say my grandma is pushing me," Terry explains. "But God chose me."
Child preachers such as 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 giving money will 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 cheeks of the pudgy woman with braids. She sits on the floor, sobbing to herself in front of the audience. A few older ladies stroke her hair, rub her shoulders, and then escort her back to her seat.
In the audience, Terry's mom and dad both wear T-shirts with their son's face printed across the chest. They read, "Little Man of God." As the boy steps down from the pulpit, several churchgoers form a semicircle around Monroe to gush over his talent. She smiles.
Pastor Gregory Thompson, who earlier encouraged his congregation to donate money to the boy, says Monroe phoned him a few days before the sermon. She offered him a 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," he says.
It's also unusual for cash offerings to go directly to the preacher, he says. Typically the 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."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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 money to the family. "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.
A scout from Bad Boy Records recently 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 the tens, twenties, and fifties from the offering bucket and everyone piles into her blue Cadillac. In the back seat, Terry — quiet again — watches the building fade out of sight as he's driven back to a house filled with Bibles, crosses, and posters of himself. Says his dad: "You'll never find another Terry Durham."