NEW YORK — He was selling dope by age 11, eventually got hooked on crack cocaine, and wound up in prison twice. He could have been killed countless times and once, as he tells it, was even attacked by a witch. But the man who yearned as a youth to become a god of the streets by building a drug empire, is now a man on mission for God.
Dimas Salaberrios, in his 40s, pastors a flock that meets in a community center at the Bronx River Housing Projects, known historically as ground zero for hip-hop and for being infested with crime. He is also president of Concerts of Prayer Greater NYC, a multiracial and cross-cultural organization of pastors and churches believed to be the largest of its kind in New York City. Salaberrios was also among those who successfully fought against officials' attempts to bar churches from renting city-owned community centers and public school spaces for worship services. His family's supporting presence in Charleston, South Carolina, at Emanuel A.M.E. Church earlier this year also gained notable attention.
That is what the married father of three has been up to in recent times. Thirty years ago, it was an entirely different story, one in which, for all intents and purposes, he was an enemy of God.
In fact, Salaberrios succeeded in becoming a god of the streets, founding a kingdom whose foundation was based on a steady and startling income from drug and gun sales. His illicit web stretched from Queens, New York, to North Carolina, where he lived as a fugitive from the law after one day deciding while handcuffed to flee a disastrous encounter with his parole officer.
But when God intervened, at a point when he was literally fighting for his sanity and his life, Salaberrios chose to abandon his kingdom for the Kingdom of God. He threw away his crack, gave up on guns and stopped living with his girlfriend, all in an effort to live a holy life. When God gave him the ultimate challenge — to return to NYC and answer for his crimes, the former drug lord did just that. Soon, he was being invited to preach in foreign countries, found himself smuggling Bibles into China, and leading relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Salaberrios' life of crime is chronicled in the Tyndale Momentum book Street God: The Explosive True Story of a Former Drug Boss on the Run from the Hood—and the Courageous Mission That Drove Him Back (August 2015). In Street God, Salaberrios (with Dr. Angela Hunt) offers a riveting account of how he went from being a determined and power hungry criminal to a humbled, bold and relentless minister of the Gospel. The book is an inspiring and sometimes surreal read, and one that Salaberrios said has been impacting lives.
"So many people are saying, 'I'm shaking at home while reading it.' 'I can't put it down.' 'Read it in three days,'" Salaberrios told The Christian Post. "One mother just told me she gave her son the book who's never read a book in his life. [He] read the book, came in crying and hugging her, saying, 'I'm going to change my ways, Ma, and be the son you wanted me to be.'"
Responses like that confirm for Salaberrios that Street God "is actually doing what it's supposed to do."
In Salaberrios' interview with CP, he tells how he initially became moved to pursue a life of crime, how his mother exposed him to faith in God, and of the harrowing encounter with evil that finally compelled him to take God seriously. The charismatic Queens, Jamaica, native, who credits men like Floyd Flake, Tim Keller, A.R. Bernard, and Andy Puleo with helping him in his journey as a believer, also shares how some of what he learned in the streets carries over to his ministry work today.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
CP: Tell me about your parents? You mention in the book that your father was an avowed atheist. Is that still the case?
Salaberrios: He's coming along, which is really nice. He was the captain of corrections [officers at Riker's Island prison] as well as an Air Force guy. So now he posts or messages to me, "This is good, God is with you." You know, that's a huge leap from where he was when it was just like, "There's no God …" And he's still involved in our lives, which is beautiful. He's just very proud. He always said to me, "Write books, just don't read them, make sure you write them."
CP: Your mother also, I think you credit her with planting some of those Jesus seeds in your life. Although that didn't stop you from doing what you wanted to do.
Salaberrios: My mother was a CEO type of Christian where Christmas, Easter and once in [a] while. The days were very slim in between them all, so she would take me. She always had her faith. She always kept a Bible under her pillow, which I still don't understand today. I mean that Bible was shredded, from, I guess, [her] rolling and tossing and turning throughout the years. I didn't see her read it a lot. She taught me the Lord's Prayer, but she'd always say ... she'd speak it, you know, "God is real. God has your back. God's gonna help us," and those kinds of things. I wish we had went to church more. Maybe I wouldn't have such a story.
CP: But it's your story and that's why you're sitting here today.
Salaberrios: That's why I'm here today. God allowed me to live through it and I'm grateful, but it was tough.
The other thing about my mother, she was a principal, a loving woman, and it was hard breaking her heart over and over again. One of the [reasons] why we wrote this, is [I know] it will encourage a lot mothers to not give up on their kids and really empower them on the mindset of a young man and how to reach them.
CP: Let's get to the streets. You're 14 years old, mesmerized maybe by the flash. But what actually compelled you to start dealing drugs on the streets?
Salaberrios: One of the big things was media, going out and seeing the movie "Scarface." I was pretty smart, so when it came out I said — I just analyzed the movie, at age 10 [although] I should have never been allowed in the theaters. But I analyzed it and said, "If he would've stopped at that point when he had that big bag of money and the money machine and just got the house, he probably would've been able to live further." And that was my young mind.
Then, not too long after that, "Miami Vice" came on the scene, and they did this episode of a young man who they couldn't really give him jail time because he was 15 or younger. So I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, I'm 11. They can't hardly touch me."
So I went in full-heart with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul. Sounds like the Bible verse [but] I was just gonna go in and do it with that 50 Cent mentality you know, that I was gonna hustle till the day I die. I used to say that often and used to fuel myself with that. Even when violence happened in my life, I'd be like, "You know what, I'm gonna do this to the day that I die. I'm not gonna give up. I'm not gonna quit." Being a street god was just that big dream that was there to really pull it off.
CP: How do you think God saw you when you were running around doing what you wanted and living for yourself?
Salaberrios: I think He saw me as a weapon of Satan that needed His grace, needed His message badly. It was clear I was totally committed to the wrong side. I would go and I would find a Christian business person, or anybody in that kind of field, and I would try to team up with them and pull them out of their jobs to help build the infrastructure for the drug market that I was operating. So I was a user of people. I pulled people out of light into dark. And a lot of death surrounded me, unfortunately. I know God looked down and said, "This guy needs me."
One of the greatest things, my mother, I know she was instrumental. She just cried out to God and said, "Could you be his father? I want to give him to You because I can't raise him."
CP: Your story is being used for good, but do you ever encounter people who are skeptical or find it hard to forgive the kinds of things you did when you were running the streets dealing dope?
Salaberrios: Not too often. And I think part of that was the amount of surrender I did to the Lord. … I think with me, I made a complete 180. Like, I said, "I want to change my vocabulary, I don't want to curse, I don't want to do these things."
I started listening to vocabulary tapes to better my English. I changed my dress. I wasn't really a suit guy, but I wanted to make sure I wore ... button-down shirts and slacks and shoes to give a different appearance. So I worked really hard at becoming someone who was completely opposite of the drug boss. I hung up hoodies, you know. The only time I wear a hoodie is maybe if I'm jogging in the rain or something. … Other than that, I'm done with that. So I worked really hard at killing. … Even one person wanted this book to be called The Death of Daylight, of how did you kill the old you to be who you are today.
CP: Did you learn anything in the streets that you've found to be relevant in your ministry?
Salaberrios: Absolutely. I can see fake Christians a mile away. I can see fake pastors a mile away. I can tell you seven of them that have fallen that I saw the minute they came on the screen, I was like, "No, I can't watch that dude." And then that dude turned out to be with other males, or …
Those senses are so acute because I was selling drugs for so long. At age 12, I'm out there with a package dealing with grown ups I'm selling drugs to. I had to figure out in seconds, were they coming to rob me? In seconds, were they coming to purchase? Did they just get into an argument? Were they coming to kill me, you know, for my stuff? I had to figure that out. … I learned to trust that instinct. That's one thing.
I think to be a kingpin, you had to know thousands of drug dealers. So I think I have a higher skill of meeting and networking with people to know thousands, because that's been my whole life. That's some of it. And how to run an organization. I mean it's very similar. You have to have [an] extremely high work ethic.
I used to wake up five in the morning to sell drugs. I get up five in the morning to do ministry. It doesn't change. And I [slept, drank] and thought about hustling, you know. Now I sleep, drink, think and pray about how to make God's name more known and how to introduce people to Christ. So that translates over pretty well.
CP: What's your message? What do you want people to take away from reading Street God and learning about your personal story?
Salaberrios: There's a couple of incredible takeaways. One of the big takeaways is that I was reachable and no one reached out, for a long time. And three brave women knew, they knew I was the kingpin and they shut down a gun smuggling operation, a crack business and a marijuana empire by a prayer meeting. By a prayer meeting. I wonder what we could do more if we were to grab some drug dealers, some people off the street and say, "Can we pray for you? Can we pray for God to have a better plan for your life?"
Another thing, I would love for mothers to get hope. I mean this is spreading all around the jails, which is extremely exciting. So a lot of people are being converted through getting this message out into the prisons.
I'm a pastor now in the Bronx River Housing Projects. We eliminated homicides from those projects. So it doesn't just stop at conversion as you read. But I think it's a great blueprint on how to hold onto your faith. You saw we had crazy churches I went to where stuff was spilling out, but I always kept my eyes and focus on Jesus.
What bothers me, is Christians go to a church where there [are] huge failures and they'd be led astray by staying there. Leave! Go to a better place and hold onto the truth and follow the truth.
And believing God can overcome any situation. I could have been doing seven years, but I got pardoned. There's no mountain too big. So I think some people live on fear of taking on a challenge when I see over and over again the old acronym that we've all heard: F.E.A.R. — false evidence appears real. But that's so true.
I hope this book will conquer people's fear and would build their faith. … That God can just show up when you put legs to it, and I think that's a big part. Put action to your faith, is one of the things I would like to be done with people that read the book or one day see the movie.
CP: Any final thoughts, Dimas, you want to share with viewers or readers?
Salaberrios: I would encourage churches. You know, right now, we're passing out thousands of books to inmates in jail. And we would love for churches if they would reach out to the website (streetgodbook.com) and they connect with our buy-one-give-one plan. Through churches, every book that's bought, one will go to an inmate in jail. I believe we have the missing million African-American males that are incarcerated that we could really help reach, and upward toward that, Latinos.
Watch the video below in which Salaberrios describes an encounter with darkness that proved pivotal to his decision to walk with God: