Emptiness, pain, suffering and brokenness are four words the Rev. Terrell Scott, pastor of Passion-Life Church in McDonough, Georgia, uses to describe his memories of being the 15-year-old leader of a criminal gang.
Scott spent much of his teenage years and early 20s participating in gang-related violence, drug trafficking and committing armed robberies. During those years, he abused alcohol and used and sold marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy and methamphetamines.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Scott recalled how he grew up in a dysfunctional and broken family during his childhood and early adolescence and lacked a close relationship with his father. He yearned to feel complete and sought brotherly relationships to fill the void left by the absence of a father figure in his life. All those factors, he said, made the idea of starting his own gang intriguing as a teenager.
“There were times I would halt the criminal activity that I was doing, but my mind wasn’t right, so I would go back to the drugs, women, power, crime and money, and I would start getting high and go hitting the streets,” the 39-year-old pastor told CP.
“I could go from being good to making bad decisions really fast. When you don’t have a close relationship with your father or a godly figure in your life, you will go to the streets to be mentored and to find community.”
According to a 2016 report released by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on youth gang activity, many are seeking "a sense of connection or to define a new sense of who they are." Other teens, however, crack under peer pressure to join a gang or feel compelled to join in an effort to "protect themselves and their family." While others join as a way to get by financially or because their relatives are also part of a gang.
For Scott, growing up in McDonough, where gangs were prevalent, meant that many of his teenage peers were forming gangs by the time they reached middle school. Youth in his neighborhood would often beat up other teens as part of gang-affiliated violence.
Scott hoped that by forming a gang, he would find brotherhood and wholeness. At 15, he gathered most of the boys from his high school football team and started his own gang. Thus he began a decadelong crime spree, which eventually led to him being arrested and sentenced to prison.
As a 21-year-old college student, Scott's bad choices in life had caught up with him. He told CP that he'll never forget the day he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $500,000.
It was during his stint in prison, however, where he would encounter Jesus for the first time.
While incarcerated, Scott continued to run his gang from inside the prison walls and trafficked drugs for a few years before he was caught. For that, he was moved to solitary confinement.
During six months in isolation, Scott said he found himself thinking about the existence of God. One night, he prayed by asking God to bring someone into his life to help guide him toward the Christian faith. Within a month, Scott received a letter from a woman named Brandy, who he once robbed at gunpoint.
“In the letter, Brandy shared the Gospel with me, and she told me that God has a purpose and plan for me. The Holy Spirit convicted me. And I started repenting,” he said. “It was God’s timing, and I started witnessing and sharing Jesus with everyone.”
Brandy began visiting Scott regularly to study the Bible with him over several months. After he surrendered his life to Jesus at 26, poison officials took notice of his transformation, change in behavior and ministry work among his fellow inmates. Later, a judge agreed to drop the $500,000 fine was initially ordered to pay the state.
“I had a vision of two hands clasping together when my eyes were closed and I was praying, and it was very clear, in the most tranquil feeling, that God was calling me to make a difference through ministry when I got out of prison,” Scott recalled of one of his final nights in prison. “Then, I heard the voice of God tell me that I was meant to be a preacher to help many.”
When he was released from prison, Scott married Brandy. The couple now have five children together, and in 2013 they founded Passion-Life Church in the same community Scott was raised in. The church has just under 100 members attending services each Sunday.
The two also started their own Christian ministry called The River Refuge to help youth in McDonough, an area that continues to grapple with high rates of gang violence. The ministry is a community development corporation with a mission to meet the practical needs of those in low-income areas while showing them love.
“If God could change me, God can change anyone. And I want to prevent what I went through in others and give them purpose and destiny,” Scott said. “In my own life story, I’ve made mistakes and hurt a lot of people, but seeing what God has done, I just want to share it with more and more kids to inspire them. God gave me a heart for kids. Ninety percent or more of our kids in McDonough have never met their dads, and so we want to step up and be godly figures for them.”
As part of their ministry, they run the Malachi Project, which is a mentoring program for children and teens in elementary school to high school that provides academic tutoring in school subjects, as well as meals and a time to do devotionals to teach them about Jesus Christ.
“We saw a lot of needs. We help them work through gang involvement, sex and other issues youth face,” Scott said.
Through The River Refuge ministry, they've distributed 200 donation bags a week and provide book bags and homeless care kits, along with Thanksgiving boxes with meals for families. During the holidays, they'll begin their “Christmas in the City'' project that provides gifts for children from low-income families.
“It’s the work of grace that saved me and rescued me from my past and freed me from drug addiction, because God can forgive and heal anyone,” Scott said. “There’s nothing like serving the Lord. The things that I found in the streets, in that lifestyle, was a counterfeit from what I needed, and I didn’t find full satisfaction in that.”
“When I gave my life to Christ, it’s not like one day, I’m a thug and an addict and drug dealer, and then I wake up and everything is peaches and roses, but it was a process that God took me through and I had to trust God and His healing work,” Scott added.