Redeemed from more than crime
Former drug lord and inmate finds freedom he will take with him
Visit a couple minutes with Pastor Terrell Walter, 56, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and you’ll have a hard time believing he once was an infamous drug lord and gang leader on Chicago’s notorious South Side. Walter is soft-spoken, looks directly at you with gentle brown eyes, and enthusiastically speaks about the goodness of Christ. He is also dying.
Eighteen years ago, he was still serving 10 years of his original nearly 18-year sentence in Duluth, Minn.’s federal prison for conspiracy to sell drugs. A gang member from age 12, he’d already been in and out of juvenile detention, county jail, Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, and the Illinois River Correctional Center. Ultimately, a three-year FBI investigation and early morning raid by the ATF, FBI, and others on Walter’s home led to his federal conviction and incarceration.
Growing up on Chicago’s streets, Walter’s life revolved around stealing, dealing, and toting guns. He describes his gangs—originally with the Black Disciples, later New Breed—as closer than family. He’d do anything for them. From selling weed to crack cocaine, from stealing guns to transporting a trunkful, from breaking and entering to shooting a person who threatened him, he willingly progressed down the slope of criminality, while his illegal wealth skyrocketed.
Back in the day, he could buy a kilo of cocaine wholesale for $10,000-$15,000, then repackage it into “dimes,” netting him more than $100,000. Cooking cocaine into crack more than doubled profits. He bought vacation homes, expensive cars, and jewelry, especially diamonds. He married and divorced, had children out of wedlock, and started smoking crack himself.
But abruptly, in 2004, everything changed; in federal prison, he surrendered to Christ.
Walter had been raised by a foster mom—who he says had a beautiful heart and tried to teach him about Jesus. She died while he was in federal prison. Her death and the realization he was going nowhere shook him. He decided to stop blaming everyone else for his imprisonment and disintegrating life.
Although he’d previously attended prison Bible studies just so his foster mom would keep sending money, he finally desired inner transformation. “I couldn’t come out of prison the same way I went in,” he said. “I started getting up at 5 a.m., before the prison count, to read my Bible. When they opened the doors, I’d go to chapel.”
He began seeking God with purpose, crying real prayers, not rote ones. He threw away Playboy magazines, stopped swearing, started working out, eventually became a prison deacon, and even preached an Easter service to 3,000 inmates, plus guests.
After being released from prison in 2008, he tried but failed to reconnect with his ex-wife, then failed in a relationship with a Mississippi woman with whom he’d already had a child. He was desperate to learn how to live outside prison as a Christian.
He contacted a recently released fellow inmate, who mentioned a year-long Minnesota program called Purelife Builders, overseen by Russ Couwenhoven, an Evangelical Church missions pastor. Walter called and got the last open bed.
The program’s aim is to help men fresh out of prison. “They teach you how to be a man, as though you’re worth something,” says Walter. He learned accountability, responsibility, correct Biblical thinking, how his choices affect others, and construction skills. He felt loved with the same love his foster mom had tried to show him.
He found full-time work with a food ministry headquartered in St. Paul’s East Immanuel church. With its pastor, he walked the streets, engaging young men about Christ. “They reminded me of myself, when I was the CEO of gangs and drug dealers in Chicago,” recalls Walter.
Walter says Couwenhoven believed his change was genuine and hired him as Purelife’s director. The Evangelical Church sent Walter to Pacific Evangelical School of Ministry in Portland, Ore., where he attended classes over four years while still working in Minnesota. He graduated with an associate’s degree in ministry. For 11 years he’s pastored Beacon of Hope Church in Minneapolis, including during the tumultuous period after George Floyd’s death and ensuing riots in 2020.
He’s also developed into a committed husband and father. He has been married to Marquita since 2010. Together, they have eight children from previous relationships—two of whom Marquita homeschools—and 11 grandkids. All the older children profess Christ, and he and Marquita talk daily with each.
In 2017, doctors found an orange-sized nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare cancer (less than 1 in 100,000 in the U.S.), growing between Walter’s brain and ear canal. After treatments, tests declared him cancer-free, but three months later, cancer appeared in his lungs. Doctors gave him two years to live. Now, after five years, five surgeries, and extensive, painful, energy-sapping chemo and radiation, Walter still ministers to others, despite learning recently that the cancer has spread.
Among his outreaches, he daily texts Scripture to almost 300 people. He tells me one of those verses reached a man who was about to kill himself but called Walter instead.
Between coughing bouts, Walter says he feels more urgency than ever to tell people, “Jesus is real!” The day we spoke, he later went by ambulance to the emergency room, where doctors restarted his heart six times, then sent him home to rest.
Earlier he had told me: “When I do go, I don’t want people to say ‘This is who he was,’ but ‘This is whose he was.’” That, he declared, is what makes him truly free.
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