Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer No Gangster's Paradise

By Lauren Mutter

AUGUST 3, 1998:  One hundred sixty-some teens filter into the basement at Calvary Episcopal Church around 9 a.m., most of them yawning and stretching, and begin to talk – really loudly – with the people 6 inches away from them.

Then a man in muted brown pants, a muted brown sportcoat, and a coordinating, muted brown shirt steps to the front of the room. The chatter continues but at a hushed volume.

Chaplain Carl Nelson of the Tennessee Department of Corrections is ready to give the participants of MIFA’s Teen Job Services program an insider’s look at gangs. These teens are from economically disadvantaged communities, and the program offers them job training and a critically needed paycheck. They also go through life-skills sessions like the one Nelson is about to give, and for these teens, gang awareness is a matter of life or death.

“I want to personally thank each one of you for being here today,” he smiles. The mumbling continues, but he quickly silences any lingering talk.

“I’m not here to play,” he says in the voice of a warden, not a chaplain. “If you want to play, take it back home.” Some teens sit stiff at attention; others slouch with disdain. He rattles off the names of gangs in the Memphis area.

“Do I have your attention now?” he asks, again, more like a drill sergeant than a man of the cloth (I find out later he is in the military). You can hear the silence; he has their attention.

“I’m gonna give you truth,” he says, jumping into gang lingo and jumping out. “It ain’t no game. I used to walk that way, but if it wasn’t for the Lord, I wouldn’t be standin’ before you today. I’m saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost.” Silence. The teens are unsure if they are “allowed” to respond. “How ’bout it? Give me a hand!” Nelson shouts. Cheers, claps, and hoots and hollers erupt throughout the room. And quickly dissipate.

The crowd is either really nervous or really bored. But not for long.

Nelson, 43, is a veteran advocate for troubled and at-risk teens. Since 1986, he has been speaking around the country to whomever will listen – teens, adults, senior citizens – to try to “pull them to a level of consciousness so they can respect themselves and others,” he says. Speaking seven, sometimes eight times a week – not to mention his work at this city’s Mark Luttrell Reception Center, one of the state’s corrections facility – Nelson reaches a huge audience. It’s not about money; in fact, he often does talks like these for free. “We got to be in it because we care,” he explains. Nelson cares enough to “take the time to find out what’s going on in their lives.” This shows, for he is able to connect with what often seem inaccessible teens.

“The politicians, the police department, the sheriffs department talking about you are a menace to society,” he continues in a rhythmic fashion. “You’re not a menace. And I’m going to tell you you’re not a menace, because you are made in God’s image, and God don’t make no junk!” He coaxes the cheers that peep from the teens’ mouths. “That’s it, baby. Go on, clap your hands! Ain’t nothing wrong with that!”

The teens are finally sitting comfortably – no rigid backs, no “I know it all” slouches. They are trying to get a clear view of Nelson at the front of the room, and they are smiling and laughing at his exuberance. He’s getting through to them.

“I know that y’all come from some pretty rough backgrounds,” he explains. “I did, too!” Nelson’s father sexually abused his sister and physically abused him and his grandmother. Nelson ran away when he was a 12-year-old “little runt. But guess what? My mind started to change. I wasn’t this nice little boy no more. All hell had broke loose in my life, and I said, ‘It’s time for me to play the game.’”

Nelson tells them about his nearly seven years in a gang, beginning when he attended Longview Junior High School; how he was “stabbed, yes, beaten, yes, knocked down”; how he had a child when he was barely able to drive; how his fiancée was raped and murdered by a young man like these teens – and how he got up to help save them from the gangs that almost took his life.

To Nelson, it is about more than physical awareness of gangs; if that were it, these teens would be saved. “This is a spiritual problem, not a physical problem,” he says forcefully. If they don’t believe in themselves and in God, he says, if they put money – which many of them do not have – above self-respect, then Satan can manipulate them into performing the physical destruction. Waving a dollar bill, he warns, “If I could get you to love this more than you do God, you’d disrespect your own mother and dad. If I could get you to love this more than God, I could get you outta church. If I could get you to love this more than God, I could get you to have babies. And if I could get you to love this more than you do God, I could get you blessed into a gang.”

He gives them examples: a graphic photo of a gang member whose “friends” tortured him to death; the number of women at the prison where he works – 110, at least; the story of a 15-year-old prisoner doing life for murder. The crowd is somber – most of them are 14 or 15.

Nelson talks about the history of gangs, going all the way back to the original gangster – “not the Ku Klux Klan, not the Aryan Brotherhood, not the Gangster Disciples. Nobody but Satan himself. ... Am I borin’ y’all?” he asks. Their now-energetic reactions are enough to prompt Nelson, “All I need is a piano, and we can have a Holy Ghost good time over here!”

His work isn’t about scare tactics, just truth, and in that, there is a softer side. He explains that getting out of the gang wasn’t easy, wasn’t fun. “It was too good,” he says. Some of the teens nod knowingly. “But guess what? I was killin’ my mama, killin’ her, killin’ her. Like some of you may be doin’. Your mama may not be able, or your daddy may not be able to get you everything you want, but thank God they’re givin’ you what you need. You may not have the best food on the table, but at least you got food. They may not be Jordans, they might not be Nikes, but you got clothes on your back.”

Nelson finishes to a standing ovation, and the teens, nodding their heads, raising their arms and praising the Lord, all seem to believe him. His biggest message has sunk in: “I want to let you know today that you can accomplish whatever you put your mind to!”

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