From the Ghetto to God

Street-smart and world-wise -- but empty.

by Tony Nelson as told to Terry Arries

I nocked an arrow in my compound bow and shot Joey.

Just before I released the arrow, he turned around in the doorway of my bedroom and saw me. “T, what are you doing?” he shouted.

I answered softly, “Don’t move.”

I let the arrow fly. It penetrated the outside of his coat and nicked his arm. He quaked, his eyes white with terror as he looked at me. “That lets you know I’m good at what I do,” I told him. “So from now on, you do what I tell you!”

Joey learned that day not to disappoint me. He was lucky: He was family.

Past of pain

I’m black, 6′ 3″, weighing 300 pounds. You wouldn’t think there’d be too many people to challenge me. But it was different when I was a kid growing up in Denver.

My dad was a hard man — physically, mentally, emotionally. He instilled in me that if I ever hit him, he would kill me. I believed him, so I never tried. But that didn’t stop him from filling my life with agony.

My mom sometimes would take the brunt of things when Dad would come after me. Mom finally left my dad when I was fifteen. I told myself I’d never back down again from a fight.

I never have.

Hole in the soul

My mother worked three jobs to support us. She was happy when I was offered a college scholarship based on my high school football playing. The school promised me tutors and everything I might need.

But there was a deep emptiness inside eating me alive. I thought I never could fill the hunger that growled in my soul day and night, never lessen my anger over how life had treated me. I couldn’t find contentment and peace. I wanted, but didn’t know what I wanted. I shouted to the universe, but my heart’s cry went unanswered.

On the streets

Denver streets were easy with money. I never needed to worry about where my next anything was coming from. I could get what I wanted simply by taking it; nobody could stop me.

I stayed in drugs and out of school. It gave me status to be able to get high and get other people high. I was Big Tony — Big T — and could have any girl I wanted.

There were things I wouldn’t do; I guess I still had a conscience. Yet what I wanted ruled over everything else, and people learned to stay out of my way.

But that big hole in my soul just kept crying out to be filled. I found no solution to my anguish.

Toughening up

Trouble seemed to find me easily. I was shot once in my teens and stabbed in a fight when I was older. I knew I needed to straighten out my life, so I went into the military. The hole in my soul was still gnawing at me. I thought the discipline of military life would help ease the emptiness, but it didn’t. The Army gave me training, and I used it; but not in ways they anticipated.

After the military, I started to train a group of people to do certain things that the Army had taught me. I gathered an elite group to take over drug and prostitution territories in Denver. I taught them to be ruthless and to keep their eyes focused on the sector they were responsible for — the places, the people. I made them understand that I was the most important individual in any room and that if Big T were wounded, but didn’t die, I would kill them for not protecting me.

That was the bottom line. I taught them not to flinch, no matter what they saw me do. My reputation grew with every act of violence.

Taped crime

One night I broke into a sporting goods store. I had taught my guys how to do a quick in-and-out in less than five minutes. This store had been robbed before, so all the guns were securely locked. I saw a video camera on a tripod and thought it was a demonstration model. Not wanting to leave empty handed, I took the camera.

What I didn’t realize was that the camera was active, attached to a VCR, and that everything I’d done had been videotaped. One of my guys called me a few days later. “T, you’ve got to leave. Your picture is all over television.”

Staying alive

I packed a few things and hit the road. For two-and-a-half-months, I ducked the police. The stress from constantly looking over my shoulder, not knowing whom I could trust, soon wore me out. I was always on the alert, figuring out how to survive, wondering what was going to happen to me. I was sorry I had been caught on tape. I felt stupid for being so easily identified and wondered how I ever was going to get out of this.

My conscience started to batter me. It convicted me of the way I had lived my life, the things I’d done. I felt totally condemned.

Special Book

With weariness of soul, I stopped at Momma May’s, a friend I had known as a child in Colorado Springs. She had always called me Precious.

“Momma’s been praying for you for years, Precious,” she said tenderly. “I want you to go and stay with a friend of mine in Seattle. But before you go, I want you to promise Momma to read this book.” She handed me a tiny Gideon’s Bible.

So there I was on this bus reading a small Bible, and all that praying Momma May had done for me over the years began to take effect. I examined my life and how I had lived it.

I remember that trip on the bus. I wept and wept and wept. I hunkered down in my seat, a small flashlight providing the light to read this little Book. I tried to focus on the words while sniffling. People turned around to look at me, and I would say in my deep, stern voice, “What you lookin’ at?” They would say, “Nothing,” and quickly turn around.

New creature

In Seattle I held temporary jobs, but I kept reading my little Book. I would turn to the wall and wipe my eyes. I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t stop crying.

One day, in a dingy little apartment in Seattle, I turned to the back of my Bible and found a prayer of salvation. I prayed that prayer and asked Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior. Heaven heard my heart’s cry that day, and the hunger and emptiness I’d carried all my life were filled and healed. I became a new creature in Christ.

I knew what I had to do. I traveled back to Denver and turned myself in to the police. I was so confident in Jesus Christ that I wouldn’t even wait for a lawyer. I gave them a signed, verbal, and videotaped confession. The Lord performed a miracle that time and kept me out of prison. The judge gave me probation.

Behind bars

Yet old habits still had their strong hold on me.

Surrounded by my old companions, I relapsed briefly into crime and soon after served time in prison. While incarcerated, I sought God with my whole heart. I spent all my time in prayer and communion with Him. I never wanted to fall away from Him again.

From that point, God led me into the bosom of His family, His presence, and granted me favor in prison and out of it. In an unheard-of act of trust and friendship, several guards gave me the addresses and directions to their homes. I still am in touch with them. In prison I started to minister to others. This has been the whole focus of my life in the years following my release.

Spiritual problem

People ask me why black kids seem to get into trouble so often. I smile. It’s not a question of black people; it’s a question of all people.

First, everyone needs Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you grow up in a ghetto, barrio, reservation, or a middle-class neighborhood. People from every strata of society get into trouble. Everyone is looking for their niche — a way to fill that huge, empty place inside their souls.

People need to realize that the problem is spiritual. I didn’t know that back then, but everything going on in the lives of every individual on this planet is spiritual.

Jesus Christ is waiting to fill that need in your life, as He did in mine.