Kid Preacher Can't Make Believer Out of Everyone

Fourth-grader heads his own successful ministry. Skeptics say it's all show biz.

May 12, 2009, 11:04 AM

May 18, 2009 -- Terry Durham, an ordained pastor, speaks in tongues and claims an ability to heal the sick. He is a proven draw, filling churches with adoring congregants across the country. A little bit shy in person, Terry has a beautiful singing voice.

But what really makes him unique is his age: Terry Durham is just 11 years old.

Terry is hardly the first child preacher. There are child preachers all over the Internet, from toddlers to teens. And long before the Internet, a select group of child preachers found fame and fortune traveling the United States and sermonizing.

Many have grown up and revealed their disenchantment with their early lives, so we wanted to see what the Terry Durham Ministries was all about.

Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET.

Terry was ordained at age 6 by his grandmother in the True Gospel Deliverance Ministry, a nondenominational storefront church she founded in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At age 8 he began traveling the region, then the country, and then internationally, speaking before ever-growing audiences of the faithful.

Through it all his grandmother, Sharon Monroe, a preacher in her own right, has acted as Terry's guardian and guide.

"I truly believe that Terry Durham is one that was chosen by God, to let the world know that his spirit still lives," Monroe told ABC News.

Terry agreed.

"I am one of God's chosen ones, and he uses me because I am willing to go the right way, do the right thing," said Terry. "I, I am his chosen one. ... To me it means, like, you're the one who God was calling you, from ever since you were in your mother's womb."

In the pulpit, Terry Durham is in his element. He receives a parade of ailing congregants, seeking to be healed.

"Soooooooooo be set free tonight Lord, in the naaammme of Jesus-huh!" the boy bellowed from the pulpit. "But like huh! Booo yeaah!"

He lets out a high-pitched scream and waves a white towel.

"Ohkillybassabassa, works it out now brother of God, you know what we need you to do, yeeeeaaaa! Yeaaaaa!

"Mother, lift your hands, huh -- I just want ya to put your feet apart, huh!"

But does Terry really have the power to heal? Although ABC News was not able to independently verify his ability to heal, it has not dampened his grandmother's enthusiasm.

Monroe, 51, says she's seen Terry's healing powers herself.

"I've been on the road with him going on three years, I've seen peoples being healed, I've seen peoples being delivered, I've seen peoples come in their wheelchairs and walk," Monroe said. "I've seen peoples come in with their cane and put their cane down, I've seen people come in their crutches, lay the crutches down. I have seen so many miracles."

Kid Preacher Draws Skeptics

Monroe recalled the moment that 6-year-old Terry told her he wanted to become a preacher.

"He was sitting on my lap and he put his arm around my neck, and he said, 'Grandmama, I want to be a preacher just like you,'" she said.

But skeptics raise doubts about certain aspects of Terry's ministry. They question whether a fourth-grader should work as hard as he does. During the school year he frequently preaches on weekends. During the summer, Terry is frequently on the road, sometimes preaching more than a dozen times a week, according to his father.

And then there is the question of what happens to the thousands of dollars Terry's ministry brings in.

Terry's father, Todd Durham Sr., 28, a nighttime security guard, is the marketer-promoter of the Terry Durham Ministry.

"I see Terry Durham as a major icon for the Christian industry," he told ABC News. "Jesus is the product."

Todd Durham said that he had looked up the earnings of Christian evangelist Joel Osteen.

"Joel is at 76 [million dollars a year] -- one day I am hoping that Terry will be at about $86 million," said Todd Durham. "So you know ministries are profiting these days. Everyone is buying into this."

The ministry already has a fully operational marketing arm. Terry's sermons are offered for sale along with T-shirts, Web videos, even pin-up photos.

Following a sermon at the Second Canaan Baptist Church in Miami in March, congregants came forward with cash. According to Todd Durham, the offering was a couple of thousand dollars.

"We do not charge no money for him to preach," said Monroe. "We only ask them if, you know, after he speaks, they let the crowd bless him."

Kid Preacher Benefits From Preaching, Dad Says

Todd Durham said the proceeds feed a trust fund for Terry and his twin brother, Todd Durham Jr.

"Yes, I forgot to mention that, it goes towards his trust fund," Todd Durham said. "Uh, him and his brother's trust fund. You know, a lot of that, half of that is deposited into that for college and future references."

The family did not say how much money to date has actually been put aside for the boys.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopalian minister and professor of religion at Barnard College, counts himself among the skeptics.

"I think that the case of a child preacher feeds on two of the worst instincts in religion: The cult of personality, and show business," said Balmer. "This is very deliberate on the part of his father and his grandmother to make him into a product. I think it cheapens the faith, it cheapens the gospel. And I find that very unfortunate."

Balmer sees an element of exploitation in Terry's story and says he worries money may motivate the adults in his life.

In the course of reporting on Terry's ministry, ABC News discovered that both the adults managing Terry's money have criminal records. Since Terry was born, Todd Durham Sr. has been convicted on weapons charges and has served nearly three years in prison on drug charges. Monroe, Terry's grandmother has a criminal record of her own, including a conviction of grand theft and organized fraud in 2000, in conjunction with a phony sweepstakes operation targeting the elderly. She served three years probation.

When asked about the conviction by phone, Monroe said she was unaware the operation she worked for was involved in illegal activities. Asked if she was part of a scheme targeting the elderly she replied, "That was a job. That was a job I was working on. I did not know that this was what these peoples was doing ... I did not know that job was illegal ... I don't know, I don't know what you're talking about ... I don't know nothing about all of that."

Todd Durham Sr. said his convictions didn't set a bad example for his kids.

"It's being a great role model," he said. "If my children can see that I had a little bumps and bruises in my past and I overcame them, that signifies, you know, hope, change."

For now, Terry continues his ministry, seemingly untouched by the controversy swirling around him.

Does he see himself as one of history's great prophets, a Jesus, Mohammed or Moses?

The boy took a long, pensive pause, and then shrugged.

"I mean, I don't know what to say," Terry said. "I could say yes. Yes." He nodded.

"Because I teach, and I also preach. They teach and they also preach. So we kind of do the same thing. We lead people to Christ for them to believe in the Lord, and for them to put all of their problems and their trust in the Lord."

With Monroe hovering near, Terry described his future plans: "I am going to be a preacher till the day that I die," he said.

But moments earlier, in the backyard alone with an ABC News producer, Terry had given a very different answer to what he wants to be when he grows up.

"A pediatrician," he said.

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