MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The city of Memphis has one of the highest crime rates in the country, but out on its streets, there is a man who thinks he's found a solution — and it's not just more police and stiffer sentences.
Jermar Wilkins is a man on a mission. When he's not moving pallets, he's busy moving mountains of rage and regret, darkness and destruction, doubt and fear.
In 36 years, he's been on a jaw-dropping journey, and no one thought this would be his final destination — at a home Bible study.
Back in the old neighborhood where he grew up, the former Hurt Village housing project in Uptown, many wondered if Jermar would have a future. We met there to revisit the scars of the past.
"Man, it’s changed," he said, walking around the new houses that replaced the housing project. "All the people have gone on but, but this basically was full of nothing but crime and violence, and gang members and all that."
This is where Jermar and his older brother Zendrick grew up, where they joined the Vice Lords, smoked dope, and would steal anything they could get their hands on.
Robbery, aggravated assault, drug crimes. There was no sugar coating this walk down memory lane.
”I found my first dead body behind this woman’s house," his brother, Zendrick Little remembered.
That was life and death in Hurt Village.
By the age of 15, Jermar was lost. He’d left home, started running with the gang, was in and out of jail. He started using drugs.
Then, one day five years ago, he called his cousin… and said he was finished.
”He called me and said, 'Tiffany, I don’t want to live anymore," recalled his cousin Tiffany Williams. "Before I wake up another day on drugs, I would rather just die."
It was an awakening, the dawn of a new day. His hallelujah moment was the beginning of a transformation.
He went into drug treatment and rediscovered his mother’s church.
"You know old patriarch saints used to say it this way: ‘The things that I used to do, I don’t do them anymore," he said.
A foot soldier for the Vice Lords had become a soldier for Christ.
“It took a lot of work for me to get where I am today," Wilkins said. "You know what I’m saying, a lot of worshiping, a lot of praising, a lot of studying and reading.
"But it feels good to be the man that I am today. You know what I’m saying, that God turned my mess into a message.”
What does he tell others living his old lifestyle now?
"I tell them you got two alternatives. One is destruction, the next one is death. If you don’t change your life and get around people that’s encouraging you, that’s prospering you and pushing you forward and making you become greater and germinating you, that you need to remove yourself from that crowd.”
It took years, but Jermar finally decided he’d no longer worship at the feet of the Vice Lords.
”I feel like God specializes in changing lives,” he said. "You see, the world look at like how we is, but God look at us, what we can become. So everyday, I’m becoming, I’m improving, I’m becoming better."
His pastor will confirm that. He’s witnessed the transformation.
“He’s made a tremendous change," said Pastor Lawrence Matthews of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Frayser. “Jermar is an ideal person, from street life to Christian life. To a different walk.”
Jermar is now the associate pastor at Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Back in the old neighborhood, Jermar’s brother has seen it too.
”The same neighborhood we used to go fight our rival gangs in, it’s the same neighborhood he’s preaching in,” Little said.
Transform a brother, change a street, a neighborhood, an entire community, maybe even a city.
"No matter how many highs I’ve had, from weed, to cocaine or alcohol, or sex or stealing, or whatever, the adrenaline I feel today, it won’t go down. It’s a high that won’t go down,” Wilkins said.
Admittedly, crime in Memphis is a very complex problem and Jermar’s solution won’t work in every situation. But perhaps, for some, it can become part of the answer.
And in a city that has been grappling with this problem for decades, perhaps it’s a component that needs some additional consideration.
“It was the evidence from science and history that prompted me to abandon my atheism and become a Christian.” — Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ