Terry Shanks leaned back in his chair and chuckled while swarms of shrieking children ran past his office to gym class. As we returned to his story, told in his firm but earnest voice, Shanks beamed with a cheerful smile. Currently in his role as a part-time locker room attendant for the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Shanks also works as a minister with the United Praise Ministry, a church in Chatham. Shanks was born in 1957 and lived between 47th and 43rd in what he calls “a rough little area.” He now lives with his wife Mable Shanks—his four grown children have moved out.
I am from the South Side of Chicago and I have always lived here. I had two brothers and three sisters but I was the oldest, so I always was the one to take care of them and make sure they were okay. If there was a problem with somebody in a neighborhood like that you had to be tough, because if somebody bothered your family, or bothered you, you had to address the issue.
When I was younger, my dad used to take us to a regular church, but I started going off into my own understanding of religion. It started off with a Muslim understanding, because back in the day, it was Elijah Muhammad and Farrakhan, that taught you self-discipline, how to eat, how to dress, how to take care of yourself. I would see these guys with suits on, bow ties on and stuff like that, so I felt that hey, religion may not be that bad. But as time went on, I started drifting away. I really wasn’t into religion because I had the street life consume me. After the Million Man March [in 1995], which I was a part of, my thinking started changing, and I started thinking that it wasn’t for me.
My job as a minister started when I got what you call “sober,” because once I did, I got my thinking pattern back, where I started to realize and started to understand what the reality of the world is. I started to think about different ways of contributing.
For a long time I was a barber, which is when I started getting crazy. I left the barbershop and got another job, because at the barbershop all we did was cut hair, drink, and party and I had got caught up in a lot of that stuff. I was drinking every day, using substances. After you get so old, where you start taking a look at life, I realized I had to go. I spent a good amount of time wasting time, doing stuff that young guys do. Now I’m getting close to twenty-three years of what they call “uninterrupted clean time.”
A lot of guys I started out with went to drinking, went to hanging out, and went to craziness, and a lot of them are dead. We still get together, we still laugh and enjoy ourselves, but that’s what brought me to the ministry. Now I want to contribute and now I want to do something to help somebody else.
Did you ever have any gang affiliations?
I kind of ducked it, but I still had to go through the neighborhoods that were gang affiliated. Back then, there were the Blackstone Rangers and the Disciples. I had my group of guys that I was with, and we didn’t take no stuff. My dad was strict, and he wouldn’t let us affiliate with gang members, but we couldn’t help it because we went to school with them; they were in our neighborhood.
It’s changed a whole lot because right now you have more innocent people getting hurt because of the stupidity of people—of kids having access to guns. When I was growing up, you had to be good with your hands. I had fights with some tough guys, but I knew how to use my hands. Once you fought a tough guy, the rest of them gave you respect. Every day on the news now, you hear about shootings.
What was your family like growing up?
My father was something else. He liked to drink too, and I think I learned a bunch of bad habits from him. We were pretty close, and I think the devastation probably started when him and my mother separated. I think that’s what really started me into a lot of different behaviors. When he left, it was a big responsibility on me as an older brother. It was an overwhelming feeling when you know that you’ve got to protect people instead of people protecting you. My mother had to teach me how to make bills, and lots of different things, but I really wasn’t into it because I wanted to do my thing.
We had a serious confrontation one time, but after that I think he stopped drinking. I said some things because I was under the influence, and a lot of things that I was holding in as a young man came out in one day. This had to have happened probably around the eighties, when I really started to take a look at my life. We still had a good relationship. At one point he started trying to see my mom again. At that point he found out he made a big mistake when he left my mom, and we talked about it and we started working a lot of things out.
One day he didn’t show up for work and I hadn’t seen him in a couple days, because he usually came by and I would cut his hair. My little brother called me and told me that he wasn’t at work. So I go over and see what’s going on. I kept saying, “This guy don’t miss no work, this guy don’t sleep late like this, something’s wrong.” They called the janitor in his building and we knocked but we didn’t get a response, When we got in he was laying back in a recliner, relaxed. But I knew he wasn’t sleeping and I could really feel the vibe. He was deceased. It was devastating for me, the oldest son, to go in and find him in that state. It was something I thought I would never experience, and if anything was an excuse for me to go back and get a drink, that would have been it.
He used to talk like, “I could have got a house for you guys, or we could have had a beautiful family.” He talked about that after everything was over, but he never got a chance to do some of the things he thought about.
It’s like breaking a chain. My wife came from a big family too, and most of her family had different problems in their background, but me and my wife are trying to break a chain, so we don’t always have that stereotype of going to jail, selling drugs. That type of behavior should be broke going down the line.
What about your wife? When did you meet her?
I met my wife back in 1976 when she was on her way to a prom. I think I might have been like between nineteen and twenty years old. We had grown up around each other. She was pretty, and I saw her so we started talking. I would have never thought we would be together this long but my wife has stuck in there with me through some bad times.
She supported me when I was confused and when I didn’t have no direction and I would take it out on her, I would act a certain way toward her, and she still hung in there. I was following the same pattern my dad followed, but she hung in there with me, and she always wanted the best for me and my family, and I’m proud to have her as my wife.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to keep working for the Lord Jesus Christ, saving souls, and spend the rest of my life with my family and wife, till death do us part. I’m not looking to win a lottery, I’m a rich man already. Since my life changed, I’ve been a millionaire in spirit and in truth. I’m just enjoying that God gave me a second chance to live.