Theodis Manning, Sr. is a former member of a Bloods street gang. Now he’s senior pastor of Divine Wisdom Worship Center in Midwest City and co-founder of Teaching and Saving Kids, an outreach group that works with gang members and their children.
In this video, Manning explains why many Oklahoma “gang-bangers,” including those still serving time in prison, are eager to help their kids find a different path in life.
Videography by Ilea Shutler. Produced by Warren Vieth.
“Conversations” is a series of video interviews with Oklahomans about subjects that relate to some of the state’s important issues. The 2016-2017 series is sponsored by the Chickasaw Nation and is made possible by a grant from the Institute for Nonprofit News.
Manning, 58, was raised in a loving, stable household in southern Arkansas. But his role models changed for the worse in 1975, when at the age 16, he spent a summer with an uncle in south Los Angeles. Manning hung out with a neighborhood gang there, sleeping by day and staying up at night, participating in street fights and learning the skills of gang-banging.
He later straightened up, attended college, moved to Oklahoma City and got a job at Tinker Air Force Base. But things headed south again after his introduction to crack cocaine in the 1990s. He joined a transplanted Van Ness Bloods gang set in Oklahoma City and took part in criminal activity to maintain his drug and alcohol habits.
Manning set his life straight again at the age of 40. He renounced the gangster lifestyle and embraced Christianity. He started the Divine Wisdom Worship Center in 2004. Three years later, he teamed up with Andre “B.J.” Jones, a former leader of the Rolling 90s Crips set in Oklahoma City, to create TASK, the outreach program for at-risk youth.
TASK has been praised by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prader for tamping down violent gang activity in the metro area. At the invitation of corrections officials, it began conducting conflict resolution programs targeting gang members in two state prisons. It hopes to expand to other prisons if it can find the funding.
Manning said past and present gang members often make the best evangelizers, even while imprisoned, because they have more street cred with the kids they counsel.
“It gives them an opportunity to right their wrongs, to give back,” he said.