Every city needs a few “pillars of the community,” or people who serve to build bridges and support belonging and morale. For Little Earth in Minneapolis, one of those pillars is T.J. Valtierra.
As a pastor’s kid, Valtierra knew about God. But he didn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord until his early 20s after saying he heard God tell him he had wasted his life. The next day, while at a party with friends, he knelt down in front of a small crowd and gave his life to Jesus.
After a season, Valtierra felt a calling to preach, but he didn’t know where to begin. He graduated from North Central University in 2014 with a degree in youth ministry and biblical studies, then started traveling for speaking and preaching engagements and performances as a Christian rapper. After working with a basketball outreach for youth, he began serving in Little Earth.
Little Earth is a 220-unit housing community in Minneapolis. Currently, 38 distinct Native American tribes are represented in its population. Valtierra, 34, is Native American as well. As the youngest of seven, he has watched several siblings struggle with substance addiction and incarceration, problems he believes are far too common among indigenous populations.
“I want to help people like me, people who need to meet Jesus and discover the purpose God has for their life,” says Valtierra. He has ministered in tangible ways to youth and families of Little Earth since 2016. His brother Jacob J. Valtierra is a Native pastor in Wisconsin.
Joshuah S. Vermillion is one young person whose life has been impacted by Valtierra’s ministry. Vermillion, now 20, met Valtierra at the age of 14 at the Little Earth Boys and Girls Club where Valtierra served as director. Vermillion, one of seven children, concedes that as a youthful troublemaker he had no hope of graduating. But he says mentoring from Valtierra turned him around.
“T.J. believed in me and put up with my attitude long enough to push me to become something better,” says Vermillion, who now is gainfully employed. “He gave me rides to job interviews and basketball games, and he helped make sure I had what I needed.”
Vermillion, who has three older siblings, is the first child in his family to graduate high school and the first to own a vehicle. He credits much of his accomplishments to Valtierra’s reassuring influence in his life.
“Teenagers know they can go to him for help, whether that’s a ride somewhere or help with homework,” Vermillion says. “He has sacrificed a lot to see people in Little Earth succeed.”
Valtierra and his wife, Chelsea, planted Testimony Church in Little Earth. In addition to traditional services, Testimony Church also hosts an open mic night where the 30 youth who attend regularly can display and hone spoken word, musical, or other performing talents.
Through the church and a one-on-one basketball discipleship program, Valtierra tries to encourage youth to grow in their faith. He also helps them develop financial skills, career plans, and classroom competency.
Photo: T.J. Valtierra (left) has been a mentor to others, including Joshuah Vermillion.