T.J. Valtierra stands by a lake. Credit: YouTube video, Tamarack Dreams by Dan and Sandy Adler

Close to home yet a world away—T.J. Valtierra serves the Little Earth community

It may be just a four-minute drive from the North Central University Campus, but Little Earth of United Tribes may seem like a world away. Some mistakenly believe it is an urban reservation for Native Americans. Some perceive it as a troubled neighborhood to avoid. But to T.J. Valtierra ’14, it is a vibrant community and hub where Native culture is preserved.

Valtierra has been working in various official capacities with the people of Little Earth since 2016. His own Native American heritage—Red Lake Ojibwe—and his desire to share the Gospel of Christ have spurred him to find platforms of impact among Native people. He wears many hats to accomplish this goal.

An article on transformmn.org noted, “[Valtierra] leads in multiple ways throughout his community as a rapper, pastor, mentor, Program Director for the Boys in Girls Club in Little Earth, husband, father, and coach. After becoming a Christian at 21, he went to North Central University and studied to be a youth pastor with a Youth Ministry Major and Bible Minor. He has been in Little Earth for six years now.”

Valtierra’s passion is to serve this urban hub of Native American people and culture, representing at least 38 tribes. “It’s a very tight-knit, vibrant community,” he said, but often misrepresented and misunderstood. Of the more than 1,000 people living within a six-block radius, nearly 50 percent of them are under the age of 18. Valtierra’s own story shapes his desire to reach them with a message of hope and belief that they are valued and have a purpose.

If God is good, why is my life chaotic?

Valtierra came to North Central University after a miraculous intervention of God. Understanding his background—in his own words—provides an understanding of his passion for serving youth and Native people:

“I grew up in the Twin Cities in St. Paul. I’m the youngest of seven. I’m tri-racial—Red Lake Ojibwe, I’m white, and I’m Mexican. Growing up in the inner city, I grew up in a great home with two parents. My dad has been a preacher since before I was born. He’s been all over the world preaching and was the first Native American ordained with the Assemblies of God in Minnesota.

“So, I knew who God was. I didn’t ever have an issue with, like, is God real? Is Jesus real? But growing up in the inner city as the youngest of seven, many of my siblings had troubling issues in life. One of my earliest memories was visiting my sister in prison. So as a kid, I’m trying to figure out in my mind, if God’s good, if He’s real, why is my life chaotic? Why are my siblings in and out of these terrible situations?

At some point, all my siblings were either into drugs, gangs, crime, and just destructive life patterns. And then when my life started to progress, and more bad things happened, I equated that with thinking, God must not really care about us. Because if my parents serve Him and love Him … is this how He repays us? Why would I ever want to follow the Lord?

I kind of grew like a bitterness towards God towards the church. Being a pastor’s kid, it seemed I was always in the wrong, no matter what I did. So, I just kind of hated God and the church.

“I also grew up dealing with a lot of traumatic things. Our house was shot up multiple times due to my siblings’ lifestyles. I remember as a kid, we came home, and there were over 30 bullet holes in our house. I remember asking my mom why that happened. She said someone shot at our house intending to harm us. And as a kid, I’m [thinking], ‘I didn’t do anything wrong! What did I do to merit someone doing this?’ It didn’t make sense in my mind. So, I went through many traumatic things. When I grew up, then, I started using drugs and was going down a similar path.

“When I was 16, my [next-oldest] brother was sentenced to life in prison. He’s doing life in prison, and that was the beginning of a lot of people close to me leaving my life. The next year, one of my best friends was shot and killed. It just sent me down a spiral of deep depression and anger towards God, my family, everyone, really.”

‘This isn’t why I created you’

Valtierra continued sharing his story.

“Fast forward to when I turned 21. I had multiple experiences I can’t really explain. I was partying the night before I turned 21. I had passed out on a couch, and I had this experience—I don’t know if it was a vision or if it was reality—but my soul came out of my physical body, and I was looking down at myself. And I heard God’s voice speak to me.

“And He said, ‘This isn’t why I created you. I created you for something more.’

“[After that], it was like, my soul went back into my physical body, and I woke up. I went home and then the next night I went out to party again. I was in a hotel room with a few friends, and at the end of the night, I just looked around and asked, ‘Is this all life has to offer us? Is this what we think? Obviously, we’re not satisfied. We always need to get high. We always need to get drunk. We always need to look forward to the next relationship, the next way to make money, you know, whatever we’re doing. Like, it’s not working.’

“My friends were confused, and they kind of just started laughing at me. They thought I was too intoxicated. And then I remember one of them saying, ‘Well, what are you gonna do? What are you going to do about it?’

“I answered, ‘I think I’m going to give my life to Jesus.’ At which point they just laughed at me. And then I bowed down in the hotel room, right in front of them. I said, ‘Jesus, if you’re real, like everyone has told me for my entire life, surely you can save me.’

“And in that moment, it was like electricity shot through my body. That’s the best way I can describe it. And I didn’t know what had happened. I knew that God had touched me, and I was just never the same.

“The next morning, I woke up, and my friends wanted to party with me again. But I told them I just didn’t have any desire to do that anymore. They were confused, and I was confused; they asked me, what are you going to do?’

“I told them I didn’t know for sure but was going to start reading my Bible and go to church. And again, they just laughed at me.”

Anxiety, panic attacks, and life-giving prophecy

Valtierra started to make some decisions. Although he had dropped out of high school several years earlier, he had studied to receive his GED when he was arrested and spent time in jail. His older brother Jacob attended North Central University (Read about Jacob Valtierra), so T.J. decided to go to NCU, too. He received a bachelor’s degree in Youth Ministry and Biblical Studies, although he often felt out of place as a student.

“I wasn’t like most of the student body,” he reflected. “It seemed like all we had in common was Jesus, and once my brother left, I was the only Native man in the whole school. I felt isolated.” Valtierra also experienced anxiety and panic attacks—one time, he had a panic attack so severe the school called an ambulance. Valtierra recalls weeping during chapel and crying out to God, saying, “God, you’re telling me I’m going to be minister, and I can’t even present something in class.” Anxiety was ruining his life.

“Then one day, God healed me of that,” Valtierra recalled. “A guy prayed and prophesied over me that God was going to use my voice to reach thousands of people. And I just closed my eyes and received his prayer, although not without some doubt.

“In my head, I was just laughing,” Valtierra said. “I thought, ‘This guy does not know me—I’m almost having a panic attack right now!’ But he continued to pray over me, and once God healed me of anxiety, everything this guy prayed pretty much came true.’”

Meet needs, then share the Gospel

Valtierra has traveled nationally as a rapper and speaker and has, indeed, been able to share his story with thousands. He is deeply committed to the Little Earth community in his work with the Boys and Girls Club and the City Joy mission organization.

More recently, he and his wife, Chelsea, planted Testimony Church in South Minneapolis, “Testimony Church is housed in Lebanon Lutheran in South Minneapolis,” Valtierra said  (transformmn.org). “Our mission is to encounter people right where they are, engage the world with a relevant message, encourage people in their faith, equip the saints to do the work of ministry, and empower all to live in their divine purpose. Our church family is multicultural in many aspects, but primarily Native.”

Valtierra is passionate about ministering to the needs of the whole person. “I think many times we try to drag people to church, to our program,” Valtierra said. “If Christianity were a 12-step [recovery] program, going to church would be like one of the last steps. But a lot of times in Christianity, our mission is, get them to church, and it’s going to fix them. And it’s like, they’re going to go to a building, and they’re going to sing songs—but they have no idea what they’re singing. And they’re going to talk about a book that, you know, it’s like, we’re going to preach from Nehemiah. New people think, ‘Who’s Nehemiah? Why am I reading his book? I have no idea what’s going on.’”

Valtierra wants to serve as a guide to help meet needs, starting where people are. “I think the way church is done, and the way ministry is done, need to change radically,” he said. “We have to get less program-driven and more discipleship-based.”

Working with Native people is inspiring to Valtierra. He longs to help people outside the Native American community see “how beautiful the people are and how talented and driven they are.” They just don’t have the opportunities. He works to help people in established churches see the great opportunities there are to serve people in his church and others like it—not with big programs, food drives, or toy drives, but with people being willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved with people as mentors, guides, and friends.

Valtierra is hopeful for change, knowing that anything is possible with God. “I have seen God do so many things that are just unexplainable to human nature,” he said. “It gives me hope to know that what we do matters, and there are people who our ministry has greatly impacted.”

Hear T.J. Valtierra’s story in his own words: Tamarack Dreams – T.J. Valtierra Story

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