TEMPLE TERRACE — The young woman gripping the microphone glided onto the stage, her 4-inch black heels thumping the thin carpet. "Check, check, check," she said. "Mike one." That evening in Temple Terrace, she prepared to headline a concert for kids in a church hall no bigger than a double-wide mobile home. It had low ceilings with fluorescent lights and the stage was just a raised section of floor. But up there, as she tested the rattling acoustics in a nearly empty room, Terri Saffold beamed as if that was where she most belonged. As if she had never been far from a church's holy stage. But Terri had.
Now 23, she first sang before a congregation at age 5. She wore lace dresses and stockings as a member of the "Little Lightettes" youth choir. Terri found peace on those stages, away from the home where she almost never did. The youngest of Felicia Howard's nine children, she was born on a couch with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Her single mom, a nurse, struggled to find work and moved her family again and again among Tampa's housing projects. Often, they ate meals of ramen, or canned pork and beans, or nothing at all. When electric bills went unpaid, Terri took baths in buckets of cold water. She got in fights with kids who teased her for being poor, failed the fourth and sixth grades. She first smoked weed at 11. Three years later, Terri left behind the church stages.
Now Terri sat alone in the front row. She clapped to the beat for a teen struggling to strum the right notes and mouthed "sing, sing" to a girl whose voice trembled on a solo. She stood and applauded nine other performances, then took the stage. "Some of y'all don't know me. I'm Terri Vee," she said. "I'm a gospel rapper."
She thanked God, the church's pastor, her pastor who wasn't there, the people she knew and those she didn't. Terri was thankful to be there at all, but didn't say why. She didn't say that after she abandoned the church as a teenager, she got drunk and high every day. That at 17 she borrowed a friend's ID so she could strip in a club called Sin City. That at a party in Orlando, where she was hired to dance, a man dragged her into a bathroom but didn't rape her because she prayed and cried and told him she had grown up in the church. That Terri returned to church in 2009, two months after her mother got cancer. That she watched someone else on a stage and that the man's passion made Terri want it, too. That she began to sing again for God, in a new way, even when the cancer took her mother's life last year.
And so, after her first song, Terri asked every girl in the room up to that stage. Eighteen joined her. She signaled for the sound. Bass thumped.
"Holy girls rock," they sang with her. "Holy, holy girls rock."