Now Bell, 39, who has gone into the ministry, has a vision, and he's looking for community help to make it a reality.
He hopes to raise $20,000 to get copies of his autobiography, “T.H.U.G.G Journey,” printed in paperback so he can distribute them to inmates at the Allen County Jail and at other jails around the state and nation.
“They can relate to my story,” Bell said. “They have living testimony. 'If he changed, I can do it, too.'”Bell's book begins with his early life in New York City.
Born to parents who were severe alcoholics, Bell didn't have a normal home life, he said in the book. His mother died when he was 6, and he was raised by his grandmother.
Some days walking in the neighborhood, he would see his father passed out along the street.
When his father was in better shape, he remembers him walking toward him. Bell would run to his father, who would lift him up, raise one of Bell's arms and say, “You're my champ! You're my champ!”
But Bell lost contact with his father at age 11 and hasn't seen him since.
He always hoped they could be reunited. Two months ago, however, Bell learned his father died in November 1991 — about six months after Bell was shot.
The news hurt, but Bell said he still hangs onto that image of his father holding him and telling him, “You're my champ!”
“I've been through challenges. I've been through changes,” Bell said. “But I am a champion.”At age 13, Bell came to live with relatives in Fort Wayne. He continued getting in trouble, and joined the CPT gang.
In April 1991, he was among a group of friends gathered outside a home in the 4000 block of South Barr Street. Bell, then age 18 and known by his original first name, Chris, got into an alcohol-fueled argument with a friend, Sedrick Ingram, then 17. Ingram went inside, grabbed a shotgun and shot Bell in the head.
Ingram turned himself in to police soon after the shooting, The News-Sentinel reported. He later pleaded guilty to attempted voluntary manslaughter and served time in prison.
Bell remembers waking up six weeks later in the dark, not knowing where he was. He quickly learned it was a hospital room. It wasn't long before doctors told him he wouldn't regain his sight.Bell decided to change his life, and felt a calling to minister to others in the thug culture.
He started Changed People Today nearly 15 years ago, using the letters of his former gang to spell out the name of his new ministry. He worked in ministry and as a motivational speaker for several years in Fort Wayne before taking his work to Texas, Oklahoma and Long Beach, Calif. He returned to Fort Wayne in June.
During that time away, he said God told him to get his first name legally changed to “Bishop,” which he did in 2006, and he began referring to himself as the T.H.U.G.G. bishop and to his ministry as the T.H.U.G.G. Church — True Homies Under God's Grace.
He wrote his book during 2009, and gave out nearly all of the copies he had printed. He also had the book produced as a CD, and he has released an album of rap songs.
Bell came back to Fort Wayne this summer at the invitation of the Rev. Paul Taylor Jr., pastor of Greater Spirit of Love Church of God in Christ, 1422 Baxter St. Taylor wanted Bell to speak at his church's revival, and especially to young people.
“He's got a ministry that really promotes and provokes young people's thought patterns,” Taylor said.
Bell knows gang life, so he relates easily to young people living in or on the fringe of the thug lifestyle, and they can relate to him, Taylor said. Bell seems to be able to instill morals in those young people and to show them how to live outside gang culture.
“He's going to be dynamic in helping young people,” Taylor added.
Bell thinks he can make a difference by ministering to gang members in jail and by giving them copies of his book so they can read about how he changed his life.
“I've really got to catch the ones while they are in there (jail),” he said. “They can stay focused.”
Many people don't know how to change their life, Bell said.
“T.H.U.G.G. Journey” is “like a Bible, but really simple,” he explained. He doesn't preach, but he relates his life story and how he believes God has helped him.
“You have people in jail who are hurting,” he said. He wants them to know, “He did it, so I can do it, too.”
Learn moreTo learn more about Bishop R. Bell and his ministry, go to www.thuggbishop.com.
To hear him reading a portion of Chapter 15, “Jail Can't Hold Me,” from his book “T.H.U.G.G. Journey,” call 1-214-447-0000.
To hear him performing his song “Runnin' 4 My Life,” go to www.thuggbishop.com, click on the link for T.H.U.G.G. Journey Music Store and then on the preview button for that song.
To sponsor printing of “T.H.U.G.G. Journey” in paperback or to give to Bell's ministry, donate to Changed People Today Savings at any local Chase Bank branch, or mail to: Changed People Today, Box 6001, Fort Wayne, IN 46896.