As he bled out, he made a sign of the cross with his arms.
The youngster, described by Williams as serious about his faith with dreams of being a pastor like his uncle, was caught in the crossfire of a gang-related shooting and died in his mother’s arms.
Out of his tragedy, Williams decided to create a program to reach out to one of the populations most in need of help.
“One of the things I say when I’m lecturing or teaching is … we can’t look past the fact that we lost three lives that day,” Williams said. “Two of those young men are now in prison for life. It’s easy to remember the victim, but the perpetrator is still someone’s son or someone’s daughter. And it was a hard thing for the family to hear because they thought I was being too sympathetic with the triggermen.”
To two local pastors — Williams of Christ Bethlehem Church and Pedro “Pepe” Gonzales of Victory Outreach in Sparks — every life is important and has a purpose, no matter how great the sin. In Reno and Sparks, both see a large field of teens who are easily influenced, recruited and manipulated in the gang lifestyle in the pursuit of drugs and guns under the cover of family and friends.
And both are on a mission as they use faith to intervene and introduce youth to both earthly and heavenly citizenship.
Inspired to reach out
While attending A.J.’s memorial, Williams said more than 204 teens made a decision to become Christians, the kind of numbers that most pastors only dream about seeing at one time, he said.
“That inspired me,” he said. “It’s in remembrance of A.J., but it’s also going to be a future for all the children I think would benefit. Whether you’re in a high-income bracket, whether you’re in the lowest, whether you’re in the best schools, whether you’re in the best neighborhoods, whether you’re in the lowest-income neighborhoods or the worst of schools, all children are at risk for these kinds of behaviors: gangs, drug use, unprotected sex, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS – they’re at risk. And we think because we’re in a better community, our children are immune from that. But every child’s at risk.”
After his nephew’s death, Williams found a home in Reno and is starting up a nonprofit program called Saving a Life Together, or SALT, to teach teens the dangers of joining gangs and empower them to help their peers. He and his staff will offer a year-long series of classes on gang prevention and provide activities on the weekends to teach teens how to play golf, go camping and play basketball. He still in the midst of developing the program and has high hopes of reaching out to local youth, but it will take the community to be effective, he said.
“God puts people in positions to effect change and that’s why I’m here and that’s why you’re here and that’s why the Regional Gang Unit is there,” Williams said.
On Friday, Williams invited guest speaker Tony Little, a former Chicago gangster, to speak to a crowd of about 20 at Christ Bethlehem about the dangers of joining a gang. In the audience was student Larry Dotson, who said he had once considered joining a gang, but a run-in with the law in December quickly changed his mind.
“It’s nothing to flirt with,” he said.
Dotson, 17, started using drugs like cocaine and was arrested on two counts of armed robbery for stealing food from a convenience store in December, a crime he committed with some gang members. He was released after a week and spent 30 days in house arrest. He’s still on probation.
He’s disassociated himself from his former friends and considers himself lucky to have been able to break away.
“The people I was with, it wasn’t a true love for each other,” he said. “We’d go places and hang out, but once somebody went to jail it just seemed like, there was no real love.”
Dotson, who shows unusual clarity of thought for someone his age, is eager to be a part of the SALT program to show other friends that gangs should not be an option for them.
“A kid, especially someone my age, that thinks they know everything, when they see a teacher like (Little) and explain the breakdown (of getting into gangs), it teaches us that we really know nothing and that we’re getting into something bigger than we could ever think,” Dotson said.
Outreach to the outcasts
At Victory Outreach, Pastor Pepe and his wife, Sylvia, also have a heart for the area’s unwelcome, whether they’re drug addicts, prostitutes or gang members. Their ministry is focused on such groups because they believe all people have a spiritual part that can be tapped into, no matter how bad the sin.
“It’s something that’s really going to work when you involve the spiritual,” Pepe said. “People are always looking for something spiritual. We were made like that. We’re all looking for something different. That’s why there are so many different religions.”
Pepe and Sylvia left San Bernardino, Calif. in March to take over the local Victory Outreach. The church was using the Neil Road Recreational Center, but staff members are preparing for a move to the Montello Street area near Wedekind Road. The Gonzaleses want to be in the center of gang activity where it’ll be easier to attract people who are dealing with gang and drug problems.
“It’s a lot of work,” Pepe said. “They come in with a lot of problems and end up in jail. That is sometimes disappointing. They start doing real good, but then they go back. We’re working with a young man right now who’s 14. He was doing real good, but went back to his gang. He and one of his friends tried to get alcohol and stabbed a guy.”
The ministry may be considered rough around the edges by other churchgoers, but Pepe and Sylvia say their kind of background is needed to make a connection and form relationships with gang members.
“We do have a 70 percent success rate,” Pepe said. “(They have to graduate) and graduation involves being involved in Bible studies every day, no jobs, no smoking, no drinking. You’re learning how to pray, how to read.”
Those who come to Victory Outreach aren’t allowed a job at first so they can focus on turning their life around, Sylvia said.
“Many people ask, ‘Can I get a job?’ ” she said. “I tell them, ‘No, if a job would have changed your life, it would have changed you a long time ago. You need a relationship with God.’ ”
The gangbangers’ reform
At 21, Pepe” was doing drugs and committing burglaries with his mother. It wasn’t unusual for her to overdose on heroin. When she did time in prison for her crimes, she pimped women to their house for Pepe. Inevitably, he saw the consequences of these activities and for a long time, nothing of the lifestyle phased him and he had joined a gang by the age of 14.
“I grew up in a house where the cops would come and kick down the door and you would get thrown in the shower or thrown out for heroin (overdoses),” he said. “I lived in the neighborhood and when you live in the neighborhood, you’re almost forced into it or you get ostracized if you’re not.”
As a young adult, Pepe found some acceptance among other adults in the neighborhood because he had access to drugs at home. Gangs and narcotics went hand in hand as he pursued his own identity and he tried new experiences to clean up his life. He even got kicked out of the Army and was later told by a parole officer that he could get drunk or high or whatever he wanted — as long as he didn’t get caught.
Not long after, a confrontation with a police officer forced him to take refuge in a mission home, an event that changed his life forever. On Aug. 16, 1982, Pepe was saved in the Christian faith and ever since, he has never smoked, had a drink or carried guns.
Sylvia, meanwhile, was jumped into a gang at age 12. The daughter of a middle-class family, she felt she was never truly accepted by anyone and spiraled downward to a place she never wanted to, watching friends get raped and abused.
When she was 17, Pepe’s future wife was partying with gangs, ditching school and watching her grades drop as she began to care less about her studies.
One night, she found herself sitting on a curb outside a friend’s house in handcuffs, scared of what might happen to her. She was soon picked up by her mother at a police station after she and some friends were taken in for gang affiliation. It was just one of several similar incidents, though she was never arrested.
“I was looking for belonging,” she said. “Acceptance — that was my big thing. ... I started ditching school and getting involved in little crimes. I remember (when) I got handcuffed and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ ”
Reform, however, wasn’t just for the pastors. Pepe’s younger brother, Augie, also found redemption through Victory Outreach after some his difficulties as a child. He remembers his mother’s lifestyle as well.
“Every day I would come home and see people with needles in their necks, people knotted out on the tables and I’d go into the bedroom where they were making the drugs,” he said. “My mother was in and out of my life and so was my brother. He’d be at the Y, I was in jail. He’d be in the Army, I was in jail.”
Augie joined a gang at 12 and imitated the lifestyle of his closest family throughout his teen years. A neighborhood play called “50 Robbers” changed his life, he said, until 1983 through most of the 1990s when he relapsed in his old ways and faced two charges with possible life sentences: false imprisonment and kidnapping. At the time he thought he was just helping a friend, but when he arrived he learned that the favor was transporting a body from city to city.
Augie found help through his brother’s ministry after a period of feeling that God had abandoned him.
“These guys were praying for me but I said, ‘God don’t love me,’ ” he said. “I was all messed up and I stopped going to church. … But now I just want to tell these guys that there’s hope.”
Showing others the way
Today, the couple spend their lives seeking out people who are looking for a way out of the same pattern. They work in the inner-city ministry of Victory Outreach, a worldwide network of churches that attracts, rehabilitates and disciples what society would consider to be outcasts, reaching thousands of hardcore gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes to help turn their lives around using faith-based methods.
“We don’t just get them saved,” Pepe said. “We teach them how to be good citizens. We deal with their character, we deal with their integrity, we deal with their work ethics, their social ethics, you know, how to treat people because what’s what the Bible teaches.”
Those who come to Victory Outreach aren’t charged any money for the program, but Pepe and Sylvia will coordinate side jobs such as car washes to support their work.
Victory Outreach has grown from 14 to 65 since the Gonzales family came in March. They work with Children’s Cabinet as volunteers and are preparing to open an office for their church soon. Lately, they’ve been meeting in a home. They’re excited about the possibilities of their work and the potential in Reno.
Pepe envisions having a community center with ping-pong tables, a pool table and Christian music in the near future.
Sylvia said helping teens to fit in an environment with better role models will help the local youth population and can also extend to their families.
“They come and as soon as they see change in their loved ones’ lives and they start coming to church,” she said. “Once a person gets plugged in, they become part of the church, like a little community.”
Pepe said the teens and young adults are an important part of Victory Outreach.
“In August, we’re taking eight of them to Ontario, Calif. for a youth conference to hear the Word and music,” he said. “What we have is called the GANG – God’s Anointed Now Generation. If it was classified as a gang, it would be the largest in America.”
The conference costs $220 and there’s still time for teens to sign up if they want to go, he said.
Changing church attitudes
Local churches need to be more mindful and accepting of anyone who walks through their doors, Williams said, and a lot of that starts with the pastors.
“Pastors first have to go educate themselves because if you don’t know culture, then you can’t deal with the problem,” he said. “You’ve got to know how they live in order to teach them how they can live. Pastors have to look at them not judgmentally. We have to look at them as God’s children.”
Fear of losing a portion of their congregations may also make church leaders reluctant to work in the kind of ministry Williams and Pepe are creating, but the church should be the place with the right attitudes to reach out to gang members, drug addicts and prostitutes.
“Some people in church are not going to want an HG, a hardcore gangster, sitting next to them in a church praising God,” Williams said. “ ‘I don’t believe he’s really saved.’ Well, that’s how they felt about (the missionary) Paul and with (the apostle) Peter.”
The work has created personal changes as well, Pepe said.
“We’ve invested our lives into this, this is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We didn’t just come out here and jump right in. We’ve prepared for this, gone to school, live this, breathe this. This is what we do. We love gang members. We love drug addicts. We love prostitutes. We want to see them change. We feel their heart, we feel their hurt, we feel their pain and we’ve seen how they’ve been rejected.”
Pepe said the pastors of Victory Outreach churches have dealt with the gang members and drug addicts for so long, they have developed an “in your face” approach to get through to them.
Changing city attitudes
Pepe has met with local officials, sometimes to no avail, he said.
“When I was growing up, there was something to do,” Pepe said. “There was recreation center with ping-pong. Right now, the Washoe County probation department is realizing that it’s just not a hard thumb (the teens) need, not just locking up and punishing them, but what can do they do to help them? I’ve been in meetings with lawyers and judges. We’re explaining our program and now they’re getting more open to that. Reno hasn’t really experienced gang violence like it could, but it’s growing.”