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When Jesus Met a Gangster

When Jesus Met a Gangster

The old, Hispanic church building on Wilshire Boulevard was only a few minutes away, but it felt like miles. Walking on the sidewalk nearing the building’s parking lot, I began noticing people I‘d seen around the neighborhood. All the while, I was on high alert, staying aware of my surroundings at all times just in case I was being followed.

It was now nearing seven p.m. The temperature was mild, not hot or cold, yet I was sweating. Why was I so nervous about some church function? Something unusual was stirring inside me that I couldn’t explain.

As I neared the church’s front entrance, I could now hear music. It wasn’t normal music, at least not the music I was used to. It wasn’t hip-hop or oldies. This sound was foreign, though faintly, in the back of my mind, it reminded me of the music I had heard years prior as a little boy in the church where my mother received her prophetic word. I heard tambourines, drums, a bass, and a lead guitar along with out-of-tune singing. Obviously, some sort of celebration was going on.

I kept telling myself to lay low, that I was there simply to keep my promise to my sister. I had given her my word. I was a gangster, but my word was still my word. I was looking around for her and didn’t see her anywhere. What I did see were some guys dressed like me who looked like gang members! One had a butterfly tattoo on his neck. He’s standing there, and I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me. I’m taking deep breaths because now I’m thinking maybe my sister had set me up.

The weird thing was those guys who looked like gang members were clapping and singing. Some were raising their hands, shouting amen, and things like that. I was starting to panic a little because I couldn’t see my sister anywhere. There were others who appeared to be former gang members dressed in suits. They were smiling. These guys didn’t seem worried in the least that I was there. Yet I was worried that I was there! I was thinking if I did something out of line or they did something out of line, there was going to be retaliation.

I stood all the way in the back, hoping to go unnoticed, and as the music died down, the man I was there to see took the microphone. He was dressed sharply, yet he too looked like a mobster. His hair was slicked back, and he was clean cut, no mustache. But he had a teardrop tattoo under one eye. His face reflected life on the streets, and I could tell this guy was an OG. He kind of looked like a skull with skin because his eyes were sunk in the back of his head. His eyes were mysterious, yet they were warm and piercing at the same time.

The more I observed him, however, the more I recognized him as a former rival gang member from 5th and Hill. We had chased him, and he had chased us; his homeboys tried to kill us, and our homeboys tried to kill them. “What happened?” I asked myself, baffled by how this gang member could go from that to this.

He started by praying, and he talked to God like He was actually listening. After giving a few words of encouragement to the people, he did something that shocked me. He said, “I know I’m supposed to be sharing my story tonight, but there’s a young man here who needs to hear the greatest story that has ever been told. I know you came to hear me, but this message is for a young man.” I didn’t know who he was talking about, and I was looking around, wondering, “Who is this young man?” I didn’t think it was me because I didn’t feel like a young man.

Yet the more this guy spoke, the more drawn in I became. He began to talk about Jesus and how He suffered and gave His life for me. As the guy was moving around the platform, I gripped my guns so tight my hands start sweating. I was feeling heat, like the room was boiling hot. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I got so captivated with how this former rival gang member, the OG, was describing a man named Jesus. He began to talk about mercy and grace. But what got me the most was when he talked about the love Jesus had for me.

If there was ever something that got my attention, it was love. That was something I wished I could have shared with my father, but my definition of love had been so corrupted by the way he had treated my mother, my sister, and me. Then, of course, it was further corrupted by what the street had taught me love was. There was a battle going on inside me between my past experiences and the love that one man showed by going to the cross to die for what the speaker called my “sin.” I had thought sin was doing bad stuff, but he explained that the root of all sin is when you are separated from God and don’t have an intimate relationship with Jesus. And he began to explain how we are sinners saved by grace because of Jesus and how man cannot forgive unless he is forgiven. He talked about grace and forgiveness and unconditional love.

While this was happening, the questions my sister gave me a week before started resonating. What if God is real? What if prayer works? What if you have a different destiny? And here this man is talking about Jesus and describing how He came to earth to take on our sins and our identity. When he said Jesus took on my identity, I immediately thought about the false identity I had created. The preacher said Jesus knew me and had created me in the womb. He said, “God had plans for you and created you before you were even a blip on the monitor. God has a plan for you.” The scripture he used has become one of my life favorites: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jer. 29:11).

By that time, this man had locked eyes with me. His eyes were penetrating right through my sunglasses into my soul. “I’m going to get off this stage,” he said. As he did, he started walking toward me. Finally, he was close to my face, and he seemed oblivious to the other people in the room. He was looking at me, beyond my Locs. “So, what are you going to do?” he asked. “Are you going to give your life to Him? Or are you going to walk out of this building knowing there’s a bullet with your name on it? Are you going to leave this building knowing you heard the gospel, you heard hope for the first time in your life, and that’s it? It ends there?”

Clearly, I was the young man he was talking about. My panic, however, was soon overtaken by fear, but it was a different kind of fear—that fear of hope. I was afraid to feel hope. What would it look like to be free? What would it feel like?

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