Changed Lives – Outstretched Arms

iStock_000002042958_Mediumby John Kurlinski, Pastor of the Bremerton Seventh-day Adventist Church

Javier was raised in south central Los Angeles. He grew up and lived under the out-stretched arms of Jesus. Not His literal arms but in the neighborhood of the once famous LA mural of a Hispanic Jesus painted by Kent Twitchell on the side of the old Tiger Liquor Store on 11th Street. He was at the dedication in 1984. It marked the northern boundary of SOLOS — the local gang of which Javier joined when he was 10 years old.

One of the regular “events” were funerals. Every couple of years they would bury a family member, mostly gang-related. His father left the family while he was a toddler. To say that life was difficult is a huge understatement.

Many times between his 10th and 15th birthday Javier ran away, or tried to run away from home. He lived with various “homeboys” in abandoned houses that were scattered through the neighborhood. He was in and out of juvenile detention centers. Life in the gang was a life of drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and lots of violence. Javier said there were about 20-30 fights a year —many with other gang members who strayed into the territory, though there were many with members of SOLOS, establishing the “pecking order.” Anger was the fuel for the violence and the drug abuse that attempted to quench the troubled heart.

Though his grandmother tried to take the children to church —church was just a place to meet girls and sell drugs after the services, It was also the meeting place of gang members when they were incarcerated in both the juvenile detention centers and later in prison.

A month before his 15th birthday, he was released from one of the many stays in juvenile detention. 62 days later his life, at the age of 15 would take a dramatic turn.
The Fourth of July holiday was notorious for violence because the many fireworks masked the numerous small arms fire of rival gang drive-by shootings. It was near the mural of Jesus, on 111th and Vermont that Javier was shot on July 3rd in a drive-by. A .22 caliber bullet pierced his lung and lodged in his spine. Though he didn’t realize it for several weeks because of hospitalization he was now a paraplegic.

Life, paralyzed from the bottom of the rib cage down was a struggle. It takes him one to one and a half hours each morning to just get dressed. And he is too proud and independent to have or seek help —which was, in the gang mentality, a sign of weakness.

Often tragedy has a way of softening a heart, causing people to reassess their life, looking for answers and meaning that were neglected in the years of poverty and abuse. But this was not the case for Javier. He became angrier and even more violent —picking on people even larger than himself, teasing mercilessly those more paralyzed than himself. Even a 5 year stint in prison for gun-running and other firearm violations had no effect for the good. It would take another yearly “family tragedy” to startle and shake Javier’s hard heart.

When he was about 30, that summer, two uncles died one week apart. And less than a month later his younger brother, also a gang member, was killed in a drive-by shooting. At the funeral many had gathered. There was family and gang members —and even some neighbors who came to pay their respects. One was crying and Javier thought to himself —“why are you crying fool” you don’t even know him. But Javier’s own lack of tears shook him up —“Why don’t I even cry?’

Instead of mocking the many and various street preachers and literature people who also roamed the streets during the day —Javier began his quest for truth, meaning and purpose. Gang life as a paraplegic was no picnic. He eventually decided to leave LA for the Pacific Northwest to escape the violence. He also wanted to get established and try to get a few of the younger cousins out of LA, as well. The drug culture still had a grip on his life —mostly medicinally, since he used marijuana to help him sleep at night.

Whenever Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons came to the door he would ask them questions about God, the Bible, life. Though he was often left more confused, he genuinely wanted to know. Then he ran into a Seventh-day Adventist church member passing out toiletries while attending a homeless/low-income dinner.

The member handed him a handbill to some upcoming meeting on prophecy —especially the book of Daniel. Javier came and interest grew —after follow-up Bible studies, Javier gave his heart to Jesus and joined the church. When grace flooded his heart, when he experienced the forgiveness of God for a life of violence and debauchery, the anger melted away. He found that placing yourself in the “arms” of Jesus —melts the anger and banishes the hate.

The only regret Javier has is it took him so long to come to Jesus —even though Jesus’ arms were stretched out to him almost all his life. Now he serves the homeless and those who suffer a multitude of pain, addiction and loss. He has a winsome personality and makes friends easily. Many are willing to try to help him —so what he does is solicits rides to church for worship and for the upcoming Revelation Seminar. Since they are willing to take him, they often sit with him and several are now becoming more frequent attenders —not just because Javier asked them for help.

All marvel at the love and power of God to take someone from such poverty, trials and tribulations, full of violence and hatred —to become meek and loving like Jesus. Javier would say, when you see Jesus’ outstretched arms —run to Him, not away. He has found a “home” and a new family who loves him because of Jesus.

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