I’ve always had problems fitting in… it’s actually a part of my testimony! I’ve never been able to fully fit in to a peer group on my own. Growing up in elementary school I was an oversized nerd that tried hella hard to be cool but wasn’t accepted. In Junior High School I’d made a promise to myself that I’d fit in somewhere, anywhere… it didn’t matter which peer group. There were stoners, there were cholos, and there were surfers, I didn’t wanna smoke weed, and I didn’t own a surfboard, so the cholos seemed the most interesting. Not only that, it was guaranteed protection from getting chased or beat up by others.
Before I knew it, I’d gotten jumped in by Big Pollo (RIP), Poison (RIP), T-Bone, and the homie Chueco. It was my official “court in” as they beat me, punched me, and kicked me for 60 seconds. I was a bloody mess, but I was instantly accepted, I was now a part of a family that would defend me to the death, care for me, feed me if needed, but most of all, offer me brotherhood and fellowship… I belonged. I had a small army of dudes that had my back, accepted me, and welcomed me in with open arms. I quicky began to build up this façade of who I wanted the world to believe I was. I immediately started getting arrested and doing time, in which I’d further build my reputation of someone to be feared and respected. Huntington Park, South Central, and Watts were my stomping grounds!
I would eventually go from juvenile hall, to probation camp, the California Youth Authority, LA County Jail, Department of Corrections, and finally on the run to Mexico as a wanted fugitive. Hiding out there I had an option to further carry out my criminal career by connecting deeper with the cartels, or reinvent myself to start over. I was tired of running, so I chose for an identity makeover. I went to Sinaloa and got fake ID’s, moved to Baja California, started from the bottom as a Night Auditor at a small motel, and worked my way up to General Manager of one of the finest Beach Resorts in all of Baja. But even holding that prestigious job, I never truly fit in to the community there, it’s like they knew that there was something fishy about me, so they kept their distance.
And when I came back years later, I was trying to figure out who I was after the many identity changes, getting reconnected with my homies, prison political associations (IYKYK), all while remaining under the radar so as to not alert the authorities I was back. Then while starting my last prison term, I had a true encounter with Christ, not quite as dramatic as Paul on the road to Damascus, but it was probably a close runner up. And while I was in prison, a place that’d been home for so many years, I now felt out of place because I was a Christian. Upon my release from prison almost 3 years later, going to my wife’s church in Compton, then to a Reformed church and growing there, I didn’t quite fit into either of those two churches.
And now, fast forward a bunch of years later and being 3 ½ years into planting the Reformed Church of Los Angeles, with 4 – 5 more plants in the works, leaving our denomination due to irreconcilable differences, and looking for a new denominational home, I am again reminded that I don’t fit in anywhere, nor does our church. There are places that will tolerate me, there are groups of people that would probably be happy to have us with them to make them look different, and there a couple of groups we’re having conversations with and though we’d be a good theological fit, the question is would we be a good cultural fit. What am I referring to? Being “Hood and Reformed”.
The Reformed/ Presbyterian world has some of thee smartest folks in theological circles. It is also a very homogenous environment within most circles we are connected to. There are very few, if any, Ministers of Word & Sacrament, who come from my type of background. There aren’t many Latino “Teaching Elders” let alone church planters, or even Ministers whom we could connect with that have experienced church planting in the hood. At times it seems like folks we’ve been connected to in our theological circles are too busy to give us wise counsel, or maybe wouldn’t understand some of our struggles, our context, or our need of them and their guidance.
We’re hood, we’re Reformed, we’re confessional, we’re creedal, we’re complementarian, and we’re focused on reaching the urban poor, the under resourced communities where prosperity pushing pimps thrive, fleecing the flock of what little they have. We are adamant about reaching our community with the Gospel, passionate about teaching folks solid theology that they might know God more intimately, love Him more profoundly, and serve Him more passionately. Because we’re in the hood we don’t have the resources that most Reformed/ Presbyterian churches do, so fundraising is another part of our scope of work, by God’s grace He’s provided every step of the way. So what do we do now? Where do we go from here?
We are currently praying, discerning a way forward that God would lead us to make the right affiliations to enhance our ministry… not just Lynwood, but Wilmington, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Phoenix, and who knows maybe even Chicago and Las Vegas. There are many dope groups of folks with whom we can connect, but the question is which would benefit our lil #GuerillaChurchPlanting movement the best going forward. You see, we’ve got dudes who will be planting that only have a G.E.D. and will be going to seminary, these aren’t the normal paths to ordination, but that’s what we’re working with and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re in unchartered waters here… whereas most Reformed/ Presbyterian churches have moved to more suburban areas, or are in urban areas but not as actively involved with their community (no shade just facts) we want to plant confessionally Reformed churches in the hood by the hood and for the hood. But, unfortunately most of us weren’t raised in the church, we’ve got at least a couple felonies, no undergrad education, we’re bi-vocational, but have all the passion in the world to teach folks in our communities who Jesus really is.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to encounter in my Christian walk was to wait! Wait until I got back into school to finish my undergraduate, wait on seminary, finish seminary, get ordained, and somewhere in the middle of all that we planted a confessionally Reformed church. I’ve got such a huge respect and admiration for the Reformed tradition, its organization, it’s profoundly sound doctrine, rich history, love of God’s Word, commitment to accurately teach the Bible, and the seriousness with which we take theological education, and with all it’s pro’s, there are still some cons.
I think the absolute hardest thing in my Christian walk was my identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I used to be this fat nerd as a kid who got bullied, then I became a fake gangster who transformed into a real gangster, then fled the country and took on another name and had to reinvent myself with this new identity, and then when I came back the U.S. to assume my old identity and resume being a hardened criminal. And if that wasn’t enough to confuse me, when I surrendered all to Christ in a prison cell on my knees crying out to Him, I was thrown for a loop.
Friends, becoming a Christian yanked the rug from underneath my footing as I had to become everything I never was in the past, like I now had to demonstrate love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Who me? You gotta be kidding right? Actually yeah, that’s exactly what I had to do. I had no idea how I’d do this, and in doing so I quickly noticed and acknowledged certain things that were hard for me. Like, was I a punk now? Was I a coward for having walked away from the hood? Did this mean I’m weak? I didn’t quite know where to fit in, especially since I was still in prison. And now, I think I’m in the same boat, only now I’m helping lead a church and not quite sure where we fit in.
I wonder if I’m looking for another “court in”(only without the violence), I wonder if we’ll find that acceptance, though we may be struggling to find our place in the theological world, we know our identity is in Christ, we know that we’re kin to other believers by the shed blood of Jesus, we know that we’ve been grafted into Him, and that nothing or no one can separate us from the love of God. We still have many habits, we still enjoy the music we grew up listening to like Pac, Biggie, and Los Tigres del Norte, we minister to our taquero when were out on a Friday evening in Compton, we share Jesus with our neighbors, and promiscuously invite erry’body to church. One thing is certain, is that God’s got us, we’re His and He is ours, we belong to one Holy, Catholic, and apostolic church… keep your eyes peeled as God is doing some pretty dope stuff. Coming to a hood near you soon!
And P.S. Don’t forget to baptize yo’ babies!