Ramiro Alvarez had only gone to church to cajole his “baby mama” to not leave him – he would change, he promised. But Pastor Ed Rivera kept hammering a sermon theme about personal change – as if he divined Ramiro’s personal condition.
In the middle of the sermon, Pastor Ed blurted out: “You’re scared to change; you have a bud (marijuana) pipe in your pocket.”
Ramiro did have a bud pipe in his pocket. How did the pastor know?
“I felt so convicted especially because he was preaching on change: We need to change but we don’t know how,” Ramiro remembers. “It felt like that that sermon was just for me. He was reading my mind.”
Ramiro didn’t understand it then, but the Holy Spirit was practicing archery. He hit the bullseye of Ramiro’s heart repeatedly.
How did the kid who grew up gangbanging and stealing cars survive the mean streets?
Ramiro ticked all the boxes for a life in crime. No hope and no direction offered at home, he followed his older brother’s example into the streets. As a youngster, he would sneak out of the house donning his brother’s gang clothes (his brother was almost always in jail) and watch from afar what the gangs did.
After spectating from the sidelines, he became an active gang participant in San Jacinto, California.
“I was going into the world heavy,” Ramiro says. “I was breaking into houses. I was getting a reputation.”
He fought against blacks, whites, and 1st Street gangsters. Pretty much any excuse was enough for him to bang on someone (or get banged on).
Then his close buddy, Albert Estrada, got saved and started “acting weird.” He would still hang out with his friends, but he stopped partying, drinking, and getting girls, Ramiro says.
Pretty soon, the divergent paths they were taking brought them into conflict.
When an 1st Street gangster punched Albert and stole his bike, Ramiro confronted him. How could he not confront the offender? It was the rule of the street.
“I was mad. He was my roll dog,” Ramiro says. “You’re going to go over there and get down with him. Otherwise you’re going to look like a punk. You’re going to fight him. You’re not going to back down.”
Despite the coaxing, Albert demurred. He had gotten saved, he explained. He wasn’t going to obey the rule of the street anymore. He wanted to follow a higher set of rules, the rules of transformation, forgiveness, and salvation.
Ramiro was disgusted. He didn’t understand. All he knew is that his buddy had gone soft.
From there, Albert invited Ramiro to church, but Ramiro hardened his heart against the Lord.
Then Ramiro got busted for grand theft auto. He was only 14.
No one wrote him while he was in jail – except Albert.
“I didn’t give my life to God,” Ramiro says. “But it did touch me because I didn’t get a letter from anybody.”
Two months later, he was out of jail, doing “stupid things” in the street. The turning point came when his girlfriend got pregnant. He was 17.
“Hey, I’m pregnant,” she told him.
“I was like oh man. I didn’t know what to do,” he admits. “I was put in this position where I was supposed to grow up, but I was still doing stupid stuff. I was hotboxing. I was jumping people and getting jumped. I really didn’t care about anything or anyone.”
(Hotboxing is smoking marijuana in a closed space to the point where the small room gets so full of smoke that if anyone comes in, he gets high from the secondhand smoke. Sometimes it’s done in a closed car.)
Ramiro and Erica moved in together and tried to the do the responsible family routine.
But Ramiro was still living irresponsibly. While his wife worked, his buddies were loafing, recovering energies from their nighttime illegal street activities, recharging and planning for more hoodlum antics.
One day, Erica exploded. In front of all of his criminal buddies, with marijuana smoke curling around the room, she called out Ramiro.
“You’re a freaking bum. You’re a good for nothing.”
Ramiro knew she was right but wasn’t going to let her humiliate him in front of his homies.
“B—-!” he shot back.
The humiliation was bad. But what really bothered him was the reality that she was right.
“She hit a nerve,” he admits. “I knew that stuff. But nobody had the nerve to tell me.”
Erica gave him an ultimatum. She was leaving for Texas.
He looked at the belly bump. Inside was his child. He felt connected with his child and didn’t want her to leave. They weren’t married. On the street, she would be called a “baby mama,” the mother of his baby.
While he was mulling her challenge, Albert called.
“What are you doing? You wanna to come to church?” Albert asked.
Ramiro shared about his baby mama’s ultimatum.
“If you don’t do something, you’re going to lose her,” Albert declared. “You’re going to lose your baby.”
Ramiro had always resisted Albert’s attempts to get him saved.
But this time was different. He linked going to church with the hope of preventing his girl from leaving.
After he hung up the phone, Ramiro talked to Erica. He made promises as he had done before. But this time he mentioned a new twist: Let’s go to church.
Erica was fed up. But the church twist gave her a glimmer of hope, and she agreed.
All the way to church, Ramiro was sweating and squirming.
He didn’t have any church clothes. He was, as usual, high.
“I was so nervous,” Ramiro recognizes. “I was banged out. I had a 13 jersey on.” The “13 jersey” is for the Mara Salvatrucha, enemies of the 1st Street.
He made it to church. Could he possibly change? His bud pipe was in his pocket, but he didn’t think anyone would notice.
Then Pastor Ed got going. Word after word, prompted by the Holy Spirit, entered Ramiro’s heart like the double-edged sword of the book of Hebrews.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIV)
“I felt so convicted,” he admits.
That day, Ramiro gave his life to Jesus.
But he wondered, Could he really change?
What would happen when he happened across an enemy in the street? He was always ready to rumble, but now what should he do as a Christian? God would protect him, Pastor Ed told him. Nothing more.
Weeks later, he stumbled across an old enemy in Walmart. His sister and girlfriend (now his wife) insisted that Ramiro should be excused from fighting as he was a Christian. But the enemy was not impressed.
“I don’t give a f—!” the rival snarled. “I’m going to beat his a–.”
The rival promptly went outside Walmart to find his friends and beat him mob style.
Walmart security came over to Ramiro. “He’s getting people together,” the security guard said. “Do you want us to call the cops?”
Ramiro thought about what his pastor had said.
“I can’t be calling the cops every time I have trouble,” he thought. “Now’s the time. If Jesus is going to protect me, let him do it now.”
His girlfriend and sister wanted police protection. Ramiro wanted to rely on God.
“If God is really real, he’s going to protect me in the streets,” Ramiro explained.
By the time they got outside, there was no one. The knot of gathering enemies had disappeared.
It’s been that way ever since.
Today, Ramiro and Erica are married with six children. After serving God in his local church for 12 years, he pastors a church in Mecca, California (named after the city in Saudi Arabia because of a hot desert climate). It’s next to the concert-famous Coachella.
His brother, whose steps he followed when he entered gang life, was killed in the streets. It was the hardest trial he ever faced.
But God also spoke to his heart about it: This was going to be you if you didn’t give your life to me.
If you want to know more about a personal relationship with God, go here
About this writer: Michael Ashcraft is a financial professional in California.