The Story of Marco
Written by Richard Drebert
©Good Catch Publishing
Betty’s brown eyes were moist with emotion. She was just 16 when we first met at juvenile detention camp. She dated someone else then, another gangbanger.
“Do you take this man …?”
Betty’s smile grew intense, like she had suddenly unwrapped a rare pearl. She yearned for things to be decent and right between us, and I wished I could be closer, to reassure her.
“I do,” she said.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.”
I opened my fist and placed my fingers upon the prison side of the bulletproof glass. Betty’s hand “touched” mine on the free side and lingered a few seconds.
Only nine more years to go.
I wondered if Betty was thinking the same thing.
“I love you …” she said, and our telephone wedding at Donovan State Prison ended.
“Marco, it’s time.” The door buzzed, and I shuffled back to my cell. All that was sweet and clean in my life lived on the other side of my prison bars. I flopped on my bunk, with little thought of Betty’s devotion or how she might struggle raising two children alone.
Instead, I contemplated conjugal visits.
At Wagenheim Middle School, I strutted like a gangbanger. The teachers blamed my intensity and bad grades on ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and I couldn’t care less. Dad took me off Ritalin, because it caused me to act docile and slow.
In middle school, I craved trouble to get attention. My teachers couldn’t control me. Class attendance matched my attitude toward authority — rotten. Yet, I had a high degree of focus on one interest that few could touch.
To spin, to rage in motion, set my heart on fire. On the dance floor I was creative. On the street I could compete. I reached excellence, the girls hung on me and my crew, my people, loved my style.
Dad’s belt never hung far from my behind when I was at his house. He loved me but hated my street look. He worked hard at an electronics factory and tried to talk his sense into me.
“Your mama and me never raised you this way! How you gonna find a job in those baggy pants? Here, put these on …”
Dad brought his heritage, language and preference in food with him from the Philippines. I got his Asian looks, but not his work ethic, until after I got out of prison. So, when I needed new clothes, I camped out at Mom’s apartment. She took me shopping and let me choose low-slung, wide-pocket jeans and windbreakers. My white Pumas spun in the air break dancing or slapped the sidewalk with my Asian gangsta strut.
My father had married my mom, a Caucasian girl he knew from the factory, who was a hard worker, too. They raised my brother and sisters and me in San Diego, until they separated when I was still hopping curbs with my Huffy. My Grandpa Lolo, on Dad’s side, stepped up to fill in the gaps in my growing-up years. Filipinos stick together, and members of my family kept coming to San Diego from the Islands. Every year, Dad and my uncles got all the cousins together for a swimming party at Wild Rivers Waterpark at Irvine, to get acquainted with some and reacquainted with others.
Mom and Dad lived 15 minutes apart, so I jockeyed between the two, usually after an argument with one or the other. Mom was most flexible, so when I needed something, I stayed with her. Dad was stable, and I felt connected to my heritage through him and Grandpa Lolo, who came from Laguna, Philippines. Once in a while, like on Easter, we attended Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Mira Mesa. I got exactly nothing out of religion and held onto a vague knowledge of God for emergencies. Dad was the one I turned to if I was in trouble that I couldn’t get myself out of.
A short, black-haired, wiry Filipino with boundless energy, in sixth grade I discovered break dancing. Driven by the approval of my crew, break dancing became my obsession. Night and day I practiced, until by seventh grade, I had perfected moves like the Nickel and the Yogi. Each series of moves shrieked adolescent savagery at an adversary. I spun like a nickel, twirling on my shoulders and back, faster and faster, elbows and knees like knife points, Pumas beating the air above me in violent motion. Then flipping to my chest, I spun even faster to the deep bass roar of a boom box and whoops of the crowd. The smoother, the faster my spins and transitions, the greater the ovation.
Far different than performing on stage or in a basketball game, my break dance humbled my opponent, a fight without fists. An ultimate putdown that I craved to inflict.
I learned to battle a challenger with my eyes, then crush his spirit by spinning on my hands, with knees between my arms. The crowd gave way as I gyrated round and round, “walking” my body on the floor, like an insane top.
But my friends started losing interest in dancing to express their aggressions. I felt it, too, like it didn’t touch manhood like true violence could.
I grew surly and antagonistic toward my teachers. Dad couldn’t reach me anymore with his lectures, though he tried. I reveled in disrupting classes and finally ditched them altogether. I was too cool to be around losers and, with other boys, hung out in a secluded park across from the school to smoke.
Older guys, gang recruiters, came by now and then. “Wassup? Hang out with us, man. Hey, you wanna get jumped into our gang? We’re TOC.”
Tiny Oriental Crips.
They kept their number of members to about fifty 13- to 17-year-old kids and ruled our section of town. My friend and I were 13 and ripe for our first beat down. Three older boys surrounded me, and I defended the best I could. I came out without a broken nose or closed-up eyes, so I felt pretty good about it.
After a little backslapping and laying down the rules, we sauntered off proudly, official gangbangers. I had an identity now, and the deep cigarette burn in the top of my hand branded me TOC for all the world to fear. Break dancing was done. We only kicked it with our gang, swilling Olde English and learning how to jimmy locks to steal cars.
I learned Muay Thai (kickboxing) and loved to beat a rival gang member into the pavement. I memorized the faces of those I hated and held a grudge for months at a time. By eighth grade, the Wagenheim principal kicked me out of school altogether. It was Mark Twain High School for me, and everyone knew what kind of kids went there: troublemakers. Now I was with my own kind in one big room full of kids at various levels of “drop out” and ready to ditch again. Some of us wasted no time and ditched this alternative school.
A little older, and with my rep as a fighter, I sought out other gangbangers to challenge, especially if I caught OBS (Oriental Boy Soldiers) or AC (Asian Crips) drifting into our territory around Linda Vista Recreation Center, a sprawling complex of exhibits, parks and buildings. Police cars and cops on bikes trolled along the alleys and streets searching us TOCs out and busting us every week for curfew violations. Dad got pretty fed up with picking me up at the San Diego police station, but no amount of lectures deterred me.
Like a feral cat, I stalked the streets, passing churches touting Sunday sermons on billboards. Their messages invited me to touch God’s mercy, but I needed none. I pursued a reputation: to be respected. Feared. It was Marco who would offer mercy, and only if I chose. I sold my soul to gang life: my cult of ruin.
I graduated from curfew violations to ride-alongs in stolen cars and ended up at juvenile detention. Strip searched. Frumpy blue jumpsuit. Dawn wake-up call. I hated the drill at first, but learned the routine like it was middle-school gym class.
“Where you from?”
“I’m TOC, you …!”
My fist found my rival’s jaw, lightning quick and brutal. But no joy when the guards shot my eyes with pepper spray to separate us. After brawls, I spent days in cell confinement. Older TOC gangbangers praised my hair-trigger hatred, and I lived for their kudos.
When I stood before a judge charged with aiding in a car theft, he appraised me through big black bifocals. He gave me a lecture, like Grandfather Lolo, and I laughed at the slap on my wrist.
For most teenagers, “going to camp” means meeting friends, swimming and hiking. After sentencing me for joyriding and other lesser crimes, authorities warehoused me at Camp Barrett until they could bust me as an adult, which seemed my destiny. At camp, when I wasn’t laboring under supervision by staff, I tested my kickboxing skills against other gangbangers. Each sentence at the camps ended after about six months or so, and after my release, I lost no time in catching up with my TOC gang at Linda Vista Rec.
I lived most of my adolescence on probation and filled a cell in juvenile detention facilities and camps eight times before I was 18. I scoffed at probation rules and learned to boost Asian-brand cars with pricey stereos and wheels. After joyriding all over town, my TOC and I left the stripped car smelling of beer and pot and searched for another ride. Stereos and rims from the stolen car I pawned, sold or traded to other gangbangers.
At 14, I stopped riding with my homies and took the driver’s seat, speeding down alleys and hiding behind buildings to evade capture by the San Diego police.
“Marco! Come here!” My father had been trolling all evening to find me and hollered across an expanse of lawn at the rec center. I tossed away my cigarette and met him a little apart from my friend.
“You can’t be out past curfew! I don’t want to pick you up at the police station again!”
I humored him, one eye on my friend, who was grinning and hiding our bottles of beer. I promised to be home soon, just to get rid of him.
I hated the thought of facing my father at home and wandered the park alone for a while, tender quarry for venders of corruption.
“Hey, Marco! You wanna hang out?”
“I gotta go, maybe later, Hu.” The young Asian who hailed me was gaunt from drug addiction.
“Got any money? Got something you’ll really like, man.”
“I have about 50.”
“You gotta come! I mean you gotta! You won’t be sorry.”
I didn’t want to go home, anyway.
Hu hooked me up with my first hit of meth, and I swooned in a dimension that stole all reason from my head. I never went home at all — for three months. I lived on the streets, stealing and fighting for my gang and smoking every night at meth houses. I might have been hooked for life, except for my cold-turkey stints in juvenile lockups.
Serious charges against me gained steam in the California courts, and staff at Camp Barrett knew I was bound for hardcore detention facilities soon. I knew Barrett like a favorite family camping spot, while I edged closer to actual prison.
I was 17 when I spent my last nine-month stretch at Barrett. Near the middle of my sentence, an Asian girl came by on visiting day and sat at a table with a friend of mine from Linda Vista. Betty was her name, and I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I got her address and started writing her. We shared a lot about our lives, until losing touch during my months in detention.
At 17, I valued the approval from my TOC gang above my freedom to live according to my own dreams. In my soul, good and evil jibed like vile rap, and I danced to both, as if they were the same song. Betty lived with her brother and mother who couldn’t speak English. Her mother depended upon her, and Betty yearned for stability for her baby daughter.
At 17, when I got out of detention, Betty and I spent time together, and we fell for each other. Something about her sent my priorities spinning off course. My father’s values unexpectedly invaded my selfish heart, like a gang taking over new territory. But, sadly, Betty loved a gangbanger whose confused dream to start a family would hit a dead end.
When I flipped a borrowed Honda Accord after a high-speed chase, my life suddenly slipped into overdrive. By the time the Accord settled on its top, 10 police cars surrounded us. Besides the three of us, cuffed and lying face-down on the pavement, cops found a few rocks of crystal meth and an automatic pistol. I was still on probation, but my older friend, Dan, had warrants for his arrest and one strike against him in adult court already. If he copped to carrying a piece, along with a fresh drug charge, Dan would go to Donovan for several years.
I was still a minor with no strikes. In my experience, I believed that I would get a light sentence at CYA (California Youth Authority).
Evading arrest, reckless endangerment, possession of a firearm, possession of a controlled substance, probation violation: I took the blame for everything to keep my adult friend out of prison.
After sitting in juvenile detention for months, my plea deal for seven years at CYA wasn’t so bad … but then another charge suddenly caught up with me. And this charge carried a strike: I would be charged in adult court.
Months before, an AC (Asian Crips) member had thrown up a gang sign in my face, and I slammed him, ready to beat him humble. Suddenly five other AC surrounded me, and I ran for my car. I grabbed a heavy mag flashlight and chased down the original offender, hitting him one time in the head. Blood splattered everywhere, and satisfied, I left the scene. What I didn’t know was that my license plate had been seen at the parking lot. Cops were looking for the car, and in time, authorities linked the assault to me.
Assault with a deadly weapon.
Because it was my first crime as an adult, the judge sentenced me to serve eight months in prison when I turned 18 and take one strike.
It seemed like a slam dunk for me, and I was ready for my first fieldtrip to Donovan. But before I served a day, my attorney sat me down, smiling, like he had just won a bet.
“The prosecutor offered you another deal, Marco. If you take one strike and stay on adult probation for three years, you can walk out of here tomorrow. They’ll close the book on your case as soon as you turn 18 in two months. You’re free, man! All you have to do is keep your nose clean.”
The San Diego streets sucked me in like fumes to a crack pipe. I kicked my crime sprees into high gear, boosting cars and stripping goodies. Top gangbangers were getting to know my name. I had a strike on my record; I was a felon and proud of it. I sold a little meth on the side, but supplied most of my friends for free — my TOC loved to see Marco coming. And when a war broke out with COC (Crazy Oriental Crips) or OBS, I was first to fight. My gang chose me to splatter fear at their hangouts with drive-by bullets.
Within my violent gang insanity, I loved Betty and baby Lena. I was still clueless on how to be a father, a breadwinner or loving family man when Betty gave me wonderful news. “You’re going to have a son, Marco!” She touched her tummy, and I felt proud of my manhood.
In spite of my arrogance, a seed of reality took root in both of us, and Betty’s love would lead me to the mercy I had rejected my whole life.
The gangbanger wore a bandana. He was older, a member of the Crazy Oriental Crips, and he looked at me wrong.
Our gangs were mortal enemies on the streets of San Diego, and I made certain I cruised by him real slow, so he could see that his disrespect made no impression. For Bandana, my disrespect invited serious payback.
I drove away, unconcerned, and his lowered Integra trailed behind me. I stopped at my house, but he kept rolling past.
“Baby, I’m on the way to pick up some cash from the Pioneer equipment I sold. I’ll be back in a little …”
“I’m coming!” Betty already had the door open. Our daughter was with her mother, and I couldn’t resist Betty’s big smile.
As I hit the main street, a low-rider wheeled in behind me, and I cursed at Bandana who was with another COC member as passenger. They followed close, and I braked briefly for a stop sign. Even before the low-rider came to a complete stop, the passenger leapt out and swung a baseball bat at the side glass where Betty was sitting. He missed it clean as I sped through the stop sign and disappeared into a maze of side streets. I drove back to our apartment.
I had escape routes staked out wherever I lived, so I stole into a back alley and left the car running. I burst through our apartment door, where Lena lay in a crib. I glanced at her and at Betty’s mom, who watched me curiously.
“Don’t worry …” I said and grabbed a .38 from under my bed. I rejoined Betty in the car.
Betty’s eyes snapped at me, round and fearful. “What are you doing, Marco?” I threw the gun on the seat between us.
“Hey, it’s just in case …”
Bandana was waiting for us. At the first corner he tried to block our way out of the alley, and I opened up on him. After four shots, Bandana sped away, and I chased him a couple blocks, firing two more. He had threatened my pregnant wife, and I was dead serious about securing his disrespect.
Not a single bullet hit his car, but one bullet lodged in a fence. I knew that cops were drawn to gunfire like moths to headlights, so we hid out at a friend’s house, planning to sneak back home. The car wasn’t mine and needed to be returned to Betty’s relative by 8 p.m., so I gave her the keys.
Betty and a friend drove off to deliver the car, and I sat down for a beer. Two hours and several beers passed, and I worried a little. I called to find out if Betty had returned the car.
“Marco, I thought you said you’d give me back my car by 8! Where are you?”
“You mean you haven’t seen Betty?”
“Nope. What’s going on with my car?”
My poor Betty. Bandana’s wife had called the police, and while Bandana made his statement to officers, Betty had crossed at the very intersection where they parked. Cops had pulled her over at gunpoint. Handcuffed and crying, she called me from the police station.
“Marco, they want you to turn yourself in. Please, you better do it. They said you can see me one last time before they take you …”
“Baby, I can’t. I got one strike on my record, and they’ll put me away for a long time! Just tell them what happened. It’s okay.”
She did, and they hauled off my precious 17-year-old pregnant Betty to juvenile detention where she spent months in a cell.
Two days after shooting at Bandana, the San Diego Police Department conducted gang sweeps in Linda Vista and picked me out of a carload of Asians. At gunpoint officers ordered me to place my hands on my head, fingers locked together.
The cops knew my name.
I faced a 10-year prison term in a California state prison. Betty was pregnant and spent three months waiting for sentencing as an accessory to assault with a deadly weapon. She skated with one strike on her record and a period of probation, because it was her first offense. Betty moved back into the apartment with her mom.
As for me, my crime flung me into hardcore incarceration. I waited for sentencing at the San Diego County Jail, overflowing with gangbangers like me. They all seemed to be looking to make a name for themselves, too. I had to watch my back every day.
In county jail, with no booze or meth to deaden my feelings, I sometimes attended chapel where I figured God lived. Most inmates had Gideon Bibles lying around, and I found one to read. I even went to prayer group sometimes, but my guilt, as heavy as a manhole cover, weighed upon my heart.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Minutes after our vows, Betty watched the steel door slam shut behind me, her life and mine separated by years of uncertainty.
“Congrats, man. Any word when they’re moving ya’?” my cellmate asked.
“Not yet. You been to Donovan. What’s it like?”
“Not bad, if you know people. They’ll hook you up.”
I knew a lot of guys at Donovan State Prison. I had ridden stunt bikes with some of them as a kid. Boosted cars. Probably tried to kill some.
I’d do fine in Donovan.
Two months after our jailhouse wedding, I entered the California state prison system to serve out my 10-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, one year off for “time served.” At Donovan, I adapted my gang persona to fit doing hard time. I settled into the protection system, segregated into heavy-handed racial divisions: Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites. In state prison, no matter who I wanted dead or humbled — if they were Asian, we were brothers, ready to defend against the other races.
As a felon, I was somebody. When I got out of prison, gangs on the street would know my name. All I needed to do was survive my stretch and follow the rules inmates laid down; go to work at the shoe factory every day; eat, sleep and do it over again — for nine years. I was 18. At 28 years old, I’d walk out of prison with plenty of life left to live.
Betty would come visit me. Now we were married, so I could expect even more from her. My daughter and son would come, too, and they fed my soul in ways I dared not admit to anyone in prison. Inmates would think I was weak.
But like a bar of prison soap, Betty’s visits got thinner, until my family became only a sliver in my painful exile. In quiet moments, when I asked myself why I filled prison shoes at all, I knew that I had driven Betty away.
“I know you’re doin’ stuff! Don’t lie to me!” In Donovan, I boiled in a human soup of suspicion and jealousy.
I knew how to curse an enemy with my eyes. On the streets, I cut a rival gangbanger to pieces with my stare of disrespect. Now Betty felt the curse.
“How can you say I’m untrue, Marco?”
Dragging our two kids on a 30-minute odyssey through San Diego traffic to see their felon father was grueling. Betty had enrolled in nursing school and, at the time, still managed to visit me. I rewarded her loyalty by accusing her of betrayal.
Over the years, our hopes for keeping love alive cooled, like the hot rubber in the prison shoe factory. Our longings cured to bitterness, and like most inmates, I tossed our dreams of a lasting relationship onto the pile of failed prison marriages.
Every inmate at Donovan is required to get a diploma, and I studied to get mine. Unlike living on the streets and constantly fighting for status, I had time to reflect upon my future. I no longer had to preserve gang respect, and I observed the lives of inmates around me. Hard cases sneered at Christians for being weak, but I couldn’t help but envy their courage in speaking about their faith. And these “believers” seemed to be genuinely peaceful about serving their sentences.
Within the routine of my prison years, I began to wise up about my life. Pride had seduced me to seek respect on the streets from gangbangers who had the same agenda as me: to make a name for themselves. Reality slammed me hard at night as I lay in my cell bunk. Fear of not being tough enough to live on the streets again troubled me, while I reflected upon the people closest to me: my mother, who loved me without reservation; my father, who worried over my violent nature; my wife, who hoped that I might become a good husband and father.
My family cared about me, unlike my TOC friends who were in business for themselves. During Betty’s visits (now mostly for the kids’ sakes), I reached out, trying to reconnect and rebuild the fledgling trust we had once shared. But was it too late?
I was 27 years old when I made a choice to leave TOC. It was only God’s mercy that my Betty let me back into her heart.
“Hey, Marco. God loves you, man.” At the gym, Christian guys kept saying it to me as I lifted weights, counting down the days before my parole.
“Why don’t you give your life to Jesus before you get out?”
“I’ll think about it …” I told them.
I could do anything if I set my mind to it, including go straight.
Just before I got out, an old guy, still street savvy, took me aside. He looked serious as he shook his head, remembering his own life. “Marco, whatever you do, don’t try to catch up with the time you lost while you were here in prison. It’ll get you in trouble.”
Betty looked like she had just stepped out of a fashion magazine. I felt drained, after hours of processing: 3 a.m. wake-up call. Four hours at Receiving and Release for paperwork and clothing. My state-issued 200 bucks, and then the long walk to the prison shuttle. All morning I had been assailed by fears: What if I do something wrong and the warden revokes my parole?
Betty saved me. At the Su Casa parking lot, I hopped into her car, and she drove to two different schools to pick up our children: Elementary school for Jason, and middle school for Lena.
Surprise! Daddy’s home from prison!
Shopping. My first fast food in 10 years. Then home.
To sleep in my own bed, to eat breakfast with my family, I felt like a new man! I set up dates to meet my parole officer and started trying to find work. I didn’t try to avoid my old friends, many of them former felons and gangbangers. Betty had rented a new place for us, and she didn’t want to cramp my style right away, so she got a babysitter and went to the clubs with me. I was in the mood to celebrate, and it lasted months.
It felt good to be free, and I turned 29 at the On Broadway nightclub, trying to catch up with the time I lost while in prison. On Broadway was a fun place to hang out — and a meeting place for a church. Ironically, clubbers partied on Saturdays, and church folks came in to talk about God on Sundays.
The bouncer knew me: I had started a fight weeks before, and he expected trouble again. It was 3 a.m., and Asian gangbangers staggered outside the club in little groups. I could barely stand up, and I felt the fighter coming alive inside me. I had made a name for myself. I had done 10 years. No one messed with TOC or me …
Suddenly a police car sidled up to the curb, and two officers spoke to the nervous bouncer, hands fiddling with their pistol grips. The officers glanced around at a few well-known members of TOC and at me. A bystander mentioned I was on parole … and a policeman called it in. I stared, blurry-eyed, at him.
“You’re under arrest for violating parole …” I heard the cuffs wheeze and snap, and he pushed my head down as I flopped into the back seat of the police car.
Betty watched the cruiser pull away. Mascara ran down her cheeks as she cried her eyes out. Gone again.
Receiving and Release again: I knew the drill and felt like scum. It wasn’t cool this time, nodding to inmates as a surly prison guard herded me to my cell. The iron door slammed and locked, and I slumped on my bunk, dead inside.
This time, eight months.
My nightmare had just begun. Usually I could slip into a routine. I had schooled myself to survive any ordeal. Not this time. I had lost everything! Betty’s tear-stained face haunted me, and memories clawed inside my head. I remembered my children laughing as I poured orange juice on school mornings. I had promised to buy them bicycles and take them to the Wild Rivers waterslide. Now their dreams lay shattered, like Betty’s best tea set, stomped to pieces by Daddy. Would they ever forgive me?
“We knew you’d be back. Missed Donovan, huh?” The jokes by other inmates jabbed at my wounded conscience.
Like sludge in the sewers beneath San Diego, guilt deepened in my soul. I had failed my son and daughter and sabotaged Betty’s hopes for a fresh start in our marriage. Was there anything that could clean up my mess?
I jump-started a conversation with God in my cell. “Lord, I’ll be with you one day …” Every morning, my cell door racked open, and I marched to breakfast, robot-like, encased in a hopeless shell. Week after week, I tried to hit my old prison strut, but instead, I stumbled all over my failures. A sliver of hope slipped through a single crack in my world: Betty still visited me. My promises came fast and furious as I faced her through bulletproof glass, uncertain that I could keep any of them.
Something new reflected in Betty’s eyes. Ultimatum. Resolve. I didn’t care; at least she was here! I’d commit to anything, if I could have just one more chance. Just the possibility of forgiveness softened my selfish shell.
As the months ground by, another voice pierced my old routine of self-preservation. Tom served time for drug dealing and worked with me at the shoe factory. He was Guamanian, and I studied him as he poured rubber into shoe molds. His face wasn’t tight. He didn’t seem to be on guard constantly or fearful as he walked through the lines for chow. We pumped iron at the weight pile, and it was almost like he was already dead. He didn’t jockey for status or get angry if anyone cursed at him for speaking his mind.
“I love Jesus, man. That’s all. He took away all my pride, and I’m stronger now.”
We talked and prayed together sometimes, and it felt like Tom was slowly digging me out from beneath an avalanche of fear I had been buried in. Suddenly, I could breathe, just a little.
“God can do it, bro. He can save you and put your life back together. He has the power. Put your life in his hands.”
Sometimes I ignored him, and he quit digging. Then I’d ask a question, like “Whatcha think happens when you die?” and he’d scrape off a layer.
“The Bible says I’ll go right to Jesus, Marco. Where’ll you go?”
Near the end of the longest eight months of my life, my sister-in-law, Tina, invited Betty to bring Lena and Jason to an Easter egg hunt at Urban Church in Little Italy.
Moms stood around watching children gather colorful eggs, and a few people approached Betty. “Come to church next Sunday. We’d love to have you! There’s lots to do for your kids.”
“Oh, we’re just here for the Easter eggs!” Betty said cautiously, but the caring invitations struck a beautiful note in her heart.
Betty’s sister, Tina, encouraged Betty to give Urban a try, and a week or two before I got out of prison, she attended services there. She felt a strange satisfaction in her soul as she listened to Pastor Ben talk about Jesus. Tina had dived head-first into the exciting Urban Church scene and planned to have her two children dedicated to God.
After the guards processed me out of Donovan, Betty was waiting for me again at the Su Casa parking lot. I felt humbled, like someone had pounded me with quicker, harder punches, but at least I was free.
At home, Betty told me, “We aren’t doing any more clubs, Marco. No more drinking. We’re staying HOME!”
I nodded, and in my heart I said, “Yes, ma’am.” This girl was my connection to goodness, and I would do anything to keep her.
“We’re gonna live like hermits, Marco!”
In a month, I landed a job at an auto body shop. I stayed off the streets, trying to adjust to life on the outside of prison, under new “Betty Rules.”
One day, Tina asked us to attend a ceremony that showed the world that her kids belonged to Jesus, for life. I couldn’t believe my own ears when I told Betty I would go to Urban Church with everyone, for Tina’s sake. I really was changing.
Urban Church. That name seemed so familiar …
The very air I breathed at Urban’s rented school building seemed to throb with joy. Not like the On Broadway Club, where people laughed ‘cause they were stoned.
This was happiness from the gut, real and shared. Tina stood at the podium with Pastor Ben, and he prayed for her little ones, while my emotions came apart.
I kept wiping away tears that leaked out of my face, while layers of pride and selfishness loosened up inside me. After songs, Ben preached, and I heard some of it — but another powerful voice spoke over his.
It was Jesus.
He told me he loved me. God said he was setting me free from my past, so I could live the way he designed me to live from the beginning. He took all my wasted life upon himself, and I felt the weight of fear I had carried my whole life disappear.
As I sat beside Betty, I couldn’t stop crying out for God to forgive me. At the end of Ben’s sermon, Pastor asked if anyone wanted to give his or her life to Christ, and I raised my hand. I walked forward, with my beautiful Betty, thinking that this wasn’t “church” like I remembered it as a kid. At Urban, I connected with God for the first time!
Our family started attending church whenever the doors were open, and I didn’t feel like I had to watch my back anymore. At Urban, Betty and I found true friends, some like me, who had come out of gang life on the San Diego streets. They shared their freedom with us, and we began moving to the powerful new rhythm of God’s Spirit.
My marriage began to change, too. After I gave my life to the Son of God, I suddenly could hear Betty and respond to her needs better. My children took Jesus as their Savior, too.
One day, I figured it out. That weird feeling that I knew the name, “Urban Church” — Tina told me that Pastor Ben used to hold church services in the same building, before On Broadway became a nightclub. The Urban Church banner hung on the wall, an ironic signpost directing a Filipino gangbanger where to find God.
Betty and I are learning to trust God and his people, beyond our life experience, and God is showing himself strong in very personal ways. In this hard economy, the auto body shop cut my hours, and it’s not easy for a former felon to find work. Friends at Urban prayed with us, and someone directed me to a contractor who hires ex-felons to work for the U.S. Navy …
“Marco. We need 20 buckets of non-skid to the top floor!”
Carrying 100-pound containers of liquid flooring up flights of stairs seems endless. Up to 70 hours a week, I tear up and replace decking on Naval ships at the San Diego port. I’m in good company. Most of my co-workers are as glad to be working as I am.
Betty works two jobs as a CNA, and our young marriage, so tattered from past mistakes and failures, is a miracle of God’s creative healing. I feel no need to hang with a gang, protecting a neighborhood so I can feel useful. I have a purpose and goals. God is opening up new opportunities, and he protects my family and me.
Ten buckets to go.
Aching legs and shoulders are nothing compared to the anguish of losing everything a man dreams about. For this “old” break dancer, former gangbanger and ex-con, Jesus is rewriting my whole story — while I’m still a young man.
I follow no one but Jesus now, and he is teaching me dance moves that no one can shake loose.