A few years back I was contacted by Kaio magazine to do an interview in connection to my past as a gang member, and my subsequent conversion to the Christian faith. I hoped to encourage others who perhaps were facing a similar situation, so that they may entrust their lives to the Lord as they transition away from the world towards a life in Christ.
Since the interview’s release, I have seen a translation of it into Spanish and posted online. While there are others who have come to the Lord after undergoing far more than I in this regard, I pray that two things may be said to be fruits from this article: (1) that Christians may be encouraged to reach out to the “thugs” among us with the Gospel as did my cousin, and (2) that those who feel lost will find their way home through the Gospel. – Jovan Payes
Q: How did you get started in a gang?
Really, it started with a girl. She had a group of friends that she hung out with, and I wanted to hang out with her and her friends. But the group was a school crew – just a bunch of knuckleheads from school. And then, I was jumped in, meaning I was beat up for a period of time; at the end I would be regarded as a member.
Q: What did you go through in that lifestyle?
Mostly, it brought me a lot of unhappiness. I mean, when I was in the gang, I was proud of it and my friends, but looking back I was either blind to the damage I was doing to myself or didn’t care. Playing with drugs of every persuasion, treating sex like it was a game, downing 40 ounces of alcohol as my morning coffee, smoking constantly, living with a constant paranoia of cops and running from them, lying non-stop to my family, being violent jus to get my way, robbing people, beating people up – that’s what my life was like.
Q: Why did you do it?
I never planned on being in a gang, but I think a few factors led me there. I did it for survival, because my friends and I had generated too many enemies. I did it to feel like I had respect. I did it to feel like I belonged somewhere, and I got the bright idea that this would solve all my problems. Like I said earlier, I was in a small school crew, but eventually we were jumped into a larger, more notorious gang.
Q: How were you converted?
It happened in the course of about six months. I basically came to my senses one day and thought, “I just want to go to heaven”. I was confronted with potential death in every direction I turned. Slowly, then, I started reading my Bible. Uunknown to me, my older cousin, Enrique Menjivar, was converted by a superior officer in the Army and he began to share the Gospel with his family. In November 1996, my cousin and I started talking about the church in the Bible, and right after Christmas (1996), I was baptized for the forgiveness of my sins.
Q: What has life been like since becoming a Christian?
It is hard to fully explain, but the most important part of my answer is that my confidence in the renewing grace of God is so vital and has brought me to my knees on so many occasions. It has brought me so much comfort, so much strength, so much vitality, so much resilience. After 12 years of being a Christian, I know the amazing power of the Gospel and of the God who saved my soul to transform me, despite my own setbacks, into a better person – into a child of God. In a word: blessed.
Q: Any advice for others who find themselves caught up in a rough environment?
Since my conversion, I have had opportunities to talk with kids in gangs. No two kids are the same; no two kids are doing it for the same reasons. But maybe someone can benefit from the following:
(1) You were not placed on this earth to destroy yourself; you were placed here to develop yourself spiritually, emotionally, and materially.
(2) The color, the street sign, and the “hood” are not reasons to sell your future away, for there is truly more to this life than “let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”.
(3) The “thug life” of drugs, sex, and beer is nothing compared to Christian life, in which we experience the peace that passes all understanding.
(4) Give up the life of betrayal and commit yourself to God, who will never forsake you.
(5) There used to be “you” before this “gangsta you” emerged; God can help you strip away all the things that cover the real you up.
“Survivor: Street Gang to Christian,” Kaio 2.4 (July/August 2009):16-17.