GANGS - Local pastor found way out of gang life

Once a local gang member, the Rev. Alfonso Martinez found salvation in church and now has his own flock.

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Pastor Alfonso Martinez and his wife Brenda listing to the music during a church service at Love International Church in Milton-Freewater Sunday afternoon. Pastor Martinez was a gang member before becoming a pastor. 6/14/10

MILTON-FREEWATER -- "And we were at this party. And we said, 'We're this and we're that.' I was very scared but I couldn't show that in front of my friends.

"And the other young man, he said 'Oh, yeah?' And he pulled a gun ... we were face to face."

The audience sits engrossed as the Rev. Alfonso Martinez speaks Sunday afternoon at Love International church.

Close to the center of town, the storefront church is packed with nearly 100 -- the majority young adults -- people not long after the noon starting time.

A mix of Latino and Anglo families have already sung up-tempo Christian praise songs in English and Spanish to the vibrant beat of an eight-piece band.

"Yo se quien soy yo," declares one song, upraised hands clapping in punctuation. "Tu eres mi Dios."

Dressed in everything from skinny jeans to suit-and-tie and go-to-meeting dresses, the congregation has also prayed in the same language of worship to God.

This day's message comes from the New Testament, the book of Luke. It was the story of the prodigal son, Martinez told his flock.

Tall and slim, dressed in a conservative charcoal suit, the pastor radiates a calm that belies his 34 years. His wife, Brenda Martinez, joins him on the stage, her English mirroring her husband's Spanish in a smooth and practiced flow.

Martinez has been leading the Milton-Freewater branch of Love International for nearly 10 years. His pay-the-bills job is working as a certified drug and alcohol counselor for Umatilla County and Oregon state. He's been married 16 years, and he and Brenda have three daughters.

It's a lot for a life that really began for Martinez at age 18, he conceded last week. Until then, there was the question if he would be alive to see that birthday.

At 15, Martinez began "hanging out" with one of Walla Walla's largest gangs, he said.

"I was raised in a Christian home, in Mexico and here," the pastor recalled. "But when I got to my early teen years, I had different friends."

As life started to split between the gang and his family, Martinez would still occasionally attend church with his parents. More and more, however, things were escalating for local gangs in the mid-1990s.

The young man found himself pumped up about being a member of what seemed to be the group in control. It was a trip to Tri-Cities, to hunt for and confront a gang there, that put Martinez in front of a handgun.

When the rival gangbanger backed down and put the gun away, Martinez's buddy said he shouldn't have worried -- he had a knife to take care of the other guy.

Silently, however, Martinez gave the credit to God, he said.

By age 18, the young man was tired of his parents' rules. His closest friend proposed renting a house together and he leapt at the opportunity, Martinez said. No more nagging about being home on time and a party every night, he thought.

"I told my mom I was moving out and I was going to do what I wanted. And I didn't want to go to church with her anymore," he said last week.

Just like the biblical parable, his younger self was willing to throw away his family's values, its traditions and its respect, he explains to his flock on Sunday. "The prodigal son wants to spend his inheritance, saying 'I want nothing to do with you... give me what belongs to me.' It has to happen to him like it happens to everyone."

His own mother didn't try to fight it. She said 'OK, just go to church with me one more time.'"

Raised to be obedient, Martinez acquiesced. "I went, and this preacher was invited to speak that day. I was focused on the clock, waiting to leave," he said. "I already had all the answers. I had plans for that night."

But that minister's words circled Martinez. "Everything he said was describing me. I kept looking around to see who he meant. And that pastor went this way and he went that way around the church. Then he ended up in right in front of me. He said, 'I had a vision about this young man, he's going to die today.'"

How could this man know what he had decided to do with his gang, Martinez wondered back then.

"I never share what I was going to do. I'm embarrassed to talk about those things," he said. "What I was going to do that night ... I wouldn't be here today."

The invited preacher seemed to have gotten the memo, however, Martinez said. "He said 'Do you think you can mock God?' I told him 'no.'"

The speaker continued his message to Martinez. "Well, God knows what you are going to do tonight. He's giving you a choice right now."

Hearing that, Martinez fell to his knees and began sobbing. "For the first time, I felt warm in my heart," he said.

That day marked a new beginning. "From that day forward I have never been the same."

When he went to his gang and shared his testimony, "they were so surprised at what I was saying, they didn't know what to do."

As for the friend Martinez planned to room with, he went to church with Martinez and now lives with the same faith. "I led him to Christ," the pastor said.

Martinez made up for lost time. He began seeking the ministry and education for a career. He married and began his family. His first jobs included working the troubled kids at Walla Walla's Center for Sharing and in Pendleton's juvenile facility.

"My success is all to the grace of God," he said.

He now visits Washington State Penitentiary at times, where he sees faces he knew. "It is pretty sad. A man came up to me and said for him it is a never-ending story, he's never getting out. 'But I can change on the inside. Even in prison I can be free,'" the man told Martinez.

He sees his own old bravado and fears in the young people who sometimes pop into his church, he said. It might be gangs, it might be drugs, it might be family strife -- they are looking for self-esteem anywhere they can, the pastor said.

"Kids are drawn to the hope we are offering ... a place where they can come and praise God and not call it 'religion.' They can explore a relationship with God."

It's hard for many to commit to a life free of addictions and crime, he added. "In the world, there are a lot of things that attract you, that people offer you. And when you become a Christian, you don't do those things."

Yet there is not a sliver of doubt in his mind it's been worth the cost, Martinez tells a sea of upturned faces as the clock quietly clicks into the afternoon. "Like the prodigal son, God says 'Come back to me.'"

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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