Like Lazarus rising from the dead, gang-banger Neaners Garcia has found unexpected life and hope.
José "Neaners" Israel Garcia (now 35) started hanging with one of the most violent Mexican gangs on the west coast when he was just eight years old. Growing up in Skagit Valley, Washington, the child of migrant workers who came for seasonal work and then stayed, racism led Neaners to want to find a place of belonging.
His home life was hard – his dad left when José was four, his mother was in and out of jail and he suffered his first gunshot wound at 14. José had to teach himself English, which he learnt at 10, through watching TV.
The gang nicknamed him "Neaners" – a slang word for baby, which caught on because the kids at school couldn't pronounce José.
Neaners went on to commit dozens of crimes, spending 20 of the next 25 years behind bars.
"I had no feelings. I just didn't care. When I got out of prison I would just go right back to doing the same thing and everybody would say 'man, that boy's heartless'," Neaners shares in an interview with patheos.com.
In his twenties, in the middle of a ten-year stint in jail, Neaners met Chris Hoke, a new volunteer chaplain, during a prison Bible study.
Chris was a kid who had grown up steeped in the Bible and church culture. He believed in Jesus from a young age and was involved in playing guitar in the church band as a teenager. But Chris felt his Christian experience lacked authenticity and he wanted to get away from churchy culture and find the tax collectors and prostitutes that the Bible says Jesus hung out with.
Chris credits Neaners with ushering him into his vocation as "gang pastor".
They started corresponding, sharing hundreds of letters while Neaners was incarcerated. Neaners wrote about reaching out to the Lord from the depths of solitary confinement (the hole) where he spent five and a half years – only allowed out five hours a week.
"I didn't know that as I was writing I was building a friendship with Chris," Neaners shares. "He was seeing the real me, my inner heart, not the tough, macho guy that everybody else sees. The gang leader. He sees the kid that was just yearning for love."
Through Chris' emails, other Christians heard of Neaners' plight and began writing to him, turning his lonely cell of punishment into a womb of transformation.
When Neaners' heart started to change and their relationship went deeper, he began to have some hope. He asked Chris to help his little girl to come and visit him. After months of red tape, Chris drove four hours to bring Neaners' daughter, 5-year-old Adileta, to him. That kindness and self-sacrifice proved to be a breakthrough for Neaners. He cried for the first time in 15 years – not from sadness but because of God's mercy.
Chris says he has found that "gang members understand Jesus' mode of operation. That He had this grass roots pose on the margins of Galilee society. Gangs excel at gathering the marginalized and lonely. They know how to find the lonely and broken lives – both men and women."
Neaners sees in Jesus the kind of "gang leader" he has always wanted, and wanted to be: one who risks his neck with the authorities to love, gather, and empower the outcasts. Neaners has also discovered how God sees him: in a letter from solitary confinement, he wrote, "It's just so beautiful, to know I'm God's babyboy."
When Neaners was finally released from prison on July 20, 2014, his father and two brothers were dead, his sister was fighting a tumour and his mother had been deported. There was a real fear about what to do and where to go. All he had was Chris.
Now he is an outreach assistant in Chris's Tierra Nueva gang ministry, helping released felons deal with outstanding warrants against them, get permission to see their children, get their gang tattoos removed or covered over, and learn skills in order to get gainful employment so that they are not tempted to reoffend.
The ministry uses the metaphor of Jesus' raising of Lazarus as described in John 11 in the Bible, Neaners explained in a message to Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Bothell.
To bystanders these prisoners' lives may look dead - past help and stinking – but Jesus gives them new life and calls them forth, and then he asks His people to get the rocks and grave clothes off them and help clean them up.
Tierra Nueva comes alongside these released felons to support them financially, practically, spiritually and socially.
Neaners sometimes wears a Hugs for thugs T-shirt that sums up the love offered to these marginalized men. "They need a community to help them," he affirms.
Since his release, Neaners has married and is helping to raise two daughters and a son. "I've never had a father, so I am being something I have always wanted. I always thought I would be a gangster my whole life. I thought I'd be locked up. I never thought I'd be this good," he smiles.
Neaners hopes that his change gives other gang members hope for a different future and shows them that even heavily tattooed, hardened gangsters can come to know the love and grace [undeserved kindness] of God.•