Redeemed: How a former gang chief found a renewed faith

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Every morning, Deacon Pablo Perez walks the block from Assumption Catholic Church to Cook County Jail’s maximum-security wing. He wears the white clergy collar and a Cubs hat and carries a thick stack of prayer cards. By all appearances, he is your typical jail chaplain. A lofty man from the “outside” descending to pray with those locked away. But the men in Cook County Jail see him differently. They know him by a former title: “chief.”

Thirty years ago, Perez was a Latin King gang chief on the north side of Chicago with a notorious reputation and an anger streak. For five years, he ruled the streets surrounding Graceland Cemetery, a membership involving anything from auto theft and drug trafficking to assault and murder.

Growing up, Perez never wanted a part of gang life. He was a rule-abiding “mama’s boy” who loved soccer with his brothers and family road trips. His mother and father, for their part, were convinced he had a vocation to the priesthood because of his penchant for dancing in front of his Catholic church on a sheet of cardboard. They brought him from Guatemala at age 3, hoping for a better life, but the neighborhood they moved to would make an indelible mark on their naive, church-loving boys once they hit adolescence.

“My greatest obstacle was trying not to join a gang,” Perez said. “I was living in a neighborhood where there were multiple gangs, and I tried to be neutral. I tried to be friends with everybody, but that didn’t work. I was getting beat up by everybody.”

The formerly happy-go-lucky Perez became paralyzed with fear. Before leaving home every day, his mother noticed him peeking cautiously through the curtains to see if the coast was clear, or trying to hide the bruises and scrapes of a fight from his father so he wouldn’t be punished further. Drinking became a coping mechanism at age 14 or 15. The streets were demanding a choice: beat or be beaten, and Perez was sick of being beaten.

Latin Kings’ ‘chief’

At 14, Perez joined the Latin Kings and rose quickly through the ranks, earning the title “chief” within a couple of years, and with it, leadership.

“As I grew older, a lot of guys respected me, but I had to earn that by taking care of a lot of things,” he said. “I didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t care who I hurt with whatever I had in my hands.”

Perez remembers the night it was his turn to “do a hit.”

“I was ready. I was drunk, and I was high already, so I didn’t care.” Armed with a 9 mm handgun, he found the opposing gang member standing in front of a church. He pointed and shot at him, but the gun jammed. Perez was incensed, so on the way back to his neighborhood, he vented some frustration with the failed hit by pistol-whipping another man with the bottom of the gun, busting his head open.

“I went back cursing at everybody saying, ‘You gave me a gun that didn’t work.'” To prove his point he pulled the trigger, but this time, it went off.

After five years in the Latin Kings, Perez made the life-threatening decision to leave. One day, he and his gang were approached by Baptist missionaries who invited them to pray. Everyone walked away but Perez, who had his mother’s words in mind: “People from church are not out to get you.” Perez tolerated being prayed over, and the holding of hands, but was mystified when he actually felt different afterward.

“I don’t know why, but I decided I couldn’t be in this neighborhood gangbanging, causing harm not only to myself, but to other people and my family,” Perez said. “I went back to the boys and told them I wanted to get out of the gang.”

For five minutes, the guys he managed took turns beating him senseless, the equivalent of the Latin King exit interview, before letting him go start a new life.

A changed man

A changed man, Perez attempted conventional life as best he could. Soon after leaving the gang he met and married his wife, Juanita, a self-professed “good girl” who knew nothing about his past gang activity. They had two kids, and he became occasionally, if begrudgingly, a Mass attendee with his family. In reality, he was white-knuckling through normalcy.

“He left the gang life, however, there were still things that didn’t leave him,” Juanita explained. In addition to serious drug and alcohol addiction, Perez made multiple suicide attempts and wrestled with violent tendencies, even toward his wife.

“The man that I had become was an angry man,” Perez remembered. “I knew my conscience was going to wake up, and my conscience was going to start telling me what I did.”

For Perez, one of those wake-up calls came when his wife packed her bags, took the kids and left after he came back in the middle of a bender. Piecing together the memory of pushing his wife into the wall the next morning in an empty house, the message was clear: Perez had work to do.

The conversion process was going to take more than a one-time “yes” to prayer. Earning Juanita’s trust back meant he needed to start wrestling with conversion every day, every hour, every minute. He had to stop running from the internalized spiritual anguish. It meant unclenching the fists and finding the one who would hold it in spite of all the harm they had done.

Letting God take control

“Once I let go and let him take control, then all of the things in my faith life came together.”

The process was grueling. It started with the 12-step program and Alcoholics Anonymous, with fighting for one successful day without a drink that eventually became 20 years of sobriety. A wounded marriage slowly began to heal through counseling and reading the Bible together. It was a faith that began with shame and tentative Mass attendance and bloomed into a powerful relationship with God and a desire to serve him in a more meaningful way through the diaconate.

Unchained from the grasp of gang life, Deacon Perez now makes it his mission to liberate other men. In addition to ministering to the detainees in Cook County Jail, he manages several other ministries at Kolbe House, a jail ministry that accompanies families with loved ones in jail and provides reentry services for those coming out of jail or prison. His office is never empty. Around the clock, men seek Perez’s counsel on job hunting or securing housing. And not a man walks out of there without warmer clothing or a few Subway gift certificates and phone cards in his pocket. Perez tirelessly ministers with the urgency of a man who knows the stakes — the stakes of letting one of these men back into gang life.

In addition to Kolbe House, he serves as chaplain for Cook County Jail’s 9th Division — a division with more than 900 inmates. He holds Bible studies, brings Communion and prays over men before their court dates, but most notably, he offers a standing testament to the fact that any life can be redeemed. Like a new Moses, he offers consolation for those who want to quit gang life for good.

They ask earnest questions about how to escape the grip of gang life: How did he get sober? How did he avoid jail? How did he stay married? How did he avoid trouble? They all have the same answer. It’s the oft-repeated words Deacon Perez opens each visit to Cook County Jail with: “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters … .” Standing in a circle, men of rival gangs gather hands bearing tattoos that once marked their sworn differences, now evaporated in a collective prayer. A new gang. A new chief.

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.

 

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