I was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1972, the youngest of four children and the only male in my family. My father left us when I was a year old. Without any education, knowledge of English, or outside family support, my mother moved us all to New York City to raise us there. I remember working at a local supermarket when I was nine years old as a way to help my mom make ends meet. I brought home $30-$40 a day, which was a lot of money for someone my age. There were years when I attended three different schools because my mother bounced around so much. 

My family never had time to go to church; we were preoccupied with surviving. I was never taught about church life or church expectations. We were taught to be spiritual and have respect for God, but that was all. I remember being angry at the sight of kids going into the local church building. They seemed to be a part of happy families, and my siblings and I weren’t. Those families had a place to go – a second home – and we didn’t. All we had was trouble and more trouble.

Since violence was the norm in my community, running with a gang was natural, and being part of a gang had its privileges. Membership meant acceptance, security, power, and respect. The gang became my family, my home. However, those privileges also had a price tag. For me, the price tag was prison. But prison was also where I became a Christian.

I gave my life to Jesus Christ on February 10, 1991 while doing a two-year prison sentence in Ponce, Puerto Rico for stealing three police cruisers. While I was in prison, an older lady came and shared the Gospel with me. For the first time, I felt like someone was speaking to my heart. 

After I left prison, I attended several first-generation traditional Latino churches, but I was never accepted by any of them. Since I wasn’t brought up in the church, I had no understanding of church culture. I felt neglected, lost, and abandoned by the church. I was angry at the fact that I prayed, fasted, read the Word, and lived a Christian life more than most of the other kids in the church, but because I didn’t fit their image of a Christian, I was never accepted by them. To them, I was a sinner and a fake because I was different.

Eventually, I ended up in a Spanish-speaking church by the name of Congregación Leon de Juda (Lion of Judah) in Boston. This church was different from the others. It was a large multicultural Latino church with a lot of young people who were more like me. The first time I went to their youth group, the youth pastor hugged me. At first, I felt uncomfortable, but once I got used to it, I felt loved and accepted. It felt like home.

Years passed and I became a pastor. While I was serving at Charm City Church in Baltimore City, I was invited to speak as a guest pastor at Bridgeway Community Church in 2012. Six years later, I was invited to join the Bridgeway team. Bridgeway willingly took me in as part of their family. Under the leadership of Dr. David Anderson, I knew I would grow as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, and as a man. I was impressed with the team, and I was even more impressed by the love I was continually shown here with each passing week by the people of the church. Once again, I felt at home.

Looking back at my experience as a young Christian, I realize that one of the most common mistakes people make in working with Latino-American youth is to lump everyone into the same category. The Latino-American community is a diverse population comprised of people from many different backgrounds, histories, cultures, and social experiences. Even though there is great diversity within the Latino culture, there’s a growing united Latino identity, especially among second and third-generation Latino-American youth. Just like all young people, they want to be seen, heard, and understood.

Latino Americans place great value on hospitality, relationships, and family. Jesus was a master at relational ministry. His whole paradigm of developing his disciples was based on relationships. He ate with them, traveled with them, and spent great amounts of individualized time with each one of them.

This is how I want to structure Bridgeway’s Outreach program. Some churches today remain far removed from effectively meeting the real needs of second and third-generation Latino families. Many can be legalistic, making it nearly impossible for the average street youth to gain acceptance. They are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good. 

Will you join me as we reach out to young people from all colors, classes, and cultures? Together let’s help them see Bridgeway as a safe place, a growing space, and a church filled with grace. We want Bridgeway to be a place they can call home.

Bridgeway’s next Outreach event is Candy Fest on October 31. Join the team and help us reach our community for Christ! Join the Local Outreach Group to be informed of volunteer needs for this amazing event – more information to come.

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