A Question of Hope

One family's struggle to escape the devastation of gang culture

The young man at the end of the pew is a professional car thief.

Law enforcement also recognizes him as a cocaine user and a drug peddler. Yet here he sits in church, a child of God as much as you or your neighbor.

He accepted Jesus while locked up in a prison cell, so any skepticism you might harbor about the depth of Joseph Ayala Jr.'s religious commitment is understandable; after all, jailhouse conversions, like foxhole redemptions, are notoriously fickle.

Adela dotes on Boy.
Adela dotes on Boy.
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray

Middle: Sara Ayala

Bottom: Adela McCormick
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: Yvonne Montiel and son Ray-Ray
Middle: Sara Ayala
Bottom: Adela McCormick

Still, if Joseph Ayala -- with his hoodlum life -- could go straight, who else might?

Perhaps his sister Yvonne Montiel, a member of the notorious gang Las Cuatro Milpas, could start over. A mother of two boys, she has been stabbed and shot repeatedly. She does not share her brother's interest in church, but the future of her children weighs upon her. Joseph's other sister, Sara Ayala, grew up in the same neighborhood where several generations of families belong to LCM. Last month, Sara gave birth to her second baby.

All of these young people have spent their lives within the various orbits of gang life in Phoenix. And all were menaced by a homicidal psychopath named "Smiley," a gangster who even lumbers through their dreams.

The Hispanic matriarch of the clan, Adela McCormick, despairs over the home life that brought her family so much agony. She worries to the point of collapse about the future of her children and grandchildren.

It's a question, then, of hope, isn't it?

Will any of Adela's brood ever escape the gravitational pull of the gangs? It's a quandary for any parent raising a child in the barrio.

For Adela, her hope languishes on the shoals of reality. The fact is that families caught in gang violence have almost nowhere to turn for help. They must help themselves.

We begin our story with Joseph Jr., whom everyone calls "Boy."

Worship

Chiseled and hewn from 27 years of gangs, prison and Christ Almighty, Ayala the ex-con bears close examination before you judge the state of his soul.

Let us begin the scrutiny here, at Sunday service.

West on Encanto Boulevard, past the carnecerias and the casa de cambios, not a half-mile from the snapping pennants on the state fairgrounds, the Apostolic Heritage Church beckons folks who know a thing or two about hard work and hard knocks.

Boy stopped swiping cars and getting high only after he was locked up and found the Lord. But he was not content with his own salvation; Boy initiated a Latino ministry behind bars, and when he was finally released, he continued to bring lapsed Catholics into the Pentecostal movement.

The first three rows of the church this morning are given over to the kind of people with whom Boy shared the gospel: Mexicans and Central Americans who speak little, if any, English. No longer a part of the Church of Rome, these converts speak in tongues. They believe in miracles.

And they are not alone; in fact, this Sunday the immigrants nestle in a house full of the faithful. Boy sits with his mother.

Joseph Ayala Jr.'s struggle to Jesus, however sincere, was extraordinary. He's a strong young man who overcame his background, his neighborhood and, yes, his bloodline to find faith as a preacher.

But even the Holy Ghost could not stand up to the West Side Chicanos, a street gang that has tested the faith of Boy and his entire family. And so mother and son have come to the Apostolic Heritage Church to pray.

Crescendos of bass-heavy music throb into the congregation, agitating the depressed as well as the righteous.

Boy thrusts his index finger, on beat, toward heaven.

His mother shifts in her vibrant blue blazer as the music builds.

Suddenly a man in his 20s pogos out of his seat and scatters erratically through the room, slapping off the walls, whiplashed by the muscular harmonies and the ecstatic contractions of Jesus received.

The entire room moves, alive. Worshipers crackle and fry upon a rapturous griddle and clench their faces with glory while the minister booms: "Thank you, God, for your blood that washes white as snow."

If Jesus loves Boy, and surely He does, it must be said that his mother loves him more. As Boy's spiritual reverie deepens in the grip of the music, Adela presses her warm comfort against her only son.

The pastor is not aloof. He is one of the penitents crowing, "You are looking at a longhaired, maggot-infested hippie. Now I am razor cut."

He changed his life; they can, too.

"There's a healer in the house," says the minister. "You can step on in. There is help for you."

Adela looks as though she might scream. If there is help for her, she has not found it. There is seldom even a sound night's sleep for respite. Gangs and prison and Christ Almighty shape her discordant life, too.

Any true story about gang violence will have many roots, none more important than the home. Adela McCormick, says readily that she has not always been the best mother. At times she was violent and her children were too often parched for a kind word. But if she was harsh in her ways, she was not someone who abandoned her young ones to the streets. The kids will tell you that their dad was someone they loved but who was not a role model. He sported tattoos of birds upon each of his biceps, and on his shoulder blade was etched a picture of a man in a coat with the legend "Born Bad." He was an alcoholic and a junkie, but also someone who urged them on in school and who preached the necessity of work.

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