A Question of Hope

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

Adela says plainly that her husband, whom she left in 1981, lived to party. He was murdered three years ago by a gangbanger who opened fire with an AK-47.

The story of this family suffers without his recollections. The role of parental influence, then, will be skewed in favor of Adela's memories, a limitation of a single voice tipped further out of balance because it is a tale told by a woman beset by withering heartache.

In their pain, Boy and Adela turned to Jesus, someone who understands sinners.

Before his wounding, Boy, right, communed with friends like Pastor Richard Lee of Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Flagstaff.
Before his wounding, Boy, right, communed with friends like Pastor Richard Lee of Lighthouse United Pentecostal Church in Flagstaff.
Top: Johnny Pompa

Bottom: Joseph Ayala Sr.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Top: Johnny Pompa
Bottom: Joseph Ayala Sr.

Now half of those inside the church leave their benches and kneel on the floor while older congregants place their bony, spotted hands on the firm shoulders of the kids. Boy is quickly surrounded.

The pastor reminds everyone of Noah's ark and the terrible stench from the animals.

"I don't care how stuffy it gets in here. I don't care how much it smells. The church at its worst is better than the world at its best."

Joseph Ayala Jr. came to the same conclusion in his jail cell.

Of course, smart money knows that there is nothing more convenient than a prisoner finding the Lord.

But consider the possibility that Boy is different.

Not that his rap sheet offers much hope.

Joseph the Thief

On October 25, 1990, Boy was indicted for trafficking in stolen property and theft. He brought hot cars to a chop shop in south Phoenix. Authorities who burst into the ringleaders' dwelling confiscated eight ounces of cocaine, a triple-beam scale, 10,000 items of clothing stolen from Dillard's -- not to mention the detritus of a chop shop.

"Joseph was hanging around with gang members and guys out of prison," says his mother. "He was the youngest idiot there, but he never participated in the violence. He made $200 a car."

Boy was merely a car thief, and never a jumped-in gang member. Nonetheless, the government resisted attempts to lower his bond, telling the court that "suspect Ayala is an active member of an organization involving narcotics and stolen property. The witnesses have been relocated for their safety."

When Boy turned his life over to the Lord, those who knew him were not entirely shocked. His sister -- three years older than Joseph -- thought the conversion was consistent with the brother she grew up with.

"He was never mean as a child, like a lot of kids can be," remembers Yvonne. "He was good-hearted. Everyone always wanted to play with him. If anyone tried to fight my little brother, I was ready to trade blows. It wasn't in his nature to stomp someone. He would talk his way out of trouble. I wondered if he was a wimp, but it wasn't that."

As the smallest of toddlers, Yvonne, Sara and Joseph attended an evangelical church that one day a week would shanghai the neighborhood children, effectively serving as child care for Adela.

"We started going when Joseph was a year and a half," says Yvonne. "I took Pampers and bottles. The church would pick us up in their bus and we'd be there all day on Sunday, sometimes even Saturday. Even as a young child, Joseph would close his eyes and lift his hands to God. He would even cry when he was praying."

Throughout their childhood, the kids attended the church of Pastor Gary Hogan of Christ Temple, who remembered Boy as mischievous and lovable.

"Joseph was a very likable kid. I don't ever remember him talking back, cursing, fighting. He had a great sense of humor," recalls Hogan.

In fact, Joseph Jr. made such an impression that the minister still has one of the boy's decades-old jokes on the tip of his tongue: "A bus driver has a whole bunch of black kids and Mexican kids, all of whom are fighting and making remarks about each other's nationality. The bus driver comes to a stop and orders all of them off the bus and then warns them he won't have any racial arguments on his bus. It doesn't matter if you're red, yellow or green.

"Okay, everyone back on the bus, the light green ones in front, and the dark green ones in back."

Pastor Hogan smiles at the memory, then says that Boy stopped coming to church at about the age of 10.

The pastor didn't see him again until he was 19.

Members of Hogan's church who witness to prisoners found Boy in the Madison Street lockup.

Joseph Jr. contacted Hogan and explained that he'd stolen cars to support his drug habit and that he missed church. And that's how it began.

"Even though Joseph grew up in our church, he never had a religious conversion," says Hogan. "In jail it dawned on him. He received the Holy Spirit. It's not the same as merely accepting the Lord as your personal savior. We see it as praying for forgiveness and not going back to your old ways. It was a profound and life-changing experience for Joseph: He witnessed to others in jail. He didn't use the church to try to lighten his sentence. He never asked me to help with his bail. He never asked for a character letter to give the court."

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