From violence to victory: former gang member shifts to gospel ministry
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
A farmer who saved a blustering, bellowing cow from death in an Iowa barn reminded Ray his life didn’t equal a full-stop failure.
Drug dealing sent Ray’s parents to prison when the California boy was six or seven. Within a decade, he was in a gang with his uncles and cousins. They carried guns, sold drugs and hurt people, protecting their San Francisco neighborhood like wolves.
“Violence was my middle name,” the 270-pound man said.
The family tradition multiplied the family trouble: Ray did two years when he was 15, then three years at the Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit, a supermax facility for the state’s most serious criminal offenders. He spent 23 hours a day inside a cell and the other hour in an exercise yard.
There would be no high school, no driver’s license, no prom. Instead, prison guards and administrators saw Ray become a predator who attacked other inmates and grew his gang’s power.
Years later, his release was scheduled for Father’s Day 2004. He was transferred to San Quentin Prison to be closer to a parole officer near his childhood community.
When Father’s Day came, he stood in his cell on the prison’s fifth story. He shouted down the cliff of prison cells to get a guard’s attention.
“I’m supposed to go home today,” he yelled. Suddenly, other inmates filled the air with screams and roars.
“It was like a jungle in there,” Ray said.
A long time later, a guard walked up to his cell, jangled an old-style keyring and unlocked the cell.
“Follow me,” the guard said. “You’re free to go.”
What the guard did not do was hand Ray the keys to set other men free. That day would come, but not in the way Ray expected.
A deep zeal directs his new family into a dark future
Back on the outside, Ray — who prefers not to use his last name because that’s how he was referred to by prison guards and staff — married Mila, and the couple had children. But he wasn’t fully free; entrenched ways of life remained as he stayed tight with his gang.
“I was zealous in the street life,” he said. “I was zealous for darkness. My loyalty was to that so I wouldn’t lose my family again.”
The married marauder was repeating the cycle of generational sin and family dysfunction. But he didn’t want to end up like his parents and lose his kids.
Someone said he had an alternative: seek a new life in Christ and discover that God could use Ray despite his past. So he started attending worship, and God worked in Ray’s heart and mind each Sunday.
“God showed me this is the family you’ve been longing for,” he said. “This is worth fighting for. This is worth dying for.”
He went forward during an altar call and surrendered to Christ, experiencing forgiveness for the first time.
“I’ve polluted my community with drugs and violence. I’ve hurt people. I’ve ruined families,” he said. “I needed forgiveness, and it was Christ who offered me forgiveness.”
He attended church for years, growing in his faith, tending to his marriage and raising his children in God’s way of life. He’s been married 19 years and has four children who all serve in ministry.
The Lord spoke to him in 2016 in his living room: plant House of Faith Church as my representative of a changed identity and new future.
“We just invited anyone who needed forgiveness,” he said. “If Jesus can change me, he can change them.”
From California to the cattle barn
Eighteen months after the church started, Ray met Converge PacWest regional president Bernard Emerson and Marlan Mincks, then serving as director of Converge’s Church Planting Assessment Center. Today, Mincks is Converge’s director of Church Planting.
Ray and Mincks, who planted a church among the cow farms of northeast Iowa, discovered they were kindred spirits and became fast friends.
“For four days, he encouraged us to win souls,” Ray said. “His whole evangelistic gift had me fired up, ready to win souls.”
Two years later, Mincks asked Ray to come east to Waukon, Iowa, a region of corn fields and cattle farms. Mincks wanted Iron Ridge Church to hear how God had transformed a street soldier into a soul winner.
During that 2020 trip, Mincks soon introduced the 270-pound Californian to Larry, a cattle farmer who had 65 head roaming around his barn. The Californian couldn’t ignore the mess made by the 65 cows.
“It was nasty,” Ray said. “They couldn’t pay me to go in there.”
Suddenly, an adult cow fell over in the muck, bawling and groaning in pain. Immediately, Larry jumped over the cattle rail to help: cattle who fall and don’t get up can die.
Other cows mooed at the fallen cow.
Ray looked on, caring but helpless.
Only Larry could truly help the fallen cow. God’s character burst forth to Ray: The Lord rescues fallen people from their mess.
Disciples experience community that transcends culture, geography and distance
Ever since that enlightening moment, Iron Ridge and House of Faith have grown closer and empowered transformative faith experiences.
“We cross-pollinate; we encourage each other,” Ray said. “They know we got their back, and we know they got our back.”
Groups from both churches have visited each other’s community for times of worship and ministry. That creates gospel moments when the believers get outside their home culture and better understand the word of God and the Lord’s way of life.
Back in California’s Bay Area, Ray seldom sees cows. Every week, he returns to the prison he walked out of in 2004. He teaches Bible classes to make disciples in and out of the prison. Plus, he has local, national and international opportunities to share his story and the gospel.
The power of relationships with like-minded believers stays with him everywhere he goes. So does the glimpse of grace in an Iowa barn that continues to inspire him.
“I’ve dedicated my life to going back and helping set the captives free,” he said, quoting Isaiah 61. “We’re rebuilding the walls of this broken community one family at a time.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.