His House of Faith : People: Former gang member Orlando Barela, whose Orange church is celebrating its fourth year, now helps misguided youths and adults change their outlook on life.
On a scorching summer day in 1976, Orlando Barela, a member of one of Santa Ana’s notorious street gangs, faced down an enemy in the middle of a crowded carnival.
Barela, then 18, calmly pulled out a sawed-off shotgun, leveled it at the rival gang member and opened fire, wounding his adversary in the arm and causing widespread panic among carnival-goers.
The man Barela shot lost the use of his right arm and Barela lost his freedom, serving two years in prison for the deed.
Soon after his release, Barela, a heroin and cocaine addict and devoted F-Troop gang leader, married and had a child. But he continued committing crimes, from dealing drugs to robbing fellow drug dealers, and spending more time in jail.
Barela’s turning point came in 1980, when a former heroin addict and prison evangelist stopped him on the street to tell him about God.
“The man said, ‘Jesus loves you,’ and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized, ‘Hey, I’m going nowhere and I’m going there fast,’ ” recalled Barela, 36. “On that day, I started to turn my life around.”
These days, Pastor Barela is celebrating the fourth anniversary of his church, Household of Faith, in Orange. And people no longer flee from him. Instead, they flock to hear his ministry in an industrial park warehouse.
The church boasts a congregation of 250 members, most of whom are ex-convicts, former gang members, drug addicts, prostitutes and abandoned mothers and their families.
At a recent service, Barela preached the importance of responsibility.
“I don’t care if you’re a dope fiend, the vice president of F-Troop, a prostitute, or if you’re from the wrong side of town. We all need to understand that we’re in this thing together and we want to help you turn your life around. C’mon now!” he told his congregation, who responded with a resounding, “Hallelujah!”
Barela then brought out his old black jacket with “F-Troop” emblazoned on the back, to help him illustrate a point.
“I used to hide behind this,” he said, holding up the jacket, then slamming it onto the floor. “I used to live a miserable life, but I don’t hide behind that jacket anymore and I don’t get loaded anymore because when you live a horrible life, you die a horrible death.
“I used to think I would only live to be 21, and I thought I’d die from a bullet, an overdose or in prison.”
The rest of the two-hour service featured contemporary Christian music, a baptism and special individual prayers in which many of the parishioners cried out loud and fell to the floor, saying, “Praise the Lord.”
Parishioner Charlie Lopez, 40, credits Barela and his church for turning him away from drugs, gangs and violence. The Santa Ana man, who said he had been in and out of jail for about 20 years since he was 16, said something happens every time he goes to church.
“You can feel the love here,” said Lopez, whose 22-year-old son is serving a nine-year prison term for attempted murder. “We feel like God really can help us, and Orlando knows how to break (the Bible) down so we can understand and really learn. . . .
“For me, this is it. This is the place,” he added. “I can relate to my pastor and my pastor can relate to me.”
Household of Faith members are constantly told that they are welcome, that they can succeed in life and that their sins can be turned into blessings with will, hope and faith.
“We’re telling the untold, teaching the untaught and training the untrained,” Barela said about the mission of his ministry. “We have (members) who have never been trained for accountability or responsibility and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Barela, who grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Santa Ana where his gang ruled and was at war with every other area gang, spreads his gospel in jails, youth detention halls and the streets in an effort to help misguided youths and adults change their outlook on life.
He lives in Orange with his wife of 16 years, Elizabeth, 34, and two daughters, Rochelle, 16, and Belinda, 12. His family supports him and encourages him to continue his work.
“There are so many hurting people out there who are living the lives we used to live years ago,” Elizabeth Barela said. “We’re ministering to couples who remind us of us, and you can’t stop doing what you want to do for God--that comes from being so grateful for what He’s done for us.”
City officials also believe in Barela, who worked as a prison evangelist and construction worker for five years before starting his church.
Orange Police Chief John R. Robertson said Barela soon will be joining his department as a chaplain.
“It’s OK to make a mistake in our society and move on,” Robertson said. Barela’s “type of outreach directly interacts with our clientele. He offers a background that most people in the Police Department don’t have. He is helping the city of Orange and that helps the whole community.”
Barela’s duties as a chaplain will include being on call 24 hours a day, going on weekly ride-alongs with patrol officers and counseling victims of crime, their families or officers in need of emotional or spiritual help, Robertson said.
“Orlando certainly is entitled to ride in the front seat of the patrol car because he’s left the back seat,” Orange Councilman Fred L. Barrera said.
“I think the city is very fortunate to have Orlando here,” he said. “A lot of his parishioners have gotten out of jail and have become valuable citizens in the community. . . . Orlando is reaching the people and their hearts and he knows how because he’s walked in their shoes. He’s been there.”
Barela agreed that his past helps him reach out to people who rarely attend church and have little or no direction in life.
But, “I regret everything I did to harm others, not taking responsibility for my own actions and allowing my homeboys to control my actions and reactions,” he said. “I pray everyday that someday I’ll see the man I shot in the arm so I can tell him, ‘I’m really sorry.’ No one deserves to lose any part of his body or to live in fear.
“When I was younger, I was in between two battles: My flesh wanted to do what it knew best and that was sin, but my spirit, man, was crying out. And now I’m free and sticking to what I know is best--working with the kind of people I work with to help make the community a better place.”