Jose Martinez used to cruise the hilly streets of Los Angeles' Cypress Park neighborhood looking for rivals unlucky enough to have trespassed upon the turf of his once-beloved Avenidas ("Avenues") gang.
On Saturday, Martinez, still a tough guy at 33--with scars, tattoos and time in the penitentiary to prove it--was back in the 'hood in search of someone else.
"I want to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the homeboys and homegirls," said Martinez, who has renounced gang life and said he found religion during a six-year prison term for manslaughter.
He was among several speakers Saturday at a Christian-oriented, anti-gang rally staged on suddenly notorious Isabel Street--where 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was killed Sept. 17 when gunmen opened fire on a car that had made a wrong turn onto the block.
Police suspect Avenidas members in the slaying, which attracted national attention as an illustration of senseless urban violence.
Saturday's rally--a rousing mixture of religion, rap and rock, a barrio-style Christian revival session--was sponsored by Victory Outreach Ministries, a nondenominational, La Puente-based group that specializes in reaching out to gang members, drug abusers and their families. The event featured a neighborhood march, music and testimonies by Martinez and other ex-aficionados of la vida loca ("the crazy life"), as gang existence is sometimes called.
"It's time for you to put down the weapons, put down the guns, and pick up another weapon: the Bible," said Helen Nevarez, another former Avenidas follower, who recalled several near-misses during shooting incidents in the neighborhood.
"Hallelujah!" came the response from the pumped-up crowd, including many former gang members, their appearance and attire a reminder of their pasts. "Amen!"
The crowd of about 200 even applauded a detachment of Los Angeles police officers. Several kept a wary eye on the proceedings.
The purpose of the rally, said the Rev. Sonny Arguinzoni, a former heroin addict who founded Outreach Ministries in 1967 along with his wife, Julie, was to show youths that religion is a viable alternative to gangs. The group, which calls its unorthodox approach "radical evangelism," periodically stages rallies in troubled neighborhoods, and is planning an outdoor service at noon today at the gang-troubled Pico Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights.
"The barrio is fun for a while, but it's basically a mirage," said Danny Lara, known as "Homeboy Sermon" for his anti-gang speeches and rap numbers. "There's a lot of pain, a lot of funerals, no future."
Residents, including gang members, seemed to respond positively. Some sought to sign up. But others were more hesitant.
"If they can change people's lives, then it's cool," said "Creeper," a lanky teen-ager with a shaved head, black Raiders jacket and multiple tattoos. "I'm impressed a little, but not enough to join."