When Phillip McCain first attended Academy Cathedral church 10 years ago, his friends and the police thought it was just another hustle.
They knew McCain as one of the wildest gang bangers (gang members) in Inglewood, a veteran criminal unfazed by a shoot-out with police that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair. His religion was the street; his gods were drugs and violence.
"They thought it was a front," said McCain, 33. "The police didn't believe me. My partners said, 'You'll be back out here with us, you'll see.' "
But McCain's main hangout today is the nondenominational Gospel church at Manchester and Crenshaw where he volunteers, counsels young people and studies the Bible. Church officials say he is a potent weapon in their efforts against gangs.
McCain has renounced the street, but he hasn't left it. When the gang members and the ex-gang members see the man with the big arms and shoulders wheeling himself toward them, they know he has his Bible with him. He won't preach a sermon if they don't want to hear it. But he will talk with them for hours in his slow hoarse voice, urging them to change their lives.
"That's his ministry," said Academy member Margaret Finney. "When he heard the word of God, it changed his whole heart."
Even members of the Inglewood Police gang unit, who admit to being devout cynics regardless of denomination, say they're amazed.
"I can truthfully say I haven't known him to be involved in any type of criminal activity for the past nine years," said Officer Lloyd Smith. "It's hard for me to believe. He used to be a character to be reckoned with."
'Wanted to Be a Gangster'
"When I was young I wanted to be a gangster," McCain recalled this week in an interview at the church. "Businessmen, Slauson, those were the gangs when I was comin' up in the early '60s. Everybody has some kinda image what they want to do. Some people want to be a fireman, a policeman. I didn't want nothin' like that."
By the age of 16, McCain was getting in trouble with the West Side Crips, then a fledgling Los Angeles gang spreading into Inglewood. His family sent him from his northeast Inglewood neighborhood to live with relatives in Venice.
"I went to Venice tryin' to slow down, ended up getting in more trouble with the Venice Shorelines. Jumpin' on people, breakin' into houses. Dealing Red Devils, weed, acid. The police was looking for me, so I had to go back to Inglewood."
In 1974, McCain and a friend went to a party in South-Central Los Angeles. They were drunk and high. The friend fired shots from a gun he was carrying. When the police came, McCain took the gun and tried to shoot a policeman.
"I put the gun up but it didn't work, it clicked. Then a policeman shot at me, and I started runnin'."
The chase lasted an hour. McCain remembers it as a kind of dazed slow-motion: running through dark backyards, hiding, hurdling fences, police everywhere. It ended when he jumped onto a fence in front of an officer who shot him three times at point-blank range.
"I got one in the back, two in the side," McCain said. "In the hospital, I didn't know I couldn't walk. I told them phony names, I was never unconscious. I was ready to leave. As soon as they left the room I took all the hoses outta me, called myself tryin' to leave. They said, 'You ain't goin' nowhere.' "
One of the bullets had struck his spine.
McCain spent more than a year in jail for an unrelated robbery and assault on the police officer. He was released in 1976.
Neither jail time nor being crippled had changed his attitude.
"I didn't learn. I started hangin' on the streets, gettin' high with the fellas. Giving ideas on how to pull off robberies and make some money."
"He was smart, cocky," Smith said. "Those are the ones you really have to watch. He was something of a leader, believe it or not."
McCain would hold weapons and drugs for his accomplices because police were less likely to search someone in a wheelchair. He planned robberies and burglaries, sometimes acting as a lookout. He earned "a hard name," gaining respect even from gang rivals with exploits such as the attempted burglary of a neighbor's house.
"They thought I was outta my mind," McCain said.
One of McCain's hangouts in 1977 was a street corner on Crenshaw across from Academy Cathedral. He caught the attention of Gladys Negal, one of several women in the congregation bold enough to go on gang turf looking for converts.
"We were 'witnessing' young people, trying to get them to come to the Lord," said Margaret Finney, Negal's sister. (Negal, who is visiting relatives in Texas and Louisiana, could not be reached.)
"Gladys said, 'There's something about that young man in the wheelchair. He always has a big smile.' She said she knew he had a lot of love in him. Phillip had his little gang around him, he was flirtin' at her. She walked up to him and told him he needed to be saved."
The challenge from the 29-year-old Negal caught McCain off-guard. It also helped, as Finney says, that "she was a very attractive woman."