"This ain't no fantasy," Michael Rayo told more than 100 teen-agers packed into a Hawthorne church.
He passed around Polaroid pictures of a Lennox gang member named "Stiffy" who had been shot in a drive-by shooting the week before.
"He's in heaven," Rayo told the silent audience, "but I have a question for you tonight. Where are you going to be at?"
There was a time not many years ago when Rayo, now an associate pastor at Del Aire Assembly of God Church, would have been the last man to ask that question--or to answer it.
When he was 9 years old, he often stole his mother's food stamps to make change for video games. At 13, he was a strung-out gang member selling drugs on the streets of Hawthorne. By 16, he was in a juvenile detention center in San Diego charged with assaulting a Marine and robbing him at knifepoint.
Now at 27, Rayo is back in Hawthorne hustling last-chance kids instead of drugs.
Parents turn to him when they cannot find their children on the streets. Teachers call him to help them talk to surly students. Teen-agers distrustful of authority heed him because his story sounds so much like their own.
"I've been there," said Rayo, soft-spoken yet passionate. "I see a need, a great need, for these kids to feel accepted, important and affirmed . . . to understand love, not the kind they see in the street."
Born in Houston, Rayo and his mother moved to the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts when he was just a year old. While his mother was studying to become a nurse, Rayo said, he was a truant student who failed most of his classes except his two favorites--speech and drama.
He grew up wanting to become a gang member.
"When people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I wouldn't say a doctor or lawyer, I would say a Blood," Rayo said. At 12, he was accepted into the gang and wore the colors with pride.
"Everything I owned was red, down to my socks and shoes," Rayo said. "I wouldn't even use blue toothpaste."
When he was 15, his mother got a job as a registered nurse and moved the family to Oceanside, in part to get Rayo away from gangs. But there his drug use and violence escalated, he said.
Almost every payday, he said, he would hide outside bars and rob unsuspecting Marines after threatening them with a knife, he said.
It was one such attack that got him arrested for armed robbery.
He spent nine days in the juvenile center in San Diego and was on probation for five years, but the experience did not deter him from his violent lifestyle, he said. He used every drug imaginable, he added, from mushrooms to crystal methamphetamine.
"I was mean. I had dark circles around my eyes. I was self-centered and was always around women. I wanted to be accepted, I wanted to be noticed . . . and drugs were an escape," Rayo said.
Rayo said he hit rock bottom at 23 when he accidentally left seven pounds of methamphetamine, then worth $10,000, in the trunk of his car, causing it to melt in the summer heat and making the drugs worthless.
Fearing for his life because he could not pay for the drugs, Rayo said he enrolled himself in Teen Challenge, a one-year Christian drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Bakersfield.
"I figured I'd hide out here for a year until things cooled down," he said.
During the year Rayo said he realized that, although he had never been afraid to die, he was afraid of the afterlife. It was this realization that made him clean up his act and devote his life to religion, he said.
"I'd always been a leader and led people in the wrong things. Now I felt I could lead people in a positive direction," he said.
Rayo returned to Hawthorne when Pastor Albert Wise heard about him and asked Rayo to come on board at Del Aire Assembly of God Church. Wise had been looking for a streetwise assistant to help him work with youths. Rayo fit the bill.
On most days, Rayo can be found either counseling at a Hawthorne school or teaching part time at South Bay Christian High School. He is also on call as a hospital chaplain at Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center.
Sharon Phillips, co-principal at Hawthorne Intermediate School, said she has sought Rayo's help with students she couldn't get through to.
"He has a level of empathy that I don't necessarily have," Phillips said. "He can encourage kids to be more than they are in a real way, whereas the school may be too remote for the kids to relate to. When they see what he has overcome, they see possibilities for themselves."
Most students know Rayo as a speaker who tours local schools with a Christian rap group called the Lord's Personal Gangsters and known as LPG. But he also befriends youths at their favorite hangouts and encourages them to join the church's youth club called LPG/The Connection.
"(LPG/The Connection) gives kids who are prone to gangs a positive gang to belong to," Rayo said.
He often gets word of "ditching" or "tattoo parties," where a group of students get together to party instead of going to school. When he can, Rayo drops by to talk to the students.