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Finding Redemption in Hard Work

Hired by the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, four former gang members develop job skills in a program for 'at risk' youths.

August 16, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Sergio Lopez, just 13 years old, could hardly see above the steering wheel. The pillows helped. He was the driver. He was about to take a fateful journey that would involve him in a drive-by murder.

Sammy Alba, by his own account, was also headed in the "wrong direction." So was Ismael Rodriguez. Different gangs. Similar paths. Drugs. Guns. Handcuffs. Jail time.

Then there's Luis Moreno. He was never in a gang, never behind bars. He was a member of a tagging crew. But friends were dying in gang wars. They're still dying. Three weeks ago, one was gunned down in Boyle Heights, he said. "They shot him up with an AK-47. Thirty rounds," Moreno said. Another friend has been "missing" for a month.

But then Lopez, Alba, Rodriquez and Moreno met a priest who helped guide them in a different direction. Their paths have converged at an unlikely place, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. They are the first group of former gang members or "at risk" youths referred to the downtown Los Angeles cathedral by Father Gregory Boyle's Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang program in Boyle Heights.

The idea is to provide entry-level jobs at the Roman Catholic cathedral and area businesses that may help them build work histories and job skills that could lead to better-paying jobs. The cathedral pays $9 an hour, allowing the four to open checking accounts for the first time in their lives.

The cathedral seems worlds away from the gang-plagued streets where they grew up, they said.

"It felt so peaceful. I still feel peaceful," Alba, 32, said. Rodriguez, 22, agreed. "We're anxious to be here. We want to be here," he said.

Instead of the smell of gunpowder, incense wafts above altars. Instead of mood-altering drugs, priests lift chalices during Mass that the church believes offers life-altering salvation. Instead of gang membership, the four are among those the church calls "the people of God."

They say churchgoers and other cathedral workers don't seem to notice their tattoos and buzz cuts. Instead, there are greetings and smiles.

"What's important is that we recognize people can change," said Msgr. Kevin Kostelnik, cathedral pastor. "These young people have really changed and have really grown in their own sense of self-worth and self-esteem."

All four assist the cathedral staff in general maintenance, as well as setting up tables and chairs for cathedral events. Lopez is learning computer skills and sometimes is the cashier at the cathedral cafe. He's also been placed in charge of the loading dock. Sometimes, the four serve as ushers at the year-old facility. It's a promising turn of events.

"I always was involved in gangs and drugs," Alba said. "I was always in and out of jail." A year ago "Father G," as some of the homeboys call Boyle, spotted Alba at Los Angeles County Jail. Alba was serving two years on drug-related charges.

Alba said he was staring down, then looked up and saw Boyle standing over him. Boyle, who often visits jails as part of his outreach program, gave him a big hug. It meant a lot, Alba said, because in two years behind bars he said he was never visited by the mother of his two children. "I told her I would change. She didn't believe me," he said.

Now he's served his time, undergone drug counseling and has a job at the cathedral. "Now I have serenity in my life," he said. When he gets angry, he said, he no longer turns to drugs. He plays basketball, jogs or talks with his mother.

It has been a long road, too, for Lopez since he was the 13-year-old wheelman in a drive-by shooting that took the life of a 21-year-old woman a decade ago.

Rival gang members had shot at Lopez, and he told his homies. Seeking retaliation, three of them got in the car. Lopez said he had the gun but that they took it from him because he was too small and might drop it. So, at 13, he drove as his friend fired out the passenger window. The victim wasn't the intended target but was standing with the rival gang members

"I was just real bad. I didn't think," said Lopez, now 23. "They thought for me. I thought I was thinking, but I wasn't. They just guided me in a bad way," he said.

He and the two other gang members, also minors, were found guilty of murder. Lopez said he was sentenced to 25 years to life in a California Youth Authority detention center. He served 9 1/2 years, he said.

Boyle has counseled gang members for years and meets many before they wind up in jail. Moreno, for example, used to work in Boyle's office when he was a child. Alba lived in public housing near Homeboy Industries.

Lopez came to Boyle shortly after the young man was released from the youth authority. Boyle wanted to know if he had any job skills. "He asked me what did I know. I said not much," Lopez smiled. "He said 'I've got this place, the cathedral.' I said 'What is that?' "

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