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Drawing Gangs to God
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Rev. Mario Forte, 31, preaches about the Book of Hebrews and tells the kids why they need to get right with God. [Times photo: Bill Serne]

A former recruiter for one of Miami's biggest gangs now recruits Christian converts from the mean streets. Just getting them to stop killing each other is considered a victory.

By TWIILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 1999


MIAMI -- Salvation is measured differently in the church of the Rev. Mario Forte.

Instead of a white chapel, his sanctuary is a rented warehouse in Allapattah, one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods.

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Kiki Ortega, 11, gives a sign for God's Nation, a seven pointed crown, as he waits for prayer services to start outside the Youth Alternative Center warehouse in northwest Miami. "I read my Bible every night," he says.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Instead of stained glass, the church is ringed with broken beer bottles and graffiti from some of Miami's more violent gangs, such as the Latin Lovers, Allapattah Boys and one Miami police have christened "the 10th Street Thugs."

The pews are metal folding chairs, and the preacher wears a white and green football jersey and hollers his message over the thumping of passing car stereos and low-flying airplanes.

In this jagged world, it is sometimes too much to ask that Forte's congregation turn the other cheek, that they live their lives by the traditional Christian principles that guide other congregations or communities, where drive-by shootings are something seen only on the evening news.

Here, where members of rival gangs gather twice a week in an uneasy peace for words of hope, Forte considers it a victory when he can just get them to stop killing each other.

Of course, Forte, 31, a former recruiter for one of Miami's biggest gangs before finding God himself, wishes they would become good Christians in the traditional sense, but he's realistic.

"Every one of us did dirt to God. That's why we're here tonight," Forte tells a group of 50 gang members gathered one recent Wednesday evening. "We can be saved, not because of you but because of him."

The congregation, called Jesus' Disciples, is not without controversy.

Some believe that Jesus' Disciples, which also calls itself God's Nation, a name modeled after gangs like People's Nation and Folk Nation, is a gang itself. The group has its own handshake, identifying symbol, which is a seven point crown, its own colors of red, gold and white, and its own rap CD, featuring songs called Street Preacha and Pass the Bible.

Some gang leaders have been so suspicious of Forte that they've sent members to his meetings to try to figure out whether his group is competition. The Miami Police Department has kept its distance, uncertain of the group's true mission.

"If he is making an effort, we applaud it," said Lt. Carlos Alfaro, of the department's gang unit. "But we don't want to become a part of something that might not be kosher."

But Forte, who is struggling financially to keep the gang ministry alive, insists its only mission is to save troubled young people from jail -- and possibly death.

He wants to replace the guns and the drugs most of his followers have used to get by on the streets of South Florida with the Holy Bible. He believes the way to do it is with the same methods gangs use to recruit kids.

"When it comes to young people, the churches are empty," says Forte, who sometimes has more than 100 gang members attend a night. "But gangs are in every major city across the country. Unfortunately, they are successful."

Jorge Lopez, or "Gucci," is among Forte's faithful, although he says his first trips to the church were as a spy rather than a disciple.

He says that about a year ago he was sent by his former gang, Latin Kings, a fierce rival of Forte's former gang, to find out what Forte was doing. He says his gang was considering killing Forte. But in the process, Lopez says, Forte won his soul.

"He knows how to speak our language and communicate with us," says Lopez, 24, who adds that he has retired from the gang he belonged to since he was 10. "You really have to be a street person to understand another street person. It is a different world."

Paradise lost

For many kids growing up in neighborhoods such as Liberty City, Little Havana and Hialeah, Forte says, gangs are like family

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Former gang leader Jorge "Gucci" Lopez, 24, holds his 22-month-old daughter, Iliana Lopez, while his stepdaughter, Mercy Quero, 12, looks on. Lopez was a gang leader who was sent to spy on Forte's ministry. He found God in the process. [Times photo: Bill Serne]
They turn to gangs when they need food, a place to sleep, comaraderie or protection. There are 5,000 active gang members in 86 gangs in Miami-Dade County, according to the Miami Police Department.

"I joined (the Latin Kings) to have friends. I was new to the area," says Lopez, whose family moved to the United States from Cuba when he was about 8. "They were always around, they always had the girls and the money."

Attempts by gang members like Lopez to escape that way of life, without a prison sentence, death or old age, are next to impossible because gang leaders insist that joining a gang is a lifelong commitment. If gang members try to leave, they are often severely beaten or killed because of fear that they may become snitches for the police.

But along came Forte. He offers gang members a miracle -- a way out of, if not the gang, at least the crime that goes with it.

He says that if gang members, some of whom sign documents pledging a lifetime commitment, truly find God, their gangs will let them retire without serious retribution, although some defectors might still have to endure a beating. Forte also believes that the kids don't necessarily have to quit the gang; they just have to quit the crimes.

Unlike other ministers, who preach from pulpits and wear suits that many of these kids could never afford without the help of crime, Forte speaks with a unique perspective. He was one of them.

"He saved my life," says Peaches, 24, who wouldn't give her real name. "I'd go to other churches and no one could relate to me because I was in a gang. They would look at me and I was uncomfortable. Here I can just be myself."

Like cults

Some gang members even pray to their own leaders, whom they claim have supernatural powers. Members of Folk Nation, for example, pray to King David, who is actually a gang member in prison, Forte says

Though gangs have plenty of bad traits, they also have some good ones, Forte points out. They teach about brotherhood and self-esteem, which is especially helpful to minorities.

"That is positive whether you're black, Cuban, Haitian or whatever. They teach you to know where you come from and be proud of that," he says.

The colors and logos, often painted on walls throughout the city, are part of being proud, too. "It's no different from the United States, which has its own colors and its own flag," he says. "Kids like to identify with something."

Forte gives his followers strands of red, gold and white beads to wear around their necks when they prove they are truly serving God. Not only does this serve as a source of pride, but it also is a good way to witness to others, he says.

"People will ask them what it is, and they use that to tell them about God," Forte says.

Forte and Mary Ferrer, an adult volunteer who helps him with Jesus' Disciples, say they experience differing degrees of success. Some young people who go to his church, whose ages range from 10 to 30, make radical changes, leaving behind gangs and devoting their lives to Christ. One young man, an artist who painted a Jesus' Disciple mural on the wall inside the warehouse, quit a gang, became a Christian and joined the Army, Ferrer says. Others have gone back to school.

"I feel like this kind of prepares them to go to church," Ferrer says. "These people are not accepted at a regular church. This is sort of helps guide them there."

Others leave gangs behind but don't live what many Christians would see as truly Christian lives. "They may still live with their girlfriend or do drugs or drink," Forte says. Success for others means they "don't kill anybody," he says.

Been there, done that

At the age of 12, he ran away from his home in Opalocka to Key West, where he learned to do drugs and steal to survive

When police found him and took him home, Forte says, he caught the attention of a Latin gang, the name of which he says he doesn't want printed for fear of retribution.

"They knew I was a kid who knew a little about the street," he says of the gang. "They thought I could bring them some money."

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Shaun Bolton, 17, and his girlfriend, Urania Orozco, wait for services to begin. Bolton, who was a gang leader and now works as a barber, is considered one of the Jesus' Disciples success stories.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Forte quickly moved up the chain of command, becoming the chief recruiter.

Forte, a Cuban-American, says he believes he was vulnerable to gangs because he was ashamed of his heritage.

"I grew up in a black neighborhood in Miami and I didn't fit in," Forte says. "I wasn't black. I didn't feel American because of my accent. I really felt Spanish, but my parents, who didn't speak English, wanted to be Americans."

The gang made him feel proud and empowered, he says. But he says his pride quickly wore off as he realized that many of the things he was taught, such as the gang leader's having supernatural powers, weren't true. He also became fed up with gang members stealing from him.

By that time, Forte, who was about 16, had alienated his family and had developed a daily cocaine habit.

A girlfriend, now his wife, led him reluctantly to church, where he says he was born again.

"As strange as it sounds," says Forte, who retired from the gang when he was 18, "gang members have a respect for God, whether it is Islam, Christianity or whatever religion. That was my way out. If a person has a true conversion, they will let you go."

No gang members allowed

He has not been completely free of criminal trouble since finding God.

In 1992, Forte pleaded no contest to stealing some batteries and car parts during Hurricane Andrew that he says he was planning to send to a ministry in Haiti. Forte, who served six months' probation, says he thought the batteries had been thrown away.

Despite that run-in with the law, Forte eventually worked his way up in the church, becoming youth minister and then pastor at El-Shaddai Ministries in Hialeah, where at 26 he was ministering to a congregation of 200 people and counseling people on such issues as marriage and careers.

But he says one day he went to play basketball at a local court and met up with members of his old gang.

He told them about his past and how he had found God. He decided, after nervously driving around the block a few times, to go back to the park and invite the kids to visit his church.

"I didn't think they would come," he says, "but they said yes."

The next day, he picked up two of the kids at the park and took them to his church. His congregation wasn't pleased with the visitors.

"They didn't like the gang members. They thought they were disrespectful. They dressed inappropriately," he says.

They gave Forte a choice: minister to the gang members or minister to them. He chose the gangs.

"There are hundreds of ministers who could minister to them, but these kids had no one," he said. "Every one of my (former) members today is in some church doing well. They made it without me, but I am not sure these kids would."

New church

"I thought it would be easier there because it was the really poor neighborhood with a lot of gang activity," he says. "I thought a lot of the parents coming might not mind the gang members because some of their kids were in gangs.

The church was in the territory of the 10th Street Thugs, a band of juveniles that terrorized Little Havana in the early 1990s. As Forte began trying to save their souls two years ago, the police were cracking down on them as well.

The gang was among the first in South Florida to be charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a far-reaching statute that targets organized crime and carries a possible life sentence. As indictments for such crimes as murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and armed robberies began to stack up, Shenandoah's pews began to fill.

"We had a breakthrough. We had 100 kids show up," he says.

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Former gang members hold hands during an evening prayer service inside the Jesus' Disciples warehouse, also known as the Youth Alternative Center. In the foreground are William Montalvo and Terrance White. [Times photo: Bill Serne]
But soon the congregation changed its mind. They were okay, he says, if just a few gang members came, but big crowds of gang members made them uncomfortable.

"They were afraid that there might be a drive-by shooting from rival gangs or a shooting in the church," he says. "They gave me very little time to get out of there. They said tell gang members to stop coming, or be out in six days."

Forte left and took his gang church on the road -- skipping from park to park around South Florida.

Soon he caught the attention of another church, the non-denominational Alpha and Omega Church in Kendall. The church agreed to support Forte and his gang ministry for two years, but beginning next month Forte will have to find other funding.

The church has been assuming 90 percent of the $98,000 annual budget at South Florida Gang Outreach, including Forte's $28,000 salary, the rental of the warehouse and its utilities, two part-time staffers and other expenses, he says. The other 10 percent is paid for with donations.

Time is running out for Forte, who has about 40 percent of the budget he needs to be self-supporting. "They want to concentrate on other things," said Ferrer, who is also a member of Alpha and Omega.

Forte, Ferrer and other Jesus' Disciples are trying to raise money to keep the warehouse. Recently, eight of them, including Forte, made the Jesus' Disciples CD, which they hope to sell on the streets to pay for the warehouse. But Forte suspects he and his flock will soon have to return to the parks.

God will watch your back

They begin to stream into the warehouse as the sun sets. Some carry ragged Bibles in their hands and gang tattoos on their shoulders

Shaun Bolton, 17, a former gang leader, is among the regulars.

Bolton, who is awaiting a court date for a minor drug crime, says Jesus' Disciples has given him an escape -- and more important, hope.

"Everybody has to learn the hard way," Bolton says, who wears a red ski cap. "Friends betray you. They rob your house. "It took me eight years to find out it wasn't good to be in one," says Bolton, who recently got a job as a barber at the Hialeah Flea Market. "I don't like to be a follower, except of God."

He and his pregnant girlfriend, who hope to be married soon, listen intently as Forte tells them to gather in a circle for Bible study.

"I hope everybody brought their Bible," Forte says, as a few show that they did. "I'm gonna holler at ya'll about it. This is straight from the Bible."

He reads from Book of Hebrews, before telling the flock to raise their hands high to praise the Lord.

"Don't be ashamed. Keep your heads up high," Forte tells them, as a few cars pass by with their stereos blaring. "The only one that's gonna (watch) your back 24-7 is God."

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