From Gangs to Ministry

I was born in Los Angeles and raised in a poor community in Fresno, CA. I am intimately connected with the inner-city since I was a gang-member and school drop-out. In prison, God called me and my life took a radically different direction. I became the first in my family to graduate from university, completing a double BA in Pre-Law & Religious Studies. In struggling to find a career and move out of the kind of neighborhoods I grew up in, I felt God call me to remain.

I now work with college students from around the country and immerse them in Fresno’s downtown, a city with one of the most extreme cases of concentrated poverty, with the purpose that they may experience God’s work of leadership development not only in that context but also in their own lives.

One of the most recognized forces of internal oppression in the innercity community are considered to be criminal street gangs. Once considered exclusively a social problem, gangs are now a common population in the U.S. According to records, there are now over 1.4 million individual gang members in the country, with a majority of 47% identified as Hispanic, and well over 33,000 different gangs who account for about 80% of crime.

Nicholas and Ronnie are both 14 year old boys from drugs and gangs involved families that I disciple. They committed their lives to Jesus last year in our carport during our martial arts ministry bible study. Nicholas and Ronnie didn’t get along because of different gangs tied into their families, but eventually they became great friends. However, in my neighborhood young people like Nicholas and Ronnie are forced to grow up quickly. They are exposed to the realities of social abandonment and poverty and at a young age, these boys have to figure out how to become “men” and continue to be exposed to the pressures of becoming gang members either from peer pressure, family ties, respect, protection, economic needs, and a desire to identify with something.

UYWI through Larry Acosta’s mentorship has been a significant blessing in my leadership for the past two years. I work with inner-city youth some of who come from the most extreme cases where they are familiar with gangs and serious incarcerations. Because of my life experiences in the violent drama of the streets and prison, I wrestled for almost a decade with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

From the moment I met Larry, he challenged me to retreat and rest in God’s presence. I took his challenge, discovered its’ vital importance in my life and ministry, and I now continue to practice Sabbath and retreat with my wife, Beth Paz. Although not much of a charismatic, Larry has spoken prophetically in my leadership twice and his words continue to guide my involvement in the unfolding redemption of downtown Fresno, CA.

Thank you for your prayers and investment in the ministry of UYWI.

Ivan C. Paz

Co-Director:  Pink House, InterVarsity’s Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership

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