When we were kids, people called us little devils. So when we grew up, we called ourselves Satan’s Sinners. – Cochise, founder and president of Satan’s Sinners gang; incarcerated since December 1993; incarnated since January 1994
It was a typically hot and humid July afternoon in New York, but about to get hotter. Several dozen members of a Manhattan storefront church were gathered in a housing project courtyard when two men passed, hissing and mocking and gyrating in front of the preacher. On their backs, gang colors proclaimed “Satan’s Sinners.”
Abounding Grace Ministries had just begun its annual Jesus Loves You New York outreach, so the next morning, Pastor Rick Del Rio (my father) asked the volunteers to pray for the gang throughout the week. Specifically, we prayed that we would meet the Sinners again and that they would encounter Christ within our community.
Days later, dad sang a Spanish corito at another street meeting. Translated into English, the chorus said: “Send your fire, oh Lord.” Before the song finished, wisps of smoke could be seen rising above the buildings from around the corner.
I ran to see what was happening and found a shanty in a vacant lot engulfed in flames, with a dozen or so Satan’s Sinners out front watching the blaze consume their clubhouse.
The church gave an offering that weekend to help the Sinners rebuild, and over the next several months, my father became friends with Jose “Cochise” Quiles. Cochise, the gang’s founder and president, was one of the mockers we first encountered that sultry afternoon and prayed for all week. Now he invited dad to present the offering to the rest of the gang, and asked him to pray a blessing for them. He would frequently drop by the office unannounced to ask my father to interpret his dreams.
Cochise had previously served two prison terms, and both times experienced jailhouse conversions and vowed a life of ministry. Dad looked him the eyes one day and promised: “You’ll either serve Him inside our outside prison, but you will serve Jesus.” Then he disappeared for a few months, until a collect call on New Year’s Day.
He was calling from Riker’s Island. Cops had stormed his apartment, leaving him just enough time to grab a handful of papers from his bureau. One of them had dad’s home number. Cochise told of his arrest and the two attempted murder charges he faced. He wept freely and said he wanted to serve Jesus, even though he’d have to do it behind bars.
He pled guilty and received a 12-25 year sentence. (A three-time violent felon, parole has been denied twice, but Cochise is slated for release in early 2012.) Thus began Cochise’s service as a missionary to various maximum security state prisons for the last twelve years. A Satan’s Sinner on the outside, Cochise now reflects Christ on the inside, a transition that began when Christ moved into his neighborhood in the person of Rick Del Rio.
The Christmas story we celebrate this month tells the story of the “firstborn among many brethren,” (among whom are we) yet we sanitize the tale (for the sake of the kids, or us?) by focusing on the angelic visitations and cuddly sheep.
At its core, however, Christ’s birth was unseemly (single mothers were capital criminals); unsanitary (born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, stench, and bugs); controversial (astrologers were the first to perceive it, by reading the stars); lowly (shepherds got it, innkeepers did not); dangerous (it provoked the ire of a villainous king); deadly (the king slaughtered innocents in response); not to mention politically radioactive (Jesus was “king” of an occupied people) and religiously scandalous (“Messiah”).
The oft overlooked Christmas narrative of John 1 puts it this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” What could be more scandalous than the divine becoming human?
Two thousand years later, the Word again became flesh for Cochise when Pastor Rick moved his family into the neighborhood; refused to be intimidated by taunts or horrified by a “Sinner’s” reality; pursued him with kindness; gave sacrificially; made himself available and was willing to be stretched.
For the inmates upstate, the Word became flesh when the seed that was conceived in Cochise in July gave birth on New Year’s Day in a frigid jail, a (barn)yard of a different sort.
Merry Christmas to all, especially urban youth workers pursuing gang affected Cochise-types. My prayer is for a messy, incarnational reality that loves a few more Satan’s sinners into the Kingdom in 2012.