GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador (BP)–He is undeniably their leader.
Dreadlocks bobbing in time to the Latin rhythm, former gang leader Byron Garcia accepts the hand slaps and requests for autographs from his outpost at the rear of the concert venue. Two teenagers stand sentry on each side as Garcia — better known to the crowd as rapper “Baby G” — enjoys the music while solo rappers and pairs rotate performances onstage.
Time for the main event. He makes his way to the wings.
Few in the audience notice as four, large Ecuadorians crouch to assist the singer onstage. The warm lights reflect off the fake diamonds studding the chained letter “B” around Garcia’s neck. It’s the same light that glints off his metal wheelchair.
Once a notorious gang leader, tonight he’ll lead many to the throne of God.
“I used to sing in the underground world,” Garcia said. “I would do music to make fun of and to mimic and to parody other kids from rival gangs. But when I got to know Jesus, God put it on my heart to do evangelical crusades. I began to understand that God can use me, too.”
International Mission Board missionary Guy Muse got to know Garcia a few years after Garcia accepted Christ. Passionate about reaching his former Guayaquil neighborhood and others like it, Garcia contacted Muse in early 2005 to request training in church planting. He’d already started seven Bible groups.
“He was just going out on the street and winning people,” Muse said. “He kept his door open all the time. People would come in and out at all hours of the day and night, and he would minister to them. We’ve trained him and walked alongside of him. We try to support him in what he feels God wants him to do.”
Assisted by Muse’s weekly training and mentorship, the tenacity of Garcia and new believers to reach the streets has produced 150 converts and about 25 church starts that are changing the face of violence-riddled Guayaquil.
PURSUED BY GOD OF LOVE
To many former gang members throughout Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador with more than 3 million people, Garcia’s life before he met Jesus reflects their own.
Delinquent. Alcoholic. Gun carrier. Prisoner.
Left behind when his single mother moved to Venezuela, 3-year-old Garcia grew up in his uncle’s home in a Guayaquil barrio (neighborhood). Feeling abandoned and living in an area plagued with gangs, he began to channel his pain into anger. By age 8, Garcia was involved in his first gang, primarily made up of 17- and 18-year-olds.
“I was part of the children’s section of the gang,” Garcia said. “The idea is that they are formed at that age to become leaders later on. When my mother found out, she returned from Venezuela and took me back, only for me to get involved in an even worse gang there.”
The downward spiral of his life continued. By age 9, Garcia was drinking. By 13, he was in detention centers. He was involved with guns. He became an alcoholic. It only made matters worse when he found out his mother had wanted to abort him. Sinking deeper into trouble, he dropped out of high school his freshman year at age 17.
“I was hunted by the police as being one of the most dangerous, delinquent youths in the whole city,” Garcia said. “One of my objectives in life was to establish a fame, a reputation, because I needed to feel important. So when I was 17, I was put in jail.”
In jail, Garcia heard the truth about Jesus for the first time. A fellow prisoner told him how much God loved him. Although he believed Jesus could help him, Garcia wrote off the discussion and took to the streets again after his release.
“Whatever trouble I could find, I would get into it,” he said. “What I was looking for was somebody to end my pain. I was hoping somebody would find me and kill me, and I risked my life in this fashion over and over again.”
Five months after his release from prison, Garcia was surrounded by policemen during a holdup. During an exchange of gunfire, he was shot in the arm and hand. When the police officer in charge recognized Garcia, he said, “This is the Ecuadorian. This trash doesn’t deserve to live.”
Upon orders to shoot to kill, one of the policemen shot Garcia five times before he ran out of bullets. The trio of police then started kicking him.
“I felt life flowing out of me, the blood was flowing out of me,” Garcia said. “At that moment, I remembered the words of that [prisoner] in jail. He told me, ‘One day, you will need Christ. Wherever you are, only call upon His name.’ That moment had come. I didn’t feel worthy to call upon His name, but I did anyway. I said in my mind, ‘Jesus, don’t let me die without repenting first.'”
At that moment, an ambulance siren in the distance drew the policemen away. During an eight-hour surgery, Garcia’s heart stopped twice — prompting resuscitation. When he opened his eyes, he found himself handcuffed to a bed. At that moment, an elderly lady came into his room.
She began telling Garcia how much Jesus loved him. She said she was walking down the hall and heard the voice of God telling her, “Go in that room, and you’re going to find a boy handcuffed to the bed. Tell him I love him very much and that he has another chance.”
“This woman was crying, and I had never seen anybody cry over me,” Garcia said. “I became just broken up inside because God had indeed heard my cry to Him, even though I didn’t deserve it. He had mercy upon me, even though I had declared myself as His enemy.”
One year after Garcia pushed himself out of prison in a wheelchair, he decided to return to Ecuador. He hadn’t changed much from the man he was before — and Guayaquil hadn’t changed much either. After discouragement and more jail time, he found himself considering suicide. Yet his best-laid plans were not part of God’s plan for his life.
“A friend had made me a promise that he would bring me a gun at 8 p.m.,” Garcia recalled. “But Jesus came at 7:30, and He saved me. I gave my heart to Jesus. That day, Jesus freed me.”
Garcia was freed from his bondage to alcohol, nicotine, anger and bitterness. The one-time delinquent finished high school and began to work as a youth leader. Then a phone call from his pastor to attend a meeting further changed his life.
REACHING THE STREETS WITH RAP
The faces at the meeting reflected Garcia’s life story. Many of the leaders had belonged to gangs and were committed to forming a ministry to reach those they’d once considered brothers. All they needed was a connection into the culture. They settled on music.
“Music is a universal language,” Garcia said. “It communicates to youth. There are a number of youth that like reggaeton and rap. That was our entry point to working with gangs.”
They had a contest to find talented musicians in hip-hop and reggaeton, a form of Spanish-language music popular throughout Latin America.
Garcia won the contest using reggaeton-style music crafted with Christian lyrics. His first full-length CD — Army of Jesus — carries a decorative warning label: Explicito Evangelio Advertencia (Warning: Explicit Gospel Message).
Christian reggaeton has made its mark in Guayaquil. At a concert in April 2007, 200 youth accepted Christ; at another, there were 60. The youth respond to concert posters and hear music sung by people who dress like they dress and talk like they talk, but with a different, transforming message. The decisions made at the performances have led many to live different lives, as kids have escaped drug addiction, left gangs and followed Jesus.
“We’re called to be fishers of men,” Garcia said. “A good fisherman knows which bait to use. The music, the reggaeton, is the bait. Satan could use music to ruin youth, but we’re putting the gift to work for Christ. We’ve seen God work through the concerts we have.”
Garcia and his fellow singers have another goal — to impact the secular world for Jesus Christ, even breaking into mainstream media such as radio.
“Our goal is to infiltrate secular stations and take over that area that Satan has usurped,” Garcia said. “All this music promotes violence, drugs, sensuality. We want to exchange it with the message of Christ.”
Garcia works under the guidance of Muse to form house churches, which they hope will generate new leaders starting groups in other areas of town. These rising leaders are trained through Muse’s program to plant the next generation of churches. Garcia also mentors them in a reproducing tier of discipleship that Muse hopes will begin a church planting movement in Guayaquil.
“We work with the leaders and they, in turn, do the same with their people,” Muse said. “Our focus is on working with Byron. Byron’s is to work with those other kids.”
Being in a wheelchair has not slowed Garcia in his pursuit to take Jesus to the streets. His phone is constantly sounding with a hip-hop ringtone, signaling another kid calling for advice or to catch up. His door is always open to whoever needs him. He doesn’t have time to feel down or look back.
“They told me I would never walk again,” Garcia said. “I didn’t get depressed. I was actually grateful to God because I didn’t even deserve that. He sat me down so that I could run. All of it has been with a purpose. Even though I’m in a wheelchair, I’m free. Now I walk with Christ.”
Dea Davidson writes for the International Mission Board.