It takes one to know one — a person who understands the heart of a gang member. An individual who has walked — and sometimes run with fear — in the shoes of a homie.
That's why F.I.R.M.E. founder and program director Jesse Campos can empathize with young people caught up in the gang lifestyle. In the late 1980's, he jumped into the scene feet-first and only stepped away in the mid-90's when a Divine encounter changed his life.
Now with Bible college behind him, and years of experience working in youth outreach through M.A.D., Jubilee Youth Ranch and Teen Challenge, 40 year-old Jesse is walking a slightly different purpose-driven path. His passion is focused on helping gang members transition to a better life, leaving drugs, alcohol and prostitution behind through education, mentoring and faith — the same faith that saved Jesse's life years ago.
"It's sort of a spiritual drive-by," smiled Jesse, who often goes by Pastor Jesse, as we talked one afternoon.
When his cell phone rang, our conversation paused. A mother needed intervention for her young son whom she suspected was into gang activity. This call was only one of many Pastor Jesse typically receives during the week.
He spoke of 40 active gangs in the Tri-Cities and Benton/Franklin counties, where a conservative estimate is 1,300 documented gang members. And according to the F.I.R.M.E. website, the National Gang Assessment reports "there are approximately 300 active street gangs in Washington state, with over 15,000 active members."
When Pastor Jesse mentioned California and how Washington is close behind in the number of gang related drive-by shootings, my thoughts turned to Montebello, Calif., where I grew up. In the 1960's it was much like the Tri-Cities, a family-friendly community with safe streets and parks. But when I traveled through this town a few years ago, stopping briefly at my childhood church, I was shocked to find it surrounded by chain link fence and razor wire.
Time and gang-related activity may have changed the face of my hometown, but Pastor Jesse believes if our community gets involved now, then we can preserve the quality of life we enjoy here. It's about influencing one life at a time.
From Jesse Campos' personal experience so many years ago, he knows a tough gang member can change. He understands their heart — and sees hope.