LONG BEACH, Calif. Hungry from fasting, dressed in business suits, and ready to hear from their ministry's founder, a small roomfull of men wait for their marching orders on a recent Friday night.
As members of the Blockbusters ministry, they start the evening at the Youth Action for Christ office with prayer, Bible study, and a stirring message from Pastor Granderson Wright. Their mission for more than 25 years has been the same oneto reach gang members and anyone else they come across later in the evening on the streets of Long Beach.
Their message is salvation through Jesus Christ.
"The Bible teaches us that we are to be soldiers," Wright, also known as the Street Preacher, said. "We teach a soldier mentality. We are dealing with some of the most notorious gangs."
Wright, who has been preaching in the neighborhoods and cities of Los Angeles County for more than 27 years, believes that more churches should encourage their members to "go out into the streets" to show Christ's love and extinguish gang violence.
"You can't win a war with the soldiers inside the barracks. Somebody has got to go out on the battlefield," he said. "If just three churches in every city in America were doing what we are doing, you would be able to walk (safely) in any city."
Before piling into the ministry's vans, Wright said he wants to make sure everyone is prepared to go to Long Beach's "hot spots," places where there have been reports of gang activity.
"We pray. We stir up the Spirit. It's like stirring up a pack of horses. We don't fear anything but God," he said.
The Blockbusters conclude their half-hour meeting before hitting the streets by singing a Gospel song with the lyrics: Every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess Jesus Christ is Lord.
Wright rides in the lead van, or Angel, as the group likes to call their blue and white vans equipped with loudspeakers. On this evening, he broadcasts his message to people on sidewalks on only a few occasions. He is careful not to be a nuisance, but determined to announce Scripture to the people of the streets.
"We go here because we love them, not because we fear them," he said. "We try to be wise and discreet."
Wright's story of how he founded the street-witnessing ministry is documented in his book, "Beneath the EarthBeyond the Stars."
"His road has not been easy," as the book's introduction states, and engaging with gangs on the streets has not always been easy, either.
From quiet to frantic
Sometimes a hot spot becomes eerily quiet as the vans drive through the area. There are no gang members to be found and, Wright said, it's as if the devil has warned them.
There are other times when the Blockbusters have come in between rival gangs at critical moments. A few years ago, the group was tipped off about a possible confrontation. They went to the location and hid their vans. As a gang wearing raincoats and armed with guns came near, the Blockbusters jumped out of their vans and stood their ground, Wright said.
"As they approached and walked directly at us, from about 50 feet, they were ready to pull the trigger, but they turned and ran away," he said. "There was no reason for them to run. We believe strongly that God intervened," he said.
No one from the ministry group has ever been hurt. However, on one occasion, Wright said a man pointed a gun at him from close range. Wright said he "called out in the name of Jesus" and the man dropped the gun.
Several years ago an area of Long BeachSummit Street near Santa Fe Avenuewas notorious for gang activity. It was an area, Wright said, that even police officers feared.
As a result of the Blockbusters intervention, the street pastor said residents in the area no longer felt threatened to venture outside. Some local police officers have also developed a relationship with ministry members after they said they have witnessed a dramatic change in the neighborhood.
"They recognized that we have a power they don't have," Wright said. "They saw that we were making their jobs easy."
On this night, since the suspected hot spot was quiet, the group decides to park the vans at a liquor store and pass out Christian tracts. With big smiles on their faces the men talk to a few store customers, engage in long discussions with a couple of willing men, and end up praying with more than a few.
Carroll Wassom, 70, has been with Youth Action for Christ and the Blockbusters for more than 20 years. He said he feels led to go on the streets.
"It's a requirement for Christ that we go out on the streets," Wassom said. "If you want a relationship with God, the first thing you got to do is do what He wants you to do."
It doesn't matter to Wassom whether the person he is witnessing to is a gang member or not.
"It depends on how much that person needs Christ," he said. "The whole emphasis is on saving souls.
"Everybody needs Christ. Nobody is exempt. It doesn't matter what gender they are or nationality. You can do anything you want when you are alive, but you better be in Christ when you die."
Information about Youth Action for Christ and Blockbusters can be found at youthactionforchrist.com or by calling (310) 638-3230.