Former gang leader uses special vehicle to reach community


A gang leader who enjoyed selling drugs as much as using them, Cisco Mendez might as well have had frequent flier bonus points for his jailhouse staycations. Since the age of 12, Mendez spent most of his life in and out of prison as he fed a violent childhood—his father taking his own life after two unsuccessful tries at killing the young boy—with more violence and substance abuse.

"When I got out I didn't have nobody or nothing," Mendez said of his release three years ago. "Up to this day I still don't have much."

It was probably no surprise to anyone then when Mendez ended up back inside the Mid City Division of the San Diego Police Department. This time, though, he walked through the front doors uncuffed.

A jailhouse conversion changed his heart in a way street cred and drugs could not. While housed at a county jail awaiting transfer, another inmate asked Mendez if he was a Christian and if he knew Jesus. Mendez said he did.

"I know Jesus," Mendez told the man. "I see him hanging up outside the churches."

The inmate kept pressing in.

"That's not Jesus," he said. "Jesus is alive. Jesus is alive."

Quite literally a captive audience, Mendez listened to the man until the stranger was transferred to another facility. Mendez was left with only the echo of the inmate's words and the Bible he left in his cell.

"I kept reading it, reading it, reading it. Then on the third day it was like a shot of cocaine," he said of his conversion experience. "I thank God and now God put this on me."

"This" is a heart to minister in the same streets he once trolled for evil. The vessel is the Lowrider Gospel Fest, an event held each fall.

The concept, Mendez said, came in the form of a dream in which God issued a clear mandate to him to use lowriders to reach his community.

"This is what you are going to do for me," he recalled God telling him.

So Mendez walked from the garage where he was living to the Mid City police division. He asked to speak to someone about his plan and was surprised by the response.

"We've been waiting for this," one of the officers told Mendez.

By the time he left the station, he had a planning meeting set for the next day and a ride home.

"That was the first time I rode in the police car legally," the former gang member said.

"God has given us the San Diego Police Department to collaborate. That in itself is a miracle, plus the seed the Lord is planting in the whole community of City Heights."

Mendez said the police's backing provided a vital link in pushing forward with an unproven event coordinated by an ex-con.

"It's like He was saying, 'I'm giving these guys credibility.' He already knew people were going to be talking about it (Mendez's background)."

God's provision
Since the first event three years ago, a variety of community leaders, residents and churches have rallied to provide support for the event, which includes free food, entertainment, access to community resources and food and clothing distribution.

"The first one, it was a bomb," he said. "We didn't have a budget, we didn't have an office and we didn't have a penny, but God provided, and it was awesome.

"He's doing what He's been doing from the beginning of time, and that is touching the lives of people."

Car clubs from throughout the region, across the state and into Arizona also participate.

"When they come to GospelFest the Lord is ministering to them," he said. "They are used to car shows where women are walking around half naked."

The success has prompted officials from other neighborhoods to approach Mendez about providing a similar event in their communities. Mendez said he's carefully praying before moving forward.

But in the meantime, weekly planning meetings will begin shortly as a variety of teams tackle the massive logistics needed to provide a safe environment for the community. Volunteers are welcome, but Mendez admits he keeps a tight rein on the workers, requiring everyone to undergo specialized training that emphasizes a spirit of humility and an authentic heart of service.

Retraining the servants
Because of the suspicious, street-wise culture of those he's trying to reach, Mendez said traditional church approaches don't generally work. Several times local groups have emerged trying to thrust their ideas into the mix without a clear understanding of those Mendez is trying to serve.

"Not once did they ask me what I needed," he said. "The people we are trying to reach are tired. They are tired of the systematic stuff. They want to feel that tangible love within you."

He admits challenging pastors who have popped in to training meetings, sometimes, he said, waving their credentials. Such was the case of a pastor who had been to Africa to preach.

"I told him with all due respect pastor, I need help cleaning the bathrooms," Mendez said he responded. "Jesus gave us the prime example by washing the feet of the disciples.

"I was really hard and raw with the pastors. I told them I'm not here to play games, I'm not here to play politics and I'm not here to play church. I'm here with the heart of the gospel and I'm here to hit it raw like Christ did."

Others, he said, don't seem to comprehend the gritty, 24-hour-nature of ministering on the streets.

"Sometimes I can't get pastors on the phone," he said. "Most of the killing, drive-by shootings, overdoses—and most of the rapes—happen after 5 p.m., after the pastors turn off their cell phones and go home."

Privileged to serve
It's in those moments where Mendez seems to shine. When he's not working on event details, he's answering calls from his "homeboys." Despite having only a used bicycle he found abandoned in a canyon, Mendez arranges to meet gang members as they are released from jail. He helps to place people into rehab. He kneels with them and prays, whether park playgrounds, asphalt or concrete.

Everything he's ever needed in the ministry the Lord has provided, including people with website and social networking skills. Mendez, who shares a small apartment with a roommate, does not own a computer.

"I'm overwhelmed with what God is doing," the former inmate said. "I'm a simple man."

A simple man passionate about a simple message.

"He's giving you the privilege of serving His people," Mendez said. "Our heart is that as we do the ministry out there they (recipients) would see themselves as God sees them, as a trophy, as a gem."

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