Following the death of two young men killed in gang-related shootings, stunned residents responded with a peace march to stand against gang violence. As the crowd paused for a moment of silence, a former gang member had time to thank God for rescuing him—and 14 members of his family—out of that culture.
"If I did not meet Christ, I would be serving life in jail, or I would be dead," said Gilbert Gonzalez, 28. "When you're in that lifestyle, your role models are people who are drug dealers and killers, like Al Capone or people in the mafia."
From age 16 to 21, Gonzalez lived a life of drug and alcohol addiction, violence and running from police. His mother and uncles, aunts, cousins and siblings belonged to the King Cobra gang, which originated in California. A move to Springdale meant a new home, but the same old lifestyle.
"We became the second-generation gang members," Gonzalez said.
Finally, Gonzalez had had enough. After a second knife attack, a drive to the hospital to rescue a close family member from a drug overdose, a weariness in having to fight everywhere he went and his drug and alcohol addiction, he had a desire to do what few do—get out of the gang.
In 2013, he and his then-girlfriend and future wife Karen went to church. Two weeks after she got baptized, he got baptized. God then gave him a burden for his family. First, his mother became a Christian and then his father. His older brother Robert, however, would not give up so easily.
"Growing up, I was influenced by gangs and by drugs (the complete opposite of what we are now)," said Robert, 30. "Then my brother Gilbert—the worst of us—had changed. I saw him being different. He kept talking about Jesus. I said, 'I don't want to hear that.' For a couple of months, we did not even talk." Robert went to church eventually, he said, just to get his brother, his mom and dad off his back. He accepted Christ. "Gilbert kept on me," he said, "and I'm glad he did."
Today, the four Gonzalez brothers and their wives, two of Robert's children, their sister and her boyfriend are members of First Baptist Church in Fayetteville.
For years—except this past summer when three of the brothers went on an international mission trip—the Gonzalez family has replaced its weekly Saturday night beer parties with Bible study.
During an August Bible study, the family discussed the Great Commission at Robert's house in Springdale.
Anthony Gonzalez, 27, a rapper who is working on a Christian CD, spoke about being on stage at a Bible camp in Ecuador.
"God gave me the opportunity to rap in front of 200 or more people; God gave me the confidence," he said. "It was an awesome experience to rap about the Gospel."
After the Bible study, Anthony's sister-in-law said God worked on the Gonzalez family as far back as 2009 from both inside prison walls—through the prayers of her incarcerated father—as well as outside prison walls—through the example and witness of Gilbert and Karen.
Sitting to the left of her father, the sister-in-law translated her father's testimony, "The first day I arrived in prison they talked about God," he said. "I kept going to gatherings of believers, and two weeks later I accepted Jesus."
While serving his five-year sentence, he had a mission from God—to pray for the Gonzalez family and to witness to them after he got out of prison. He "worried" about them. "Before I went to prison, none of the Gonzalez family were Christians." But, by the time he had his physical freedom (two years ago), the Gonzalez family had their spiritual freedom.
Today, the King Cobra gang remains active in California but not in Springdale because, "Now everyone is a believer."
Lisa Falknor is the northwest Arkansas correspondent for the Arkansas Baptist News (http://www.arkansasbaptist.org/).