It was a second chance for both of them.
As Miguel Mendez, a former Miami gang leader, stood on the wooden stage, his eyes sparkled with delight as he grabbed the microphone. He introduced 7-year-old Jose Gonzalez, who would soon help him raffle out one of six donated bikes at his annual Second Chance Youth Outreach toy drive on Saturday.
Jose smiled profusely as he was handed the lime green bicycle to give away.
“God gave me a second chance, and God gave Jose a second chance too, healing him of his cancer, a cancer he had his whole life,” Mendez said, his hands lifted high. “Hallelujah.”
Mendez, 40, is the founder of annual Second Chance Youth Outreach, a faith-based non-profit that aims to “provide supportive housing for troubled youth who are heading down a destructive path.”
Mendez is also ex-gang leader. The man with the troubled history sees it as an opportunity to triumph.
“Me and many of the team members come from similar backgrounds, and so we use our knowledge and experiences to help those families who are struggling,” Mendez said. “We hope in offering our support and resources that it will provide a second chance for families.”
His organization, along with his Medley church, Cathedral of Faith, held their annual toy drive on Saturday in Hialeah. They partnered with other area churches, as well as with members of Doral police, Miami Beach police, Hialeah police, the Hialeah Fire Department and the Army Reserves.
More than 150 kids attended the event, where cops and ex-gang members passed out toys.
Mario Forte, pastor of Cathedral of Faith, used to be a recruiter for Mendez’s rival gang in the 80s. Now Forte leads Mendez in ministry.
“It’s a strange combination, I know, but sometimes these backgrounds come together and something beautiful happens,” said Doral Sgt. Enrique Mulet, who also attends the Medley church.
Both men were shaped by the very culture they try to steer the young people from.
But the cocaine-addict-turned-pastor isn’t ashamed of his past. Forte, 47, said it has empowered him reach the people of some of Miami-Dade’s poorest neighborhoods for almost three decades.
In the 90s, he lead dozens in a circle outside an old Allapattah warehouse, to “preach the truth.” Other times, his preaching approach involved ping pong and foosball games at his warehouse that he converted into a refuge center. There, he provided a needed outlet for those seeking a way out of drugs and gang life, a gathering place where they can stay off the streets and find friends, read a bible or learn job hunting skills.
“Our ministry started at midnight,” he said.
Forte’s approach to gathering the gangs’ youth was widely controversial, as he tried to reach a market most churches couldn’t reach. He knew their salutes and symbols, and respected them, giving him the credibility he needed to discuss the lives of crime, drugs and violence they were trapped in.
Police got involved, warning the young preacher that his ways were dangerous. But Forte refused to stop preaching to the gang members. When police started to raid his gatherings, he changed his tactics, starting to rotate where he would hold his faith groups.
The once-struggling ministry is now a booming place of worship in Medley, with the bulk of the members recruited personally by Forte.
“They went from gangs to God,” Forte said, smiling, recalling his own journey.
Forte ran away from his Little Havana home at the age of 10. He returned only after police caught him. Six months later, he tried running away again, this time with $3,000 from his parents’ savings. His father caught him at the bus stop before he could get away.
At 12, Forte joined his first gang in Hialeah. The gang was a mostly Hispanic group that sold drugs, stole money and robbed homes, sharing the loot among themselves.
But when he turned 16, gang life lost its allure. Although a gang recruiter by then, Forte still fell prey to fellow members who stole his take of a $12,000 robbery.
“I saw the betrayal, “ says Forte, who to this day won’t reveal the name of this Hialeah gang for fear of retribution. “It made me see that I was in something that wasn’t real.”
Alienated from his family, and without a spiritual center, Forte turned to drugs and developed a daily cocaine habit. Then, his girlfriend — who is now his wife — begged him to change his ways, encouraging him to embrace her Christian faith instead.
“I was too lost, “ Forte says, “But I prayed anyway.”
“God, if you could help me to change, “ he prayed, “I promise I will tell young people about you.”
And so he did. And still does three decade later.
Today, Forte works closely with Mendez, helping him with his Second Chance Youth Outreach. One of its initiatives is to “educate parents so that they are aware of the realities of the current teen culture and what they are facing,” according to Mendez.
“Through dramatic live presentations, video skits, literature dealing with substance abuse, pregnancy and troubled youth, our aim is to educate each parent that attends our classes so that they leave encouraged and able to help their child,” he said.
He added that “so many of our youth who come from a broken background are lacking the guidance needed to succeed in life. We are working on our first goal which is to provide a center where preteens and teens can be encouraged. By offering mentoring programs, after school activities and educational events at the center we will motivate and keep our kids off the streets.”
On Christmas Eve, someone unexpectedly donated eight more bikes to Mendez.
“He just brought me eight more and told me to find eight kids to give it to,” he said, flooded with excitement.
That’s when Mendez knew just who would get one: 7-year-old Jose.
“Since he didn’t win one on Saturday, but helped me raffle one out, I know he will be so happy,” Mendez said of the young cancer survivor. “I can’t wait to see the smile on his face.”
So he got in his car to make the special delivery.
Follow @MoniqueOMadan on Twitter.