Joel Stigale grew up in South Florida’s Perrine and Plantation neighborhoods, aware of sporadic crime and gang violence outside his door. Raised by missionaries, and with an ear attuned to the rough and tumble world of hip-hop, he embarked on a mission of positivity.
In 2001, Stigale founded Catalyst Miami, now Catalyst Hip-Hop, in Perrine. The Miami Youth for Christ program takes Christian doctrine and outreach services from their traditional confines to clubs, parking lots and the city streets where youth, some at-risk, might benefit.
“A lot of these guys are dealing with society as they’ve had to deal with it. They don’t have any hope. They don’t have anybody they can really trust,” Stigale told the Miami Herald in 2009 as his flock of rappers, graffiti artists, breakdancers and DJs gathered at First Presbyterian Church of Miami Springs, one of the host sites for the Saturday night, biweekly Catalyst events in Miami-Dade and Broward.
“They’re looking for an escape,” the tattooed director continued. “For many of them that escape is usually some sort of drug or alcohol abuse, and they end up through breakdance or through painting getting into a better frame of life as far as taking care of themselves.”
Stigale’s life came to an end on Aug. 14 at age 41 of complications from a November double-lung transplant that was done soon after he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. But his mission will move forward, Bonnie Rodriguez, Miami Youth for Christ executive director, said in his obituary.
“In honor of our beloved Joel, Miami Youth for Christ and Catalyst Hip-Hop are moving forward with plans to purchase a building in the Hialeah area where kids can congregate in a safe place, and where they can develop their gifts and talents that God has given them to reach the lost and abandoned in the hip-hop culture.”
Stigale was born in Plantation on Nov. 6, 1974, to a conservative Christian family, his mother Joann Stigale said. He graduated from Plantation High School and worked for the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County where he met with teenagers and formed a youth club focused on the gospel, a precursor to Catalyst Hip-Hop.
As a teen, he often accompanied his father Paul, who died in 1990, to religious meetings. He loved to bring along books, especially history books. Reading and spreading a healing message became important to Stigale.
“When we lived in Perrine, it was a diverse community … and Joel was comfortable in that environment. He liked rap music, and he developed many friendships with like-minded kids,” his mother said. Stigale didn’t necessarily impose Christianity and did not frown on some of the blue moves and language in hip-hop culture as he provided an outlet for the talents of his young followers.
“Ninety percent of the kids that come out to Catalyst are people that have probably never gone to church,” Stigale told the Herald in 2005.
“Catalyst Hip-Hop has impacted me in the most dramatic way,” Kevin Sanchez, a Catalyst alumni, said in Stigale’s obituary. “I came from a lifestyle of selling drugs and basically just living my life day by day, not really looking towards the future, and not caring about my talent, but Catalyst Hip-Hop gave me an outlet.”
Today, Sanchez is one of the program’s ministry leaders.
Said Loyal Thurman, National Youth for Christ Director of Unified Underground: “Joel was one of the most effective underground urban youth ministers I have ever had the privilege of knowing. His legacy is long and deep, and is marked by hundreds of youth in the hip-hop culture whose hopeless lives were changed forever by Joel’s exemplary leadership and authentic spiritual guidance.”
In addition to his mother, Stigale is survived by his wife Vivian and his stepdaughter Havanna. Memorial services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, at Christ Fellowship, 500 NE First Ave., Miami. Donations in Stigale’s name can be made to Miami Youth for Christ Catalyst Hip-Hop Youth Building, 9350 SW 79th Ave., Miami, Florida, 33156.