From the Streets to the Ambo
My name is Deacon Sergio Gonzalez. That name still sounds strange and unreal to me when people call me a deacon. It has been a little over a year since I was ordained a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois.
I am 39 years old, a father of four children and sacramentally married for 10 years. My children range from 2 years old to 22 years. Yes, you read that correctly, but I guess this is the normal reaction from people when I share stories of my life. And maybe this is why I still can’t believe I’m a deacon today. My only and best answer that I can give is, “It’s by the grace of God,” and nothing else.
When people think of ordained ministers of the Church, the first thing they probably think is they grew up in a good Catholic home, were altar servers, went to Catholic school, went to Mass every weekend and lived a life of prayer. But my life growing up was nothing like that.
I was six months old when my parents migrated to Chicago from a small town in Jalisco, Mexico. I am the oldest of four siblings, so growing up was very challenging for me. In a way, I had to grow up fast to care for my siblings, because both of my parents worked full-time.
I grew up with both of my parents. My mother bonded with us after a long day at work. I still remember when she arrived home, the smell on her clothes of oil from the factory where she worked when she would hug us.
My father was different. He was raised in a machista home and that’s the way he ran our home. He would rebuke us for wanting to be close to mom. Showing affection at home was not something that was seen or done. Being my siblings’ babysitter, I had a job to do when my parents were at work. If my job was not done perfectly, I was verbally and physically punished by my father.
While I watched my friends bond with their fathers, I grew up fearing mine. As a teenager, that fear turned into hate. I no longer feared him as I had lost all respect. Even though I grew up with a father at home, I had grown up without a father figure to guide me in life.
Street gangs were common in the neighborhood where I was raised. As a young boy, I was often captivated by the graffiti that the gangs would draw in the neighborhood. They would reach out to us kids by playing baseball in the park. The street gang gave me a sense of belonging to something. The gang felt like a big family, and I was officially initiated into the gang. From that point on, there was no turning back as my life spiraled out of control and fell deeper into the street-gang life. I began smoking pot and, later, took other hard drugs.
The gang would often rent motel rooms to party and do drugs. I remember one night we were rolling up joints and smoking pot. We had used our last rolling paper and didn’t want to go out and buy more. One thing I knew about motel rooms was that they always had a Bible inside the nightstand. I went for the Bible and began to rip out pages to use as rolling paper to roll marijuana joints. So, I can say I went from smoking the Bible to preaching the Bible.
With gang life, also came violence. We would often go to rival neighborhoods and look for a good fight. By this time, I dragged my brother into the gang. We would sometimes come home late at night very intoxicated while my mother begged us to stop that way of life. There was a time when my parents stopped repairing the front window to our house because, once the rival gangs found out where I lived, they would come and throw bricks through our windows.
During my high school years, my life was in such darkness. I would go to school to be with my friends, not to learn. I was 17 years old when I made a new friend in school. His name was Ricky.
Ricky was very much into Jesus, and the only reason he was my friend was that we both loved lowrider cars, and we would talk about them. But also, every time I would run into Ricky in the hallways, he would say things like, “God bless you today,” “God loves you,” and other churchy phrases. When Ricky would catch me after school, he tried to share Jesus with me. But everything that he would tell me would go in one ear and out the other. I didn’t need God; I was my own god.
One afternoon at school, Ricky approached me as I had just finished smoking pot in the restroom, and he began again to preach Jesus. This time I had enough of the Jesus talk. I told Ricky, using swear words, “Enough of your Jesus.” I did not want to hear it anymore.
Ricky agreed not to talk about Jesus anymore if I went to a prayer group meeting of which he was a member. So I agreed — anything to get Ricky off my back. We made plans for me to pick him up that same afternoon and go to the prayer meeting together.
I arrived at Ricky’s house that afternoon to pick him up. He was walking to my car with a big smile on his face. He came inside the car and, before heading on our way, I noticed I was on low fuel. At that moment I asked Ricky for $5 to pump gas in the car. Back in the ’90s, $5 would have given you five gallons. Ricky then said he didn’t have money to give me.
Now it was my turn to smile as I felt I had done my part in the agreement. I looked at Ricky and told him, “I guess we are not going.”
Ricky, in a determined tone, told me: “We are going to that prayer group and God is going to get us there. I have prayed for this moment and we are going.”
I looked at him like he was some crazy man and almost felt sorry for him. So we drove off to the prayer group, constantly looking at my fuel level, expecting the car to stall soon. I was upset that I had let Ricky convince me to go on with no fuel.
We made it to the prayer group. We walked inside the church, and I saw people dancing around, hands up in the air, clapping their hands. I looked at Ricky and asked them, “What did these people smoke, because I want some of that too.”
I had never seen anything like that. Ricky had taken me to a charismatic renewal prayer group. Ricky and I sat all the way in the back because I didn’t want to be a part of what was going on in there.
When all the music stopped, the speaker gave his talk, but I could not tell you what he talked about. My mind was somewhere else, and not with the teaching. Before I knew it, the prayer service had ended. I stood from my chair, looked at Ricky and asked him: “Where is your God? I thought God was going to touch my life. Let’s get out of here.”
Ricky then put his head down in defeat and told me, “Well, maybe not today, but I know someday he will.”
At that instant, an older lady walked up to welcome me. She began telling me how much God loves me. She went on to tell me that she began praying when she saw me walk inside. I looked at her like she was another crazy woman. She then said, “As I prayed for you, I don’t know why, but God is telling my heart to give you something.” She reached inside her purse and pulled out a $5 bill. There was no way for her to know that I needed $5.
At that moment, I didn’t know what to say or do. The only thing that the 17-year-old me could do was fall on the floor and begin to cry like there was no tomorrow. Something was happening to me. For the first time in my life, I was feeling the love of a father. Right there and then, I realized that the Jesus that Ricky preached to me, who died on the cross, was alive and knew my life. Jesus knew that I was broken and empty, and Jesus came to fill me with his love. It would be another 20 years, in the middle of my diaconate formation, before my father would hug me and hold me for the first time.
As I look back to that day, the very beginning of my walk with Jesus, that’s where I was called to be a deacon. My life experiences after that day was all for the preparation to be ordained a deacon: to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus, and to go back to those same streets and minister to those that need to be loved.
DEACON SERGIO GONZALEZ is a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, at St. Alexis Church in Bensenville.