LOS ANGELES – Pastor Pete Bradford, a reformed “dope fiend” from San Diego, went out into the streets of Boyle Heights looking for gang members to pray over. Finding them wasn’t hard.
It was the early 1990s, the era of “Boyz n the Hood” and “Colors” and gangsta rap. Everything about gang life in Los Angeles was loud: the jagged slashes of graffiti, the thrum of police helicopters, the percussion of gun blasts.
Bradford, who said God had called him to L.A.’s Eastside, opened the Boyle Heights Christian Center in a low-slung building on 1st Street. The Pentecostal church became known as a house of worship for gang members, drug addicts and lost souls.
“It was not unusual to hear gunshots every day,” recalled Bradford, 66, who decided to retire last spring when Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to control his body. “We had windows shot out. They weren’t shooting at us. They were shooting at each other.”
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Now, the loudest sound isn’t gunshots but the insistent, clattering roar of the Gold Line train that sometimes fuzzes out the sermons of Bradford’s young successor, Joey Oquendo. The streets where gang members once prowled are dotted with cafes, wine bars, community theaters, art galleries and bookstores.
On a recent morning, Oquendo hoisted drywall sheets into the church. Mounds of chipped wall lay beneath exposed brick. Black plastic bags covered ceiling vents. The pulpit was bounded by the 2-by-4 skeletons of walls laid bare.
The gang members who once made up the bulk of the parish are mostly gone, leaving a congregation that can number fewer than 20. Some of the old-timers thought the 29-year-old Oquendo – who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents but grew up in San Bernardino – too young, too inexperienced, not battle-hardened enough.
Oquendo said if they want to come back, he’ll welcome them. But the church will be different, because the neighborhood is different.
“There’s members who have been here forever, but in essence, a new church is starting,” Oquendo said. “Gang members want better things too. But because of who I am, and because of who my members are, we’re going to get more of the post-gang era.”
When the reconstruction of the church is finished, Oquendo said, even the name won’t be the same.
Few neighborhoods influenced the way that gang members look, act and talk from New Mexico to El Salvador as much as the Eastside neighborhoods that include Boyle Heights. Some of the gangs went back to the Great Depression.
Even now, 34 gangs are squeezed into the 15-square-mile Hollenbeck area largely made up of Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno. But when Bradford came to Boyle Heights, L.A.’s gangs were especially bold.
In each of the three years after Bradford arrived in 1990, there were more than 2,000 homicides in L.A. County. In 1992, the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division, which patrols Boyle Heights, had 86 killings, most of them gang-related. Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, called the years from 1988 to 1998 “the decade of death.”
“One summer, someone died like for a month straight, every weekend,” said Charles Williams, 36, a drummer in the church band who joined when he was 15. “You couldn’t play basketball because they were shooting at the backboards.”
When Oquendo arrived, in 2013, L.A. County had 592 homicides, about a quarter as many as when Bradford began. Hollenbeck recorded just 14 homicides last year – a sharper decrease than the rest of the county.
“The reputation of Boyle Heights to me was pretty much ‘American Me,’ you know, ‘Blood In, Blood Out,’ ” Oquendo said, referring to movies about Eastside street gangs. “But gang activity has died down a lot, not just in L.A. and Boyle Heights, but across the nation.”
After he was busted for drug possession in the late 1960s, Bradford was a fugitive for seven years, living in a hippie colony in Northern California and a tepee in New Mexico.
He became a minister and by the late 1980s was drawn to the stories of the gang violence in L.A. He arrived in a neighborhood dominated by housing projects and four gangs warring in close proximity.
Gang members at the time didn’t worry about so-called gang enhancements that levied tougher penalties for even basic crimes if someone was on a gang list. Proudly proclaiming gang fealty was the norm.
Bradford met Mike Garcia, now 69 and a retired gang member, who became his guide to the neighborhood’s wild side.
With Garcia’s help, he opened the back of the church as a gym, which attracted members of one gang and then others. Many joined the church.
“He would read you a Scripture from the Bible, and from there he would run with that Scripture into the streets, and related it to what he went through and what a lot of the guys went through,” Garcia said.
Bradford said he could relate to the men.
“I had been a bit of a criminal myself,” he said with a chuckle. “I believe they knew I was for real. I believe that was the big difference. … If you don’t love those people, then you’re wasting your time and theirs.”