The kitchen sits stocked. Racks of bread loaves stand in one corner. Shelves and cupboards are jampacked with dishes and food. Two refrigerators hum along a wall. And as Gonzalo Rico pulls out a pan to cook his dinner, he is meticulous in making sure nothing gets set out of place. Gonzalo lives in the house, but it isn’t his kitchen. He shares it with almost 20 other men.
At 25 years old, he is one of the younger ones. Standing at five feet nine inches and possessing a slightly dark complexion representative of his Mexican roots, Gonzalo maneuvers smoothly from the cupboard to the stove. Within seconds, a sizzle begins to echo in the kitchen as the chicken he is cooking starts to brown. Gonzalo’s focus hones in on the pan. He barely looks up as he shares about his hopes and dreams in life. “I want to go to culinary art school and become a chef,” he explains. “I want to open a Chinese and Japanese fusion restaurant.”
What Gonzalo says, how he says it, the fact that he’s saying it...it’s a miracle.
He takes out the browned chicken and flips a tortilla into the hot pan as his slightly mustached mouth moves into a smile. Seven years ago, his mouth couldn’t move. He became bedridden after suffering a bullet wound to the neck. The tubes running down his throat hindered his speaking ability.
Gonzalo finishes flipping the tortillas, salts and peppers the chicken, and finishes off the plate with a sprinkle of cilantro, onions, and lime juice. Two perfect, palm-sized tacos. He places the plate on the table and nimbly shifts into his seat. But eating does not ensue. First...
“Let’s pray before we start this.”
The value of prayer in Gonzalo’s life is not quantifiable. He needs it. It got him from that week in the hospital to this chair in the living room of a men’s recovery house.
recovery house. King’s Table Christian Training Center is a rehabilitation house located in Whittier, California.
After he says, “Amen,” Gonzalo starts to munch on one of his tacos. He chews a bit while looking out of the window and then says, “Let’s see, where should I begin...”
Gonzalo wore gang colors for much of his teenage years. As a young kid, he never really excelled in school but always showed up with a smile on his face. Then, the ninth grade rolled around and he smoked weed for the first time.
“I started getting high in the ninth grade and got introduced to [marijuana] and crystal meth,” Gonzalo says. “That is when I got into gangbanging and doing drugs. I ended up running away from home. I didn’t listen to my parents. And I was just rebellious, stubborn, selfish, and I wanted to live how I wanted to live. I believe there was a lot of hurt in my life.”
Gonzalo’s mother left home at a young age, and his dad worked often. He had some relatives who cared for him immensely, but they moved to Northern California when he was young. His uncles in Southern California attempted to keep an eye out for him but only so much could be done. Once the kids that introduced him to marijuana taught him how to sell it, his life changed dramatically. Within the first few months of high school, Gonzalo officially entered a gang that controlled a portion of his surrounding neighborhood.
His gang was not an organized crime syndicate. It wasn't the cash-flaunting kind rapped about in hip hop songs. Nor was it a well-oiled machine of masterminded criminals, wheeling and dealing in the millions-of-dollars.
of masterminded criminals, wheeling and dealing in the millions-of-dollars. It was a bunch of kids. But those kids were a family to each other. And because gangbanging was all they knew, that’s all they did. That meant stealing cars. Harboring and selling lethal weapons. Distributing drugs throughout the neighborhood. And of course, constantly battling over territory with other local gangs.
As a teenager, Gonzalo had already conversed with many police officers on the curbs of his city. The backseats of police cars became commonplace, while court dates rolled around at least a couple of times a year. Gonzalo even spent nine months in prison as an 18-year-old for carrying a concealed weapon and attempted automobile theft, or “G-riding” as he calls it. By all measures, he stood neck deep in the lifestyle of gangbanging and always treated his friends like they were all he had.
“I would risk my life for them,” Gonzalo remembers of his gang. “There was even one time when my friends walked up to a guy, and he pulled out a gun. And I jumped in front of them and said, ‘You know what, you will have to kill me first.’”
As that statement spills out of Gonzalo’s mouth, he isn’t proud. Standing up for friends sounds admirable. But he knows now, he didn’t stand for the right thing.
These days, Gonzalo sleeps in a bunk bed at King’s Table. The room sits jampacked with four other bunk beds, plenty of dressers, and the stern scent of guys. His room houses seven others, and the room next to it houses six more. A small garage in the backyard has been converted into a room that can potentially house another 16. All in all, King’s Table has the capacity to assist in the recovery of over 20 men at any given time.
“When they come in, we pray ‘em in. We do a screening, and we tell them what they can’t do,” Gonzalo explains. “We tell them they can’t have cell phones, no drugs, no cussing...we lay down the rules, basically. And we lay down the structure of this home. And it’s all Godly, you know.”
Gonzalo knows these rules inside and out. He has had to repeat them to many of the broken, lost, troubled, and nervous visitors that come through the door. When a new guy slowly steps into the house, they are assured that it is a safe place and a home for them as long as they need it. “Unity” remains an important word amongst the guests of the recovery home.
Gonzalo has been at the house for over two years now. One of the longest stints amongst the guests. He has seen many come and many go. Some stay for a few months and leave completely sober. And some squirm for a few days, only to flee back to the streets. They are all being asked to do things they have never had to do before. Forgive people. Respect others unconditionally. And start a relationship with God. Some simply can’t fathom doing one of those things. Let alone all of them.
But Gonzalo never loses hope. Even as he sees them strut out of the front door, he is only reminded about his journey to where he is today.
That journey to King’s Table started the moment he gained consciousness in the hospital. He can’t piece together being driven to the hospital, but his memory of the 15 minutes prior will forever be with him.
In California, especially in Southern California, a pool party can happen during any month, on any day, at any time. The weather always permits.
And on almost every Saturday afternoon in Gonzalo’s hometown, giant speakers would get wheeled out with a DJ’s set next to somebody's pool in a backyard with a lot of coolers packed with bottles of booze. On the surface, these parties may have appeared like a good time. But they weren’t. Drug use often followed a few hours of drinking, which usually welcomed a stream of drug dealers to come through.
On a random Saturday in January 2007, 18-year-old Gonzalo was one of those drug dealers. Cruising through the crowded backyard with two other members of his gang, Gonzalo spotted an unwelcomed sight: a large man sitting with friends, who all wore the same colors. A clear sign that they represented a different gang.
Gonzalo stomped straight up to them and asked a simple question.
“And I asked [him] if they gangbanged,” Gonzalo says. “And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And then I threw up my gang [hand] sign and told him where I was from. And he pulled out his gun, right in front of me. Point blank range. And I froze.”
Two things happened just seconds after the other gangbanger pulled out his gun: Gonzalo felt something pull him back and the first bullet out of the gun grazed his throat. The next three shots missed and sprayed into the fleeing crowd of partiers.
Hell broke loose. Screams pierced the afternoon air as everyone began running. Gonzalo immediately felt pain stain his chest. He rolled to his left and swiftly leapt to his feet as he sprinted to the nearest fence. After hopping over the fence into another backyard, a quick look at his blood-soaked shirt gave him only one thought.
gave him only one thought. I need to get to the hospital. So he sprinted across the backyard and jumped over another fence and onto the main street.
Once he landed on the other side, he ran to the closest person he saw, asking for a ride to the hospital as he ran. But the closest person was the wrong person. The guy was cleaning his gun before getting into his car when he looked up at a limping Gonzalo. He asked for a ride from the very guy that tried to kill him already. Immediately, the guy shot off another four bullets aimed at Gonzalo.
“I started running and as soon as I turned to where the cars were at, I heard pop-pop-pop-pop,” Gonzalo remembers. “All of the [bullets] hit the cars...it was all the Lord. I know it was all the Lord, from the beginning. It was just...God was with me.”
The shooter got in his car and peeled out. Gonzalo, now losing tons of blood, got up and looked for another ride. A group of girls were pulling out from a driveway nearby, and he ran up to them. One look at the bloody kid and they immediately pulled away, not wanting to be a part of it. Gonzalo finally decided to run over to his uncle’s house up the next block. Just then, the shooter had circled back in his car and drove down the street, this time determined to finish the job. Another set of shots flared past Gonzalo as he ducked behind some parked cars. Nothing hit. In total, 16 bullets were fired at him, and only one broke the skin just above his throat. One inch lower and he would not have survived.
Stumbling and gasping by the time he got to his uncle’s house, Gonzalo banged on the door. His uncle opened it up to see his nephew bleeding from the neck and slightly delirious. After speeding to the hospital, doctors and nurses placed Gonzalo on a bed and wheeled him into the operating room to close the wound on his throat.
close the wound on his throat.
“That is when I closed my eyes and talked to God,” Gonzalo remembers. “I said, ‘God I don’t want to die, I promise I will change my life if You give me one more chance to live.’ That's the last thing I remember praying. That is the last thing I remember doing, is praying.”
Gonzalo eventually woke up. Five days after entering, the hospital released him. The stitches on his neck healed just fine. But the emotional effects of that Saturday afternoon did not. Fury began to fill every thought that passed through Gonzalo’s head. He wanted revenge, and his mind began obsessing about retaliation.
Gonzalo broke his promise to God and went back to the streets.
This sparked a battle lasting several years within Gonzalo and within his family. Everybody who cared for him knew he needed help. His entire demeanor darkened as he often spoke about ending the strife and killing himself. He had trouble holding conversations because his mind seemed to slip in and out of the present moment. Thoughts of revenge and/or suicide speedily circled in his head, making day-to-day life nearly impossible. Finally, his uncle had had enough. After years of encouraging him to go to the men’s home and get some help, he put forth an ultimatum. Either go to King’s Table or risk losing your family.
“I remember mentioning to him that if he didn’t get help, I wasn’t his uncle anymore,” Gonzalo’s uncle, Arturo, remembers. “I told him that [if] he keeps going the way he is going, if I see him in the street, I would just look at him as a stranger. It was a really difficult thing for me to say.”
Difficult, yes. But absolutely necessary. Seeing the pain and seriousness in his uncle’s eyes woke Gonzalo up. He suddenly realized how much his actions devastated his family.
Two days later, Gonzalo called his uncle and said that he was ready to get help. He wasn’t willing to lose his family. His uncle picked him up and they made the trip to the recovery home.
Gonzalo always possessed an understanding of God. Even at the darkest points of his life, he wanted to choose a life with God instead of the tormented world he was living in. At one point, he even made a decision to follow Jesus at a baseball stadium rally with thousands of other kids. And anytime he went to jail, he pleaded with God to get him out.
But he always went back to his gang.
It wasn’t until Gonzalo entered the men’s home and was given an opportunity he never had before. King’s Table became more than a safe haven for Gonzalo. It became a sanctuary, a school, a brotherhood, and a launching pad. He had time to himself in a place not threatened by gang activity. King’s Table gave him a chance to really converse with Jesus. Before Gonzalo entered the home, he saw God as an emergency valve. Someone that helps him when he needs it. But after seeing other men go through their recovery, Gonzalo started to approach Him differently.
Gonzalo entered a process with God. He constantly battled with the idea of not going back to the streets. Like any relationship, he had up’s and down’s. But Gonzalo kept going back to God and in doing so, he began to really see how much God loved him. Gonzalo started to trust God. And if depression or anxiety came, God simply told Gonzalo to pray.
Gonzalo hasn’t stopped praying since.
“Even though I didn’t keep my promises with Him, He was faithful,” Gonzalo admits. “He didn’t let me die. He knew I wasn’t going to keep my promise right away. He knows everything. There is no [timeline] with God. He knows from the beginning to the end...God had a plan for my life.”
He also attributes his radical transformation to not only what happened at the house, but to those that prayed for him from the first sign of trouble up until now. His dad, step-mom, aunts, uncles, and grandparents were vital.
“I truly believe I had my family, and many people, praying for me,” Gonzalo remembers. “Everyday, I know they prayed for me everyday. Thank God that He has interceders and people that stand in the gap. He knew I was going to be saved, and He let me go through it.”
Gonzalo now sees people in a completely different way. He used to hate people because they lived on the wrong street or wore the wrong colors. Now, however, Gonzalo sees people as brothers and sisters. He knows that if he, with his blood spattered history, can have a day-to-day, constantly conversing type of relationship with God, then anyone can. Which explains why he calls people whom he barely knows “brother” and “sister”: he believes they are all God’s children.
He also sees himself differently. Gonzalo will eagerly show people his old I.D. to compare the picture to what he looks like now. They are completely different people. The old picture shows an eerily thin face with sunken eyes and a sharp scowl. His face today almost always appears smiley. “Praise God,” he says after people gawk at the difference from then and now. Gonzalo’s identity resides in who he is today. His past doesn’t affect him now. If it did, Gonzalo may not be at the table, sharing about his journey withGod.
The best understanding of where Gonzalo is now versus two years ago is from those who witnessed it firsthand. Manuel is Gonzalo’s nino, or godparent. He struggled through Gonzalo’s most difficult teenage years. And when asked about what it is like to listen to Gonzalo talk now, he barely gets any words out. Emotions choke him up.
“I...I am...I am just in awe of God,” Manuel says through tears. “I am getting emotional because it is one of those things that makes a person say, ‘God, You are so phenomenal and so real.’ To see God work so powerfully in someone’s life, like Gonzalo...and your just like, ‘wow.’”
Pastor Joey, the director of King's Table, watched Gonzalo walk through the recovery home's doors for the first time.
“His development, drive, and zeal he has for the Lord has come through prayer,” Pastor Joey says. “It was that intimate time with God where He really made [Gonzalo] unique.”
A lot has changed for Gonzalo over the years. But only one thing stayed the same. God was always ready and waiting for His son to come home.
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