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Love Them Anyway: Ignite Passion, Find Purpose, and Experience Fulfillment by Changing How You See People

Love Them Anyway: Ignite Passion, Find Purpose, and Experience Fulfillment by Changing How You See People

by Choco de Jesús


Learn More | Meet Choco de Jesús
C H A P T E R 1

FENCES AND GATES

Before May 25, 2020, black leaders could list dozens of
incidents when the police killed black men—but this
one was different. It must have been the fact that it was so
visible and agonizingly slow and the response seemed so
callous. The nation and the world watched as a Minneapolis
police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck
for more than eight minutes. Protests started the next day,
and they lasted for weeks, turning violent in some cities. I
know something about the cause and the devastation of riots
because I’ve experienced one.

Back in the early 1970s, when I was growing up in
Humboldt Park, a Puerto Rican community in Chicago, fear
and hate hung in the air. My neighborhood was labeled
the worst in the nation, and deservedly so. Different gangs
claimed each corner of the park and the streets beyond.
One of my brothers led one of the gangs, so our family was
deeply immersed in the atmosphere of crime, violence, fear,
and hatred.

I was eight years old when my father abandoned our family
in 1972. My mom then had to look after her five sons and a
daughter, including me, the youngest of the six. I struggled
in school; I failed third grade because I couldn’t read. With
no father, no Jesus, and no future, it seemed that things
couldn’t get worse, but they did.

Five years later, just after the Puerto Rican Day Parade
in Humboldt Park on June 4, 1977, gang warfare erupted
between the Latin Kings and the Spanish Cobras. When
the police arrived, they opened fire. At the time, the department
was almost entirely white. A police sergeant killed two
Latino men, and rumors circulated that they were shot in the
back. Tension escalated. When police tried to close the park,
they “were met with a barrage of bricks, bottles, stones, sticks
and chairs. But Hispanic witnesses charged that policemen
stormed the park with nightsticks and attacked many picnickers,
including families with children,”1 according to a
local news report.

Immediately, violence broke out. The gangs—often at
each other’s throats—found a common enemy in the police,
and resistance united them. Rioters threw Molotov cocktails,
bottles, rocks, and anything else they could find. The hatred
wasn’t one-sided: some observed a Chicago cop lighting a
Puerto Rican flag on fire, then waving it high in the air
before dropping the flaming flag and stomping on it. Of the
three thousand people involved in the riot, 116 were injured
and 119 were arrested. In addition, thirty-eight police officers
were hurt.2

The riots lasted a day and a half. Police cars were torched,
and paddy wagons were overturned. When the police pushed
people out of one part of the park, they gathered in another
place with even more anger.

I was right in the middle of it all. This was our neighborhood,
and these were our people. I was just a boy, thirteen at
the time. Friends gave me the nickname “Choco”—because I
loved chocolate so much—that has stuck to this day. But back
then, I roamed the streets with everyone else. I remember
wandering through the streets in disbelief as I watched the
bloodshed and saw the rage in people’s eyes. My big brothers
were nearby, so I wasn’t afraid. I knew they’d protect me.

During the riot, the streets were in chaos. Store owners
locked their doors, but looters broke windows, climbed
through the broken glass, and seized anything and everything
they could. I watched people stream in and out of a
small grocery store at the corner of Division and California
Streets. They stole cases and armloads of things. What they
were doing looked so normal that I stepped through the
broken glass of the front door and walked over to the display
cooler. I opened the refrigerator and took a bottle of
soda—just one bottle—and closed the glass door. (I may
have been a thief, but at least I closed the door just like my
mom taught me.)

I had walked only a few steps down Division Street when
I sensed a voice saying, “Put it back.” At the time, I had no
grasp of anything spiritual in my life, but later I understood
that it was the Holy Spirit speaking to me.

I stood still on the sidewalk wondering what to do. Looters
were chaotically running all around me with boxes of food
and cases of drinks, but something propelled me to turn on
my heels, walk back through the shattered front door of the
store, dodge more people running in and out, and put the
bottle of soda on the shelf, right where I found it. (And of
course, I closed the refrigerator door before I walked out.)

At that moment, I wondered what was wrong with me.
How could all these rioters feel happy and excited about
stealing lots of stuff but I didn’t feel good about taking one
bottle of soda?

Back on Division Street the noise was deafening: sirens
screamed, people yelled, and cars screeched their tires in a
mad rush to get somewhere fast. But where could I go? I had
no idea. I felt confused. This was my community. These were
my people. We were all outraged at the injustice of the police
action, but I couldn’t make it all fit together.

On the third day, the police finally got control of the situation,
and the riot subsided. When things had calmed down,
I walked through the neighborhood. Smoke from burning
cars and houses filled the air. I felt tremendous sadness and
anger. None of this needed to happen. The scars from the
fires and destruction took time to heal, but the resentment
against the police lasted much longer.

One year later, the mayor offered to hire thousands of
young people during the summer break to clean the streets
of Chicago. The three-month program was the city’s only
specific response to the Humboldt Park riots and viewed as a
way to give us something to do while we were out of school
and make the city look nicer.

The mayor and a commission, who’d listened to the
demands of the Puerto Rican community for summer
employment, allocated $471,000 to fund these community
service jobs.3 The rules were that each person had to be at
least fifteen years old. I was only fourteen at the time, but I
applied anyway because I needed the money.

When I got my assignment, I was directed to meet with a
supervisor and other kids at an Assembly of God church in
our community. I thought I was going to be cleaning streets
or a playground, but instead I was hired to help with their
Vacation Bible School. (Believe me, I didn’t know what I was
getting into. I had no idea what VBS was!)

Day after day and week after week, when I arrived each
morning, I saw young people praying and singing together. I
saw a different countenance on their faces: instead of hatred,
I saw love; instead of fear, I saw joy. I was fascinated. I’d
never been around people like this, so I sat in the back and
soaked it all in.

In August, I asked the supervisor to tell me more about
what these kids were doing each morning. He smiled and
said, “They’re praying to Jesus.”

He must have noticed that I was interested because he
asked me, “Do you know Jesus?” I shrugged, so he asked
another pertinent question: “Do you want to know Him?”

“Sure,” I replied. I wanted what those kids had.
He called the other kids to come over. He told them I
wanted to know Jesus, and he asked them to form a circle
around me.

Well, that wasn’t going to happen! A circle was gang language,
not love language. Gangs put people in the middle
of a circle as part of their initiation and then give them a
beatdown. I didn’t want that kind of initiation to Christ!
They convinced me that no one was going to hit me, so I let
them gather around me. They told me to close my eyes, but
I wasn’t going to do that. Then I heard them pray for me,
prompting me to pray, “God, if You exist, change my life.” I
began attending that little church with the friends I’d met at
VBS that summer.

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